Why you should teach a topic on Italy in Lower KS2

This is the next in my series of posts exploring exemplar topics and how they can build on children’s prior knowledge.

As I said in my previous posts, there are many ways for schools to deliver the National Curriculum, so please don’t worry if your school doesn’t teach this topic in the way I’m describing. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with your school’s curriculum if you don’t, just giving some examples of how topics can be planned as part of a coherent and well-sequenced curriculum. Also, there are many different ways to approach each topic, dependent on what the children have already learnt and the year group it’s taught in. Just because I haven’t included a particular aspect doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable, and those I have chosen to include may not all be relevant for you, depending on your context.

So onto the main purpose of the blog – explaining why I think Italy is a valuable country to study in Lower KS2. Every school that follows the National Curriculum will teach the Romans in KS2 (and in my experience most in Lower KS2 which is why I’ve aimed it at this age group), so giving the children context for this by learning about Italy beforehand seems logical. As all schools will also be teaching Ancient Greece, doing a similar brief introduction to Greece beforehand would be a good opportunity to build on what was learnt about Italy, and develop children’s understanding of the Mediterranean as a region.

Rome has significance as home to the Vatican, the centre of the Roman Catholic church, which is in my opinion powerful knowledge that is often missed from the primary curriculum. The fact that Vatican City is a country in its own right is something children find interesting and which challenges their understanding of what a country is (many children have the misconception that a country is a large area of land).

There are two possible approaches to country studies in KS2:

  1. Giving a brief overview of country that links to another part of your curriculum, including the elements described in the following NC objective:
  2. locate the world’s countries, using maps to focus on Europe (including the location of Russia) and North and South America, concentrating on their environmental regions, key physical and human characteristics, countries, and major cities
  3. Selecting a region in the country for more in depth study and comparison with the UK:
  4. understand geographical similarities and differences through the study of human and physical geography of a region of the United Kingdom, a region in a European country, and a region within North or South America

I’m going to write as if I were doing the former (because that’s what is in my school’s curriculum) but will then explain what you could add if you want Italy to be the European country you select for the latter.

When you introduce any new place, I highly recommend you refer to Aiden Severs’ comprehensive list of questions to ask (http://www.thatboycanteach.co.uk/search?q=country+questions).

I would start with revision of the seven continents, five oceans, four countries of the UK, their capitals and the surrounding seas. Although these are KS1 objectives, children will need regular reminders in order to embed this knowledge. Checking understanding of continent, country, capital, ocean & sea is important because confusion around this vocabulary can continue throughout KS2 unless definitions are explicitly taught and referred to each time a new concept is visited.

I would then introduce Italy’s location using a globe, a variety of maps, and with children using atlases, teaching the following facts:

  • Italy is a country in the south of the continent of Europe (in the northern hemisphere), and that its capital city is Rome. Locate Italy on a map of Europe and a world map.
  • Vatican City, the home of the Pope, is within Rome, and that it is a separate country.
  • Italy has borders with France, Switzerland, Austria and Slovenia.
  • Italy is surrounded by three seas: the Tyrrhenian Sea, the Adriatic Sea &  the Ionian Sea (which form parts of the Mediterranean Sea)
  • There are many islands that form part of Italy, and that the largest of these are Sardinia and Sicily.
  • Locate Italy, Rome, Sardinia, Sicily and the Mediterranean Sea in an atlas and mark them on a map of Italy.

Throughout I’d be comparing to the UK, as there are some interesting similarities and differences, for example the fact that both countries are made up of many islands, but unlike the UK, Italy is part of mainland Europe. This would be a useful opportunity to develop children’s understanding that while the UK consists of two large islands, there are also many smaller ones (over 1000, although only 130 are permanently inhabited; Italy over 450).

Next, I would highlight the main physical features of Italy:

  • The Alps is a large mountain range that stretches across Europe, and part of it is in Italy (the Dolomites). The highest peak is Mont Blanc at 4808m.
  • The longest river is the River Po, which flows through major cities such as Milan and Turin.
  • There are many lakes in the Po Valley, including Lake Como & Lake Garda.
  • Rome is situated on the River Tiber about 15 miles from the coast.
  • Italy has several volcanoes, including the only active volcanoes on mainland Europe. The three active volcanoes are Mount Etna, Stromboli and Mount Vesuvius.

The amount of detail included would depend on whether children have already learnt about rivers, mountains and volcanoes at this point. If they haven’t, I would simply teach the facts as given above, showing photos and locating them on a map of Italy. If they have already learnt about volcanoes and plate tectonics, I would explain that the reason there is lots of volcanic activity is that Italy is on the boundary of the Eurasian & African plates. If they have already learnt about Pompeii, this knowledge could be revisited, or you may be including it in your Romans unit, in which case you could introduce it at this point. If the children have already learnt about rivers, then this would be a good opportunity to revisit the vocabulary they know in the context of the River Po and/or Tiber.

If you plan to spend more time on this unit, making sure children understand the difference between an ocean, sea, river, lake and pond would be useful. Using aerial photos, Google earth and atlases, children can identify examples of each. This could be particularly important if your school is in an urban area (I recently did some atlas work where I asked children to locate the oceans and seas on which certain countries had coasts. This uncovered the fact that lots of them didn’t know the difference between a sea and a lake – they were unable to identify where the coasts were on the map because they were looking at all bodies of water both surrounding and within the country.)

Naturally following this, I would teach children about the Mediterranean climate – that this type of seasonal weather pattern gets its name from the Mediterranean Sea, because it is mainly found in the countries surrounding it (although there are some regions with Mediterranean climates in all of the continents). Again, the details I would include are very much dependent on the year group and children’s prior learning. If this is their first country study in Year 3, they will need to be introduced to the concept of a climate by reviewing what they learnt about the four seasons and seasonal weather patterns in the UK in KS1, before comparing weather patterns in Italy. However, if they had already learnt about climate zones, I might go into much more detail about the two distinct climates in the northern inland (humid, subtropical) and southern coastal (Mediterranean) areas of Italy, and the features of Mediterranean forests, woodland and scrub.

This would lead to an overview of the animals and plants that are commonly found in Italy (and whether these are found in certain regions due to their climate). Facts to include could be:

  • Italy has the highest level of fauna diversity in Europe, as its landscape and climate mean it has many different types of habitat.
  • Mammals include the Etruscan shrew (smallest mammal in the world), and lynx, wolves, bears and porcupines.
  • Storks and birds of prey migrate to Italy from Africa in spring. Commonly seen insects include the praying mantis, cicada and glow-worm.
  • Dolphins and seals can be found near the coasts.
  • Common plants are olive and pine trees in shrubland, oak, beech and chestnut trees in the lower mountains, and evergreen trees such as larch, pine and fir in the Alps.

Brief comparison with the UK (maybe a Venn diagram showing which countries in which the different animals and plants are found) and discussion of the reasons for similarities and differences would be useful as, for example, children may not know whether bears can be found in the wild in the UK.

Finally, I would introduce the following human features:

  • The population of Italy is 60 million (compared with 66 million for the UK).
  • Almost half of these people live in the Po River Valley.
  • The River Po is used for industry (factories) and agriculture (farming).
  • Major exports are wine, olive oil and a variety of fruits, steel, cement, marble, machinery, clothing, footwear and vehicles.
  • There are many different types of farm, including those that grow crops, as well as meat and dairy farms.
  • Italy is Europe’s largest producer of rice.
  • Italy is one of the best-ranked countries for renewable energy production, and has the fourth best usage of solar energy in the world.
  • Tourism is one of the biggest industries in Italy – major landmarks visited by many tourists are the Colosseum and Roman Forum (Rome), the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Grand Canals (Venice), the ruins of Pompeii (Naples) and the Ponte Vecchio (Florence).
  • The lakes in the Po Valley are popular with tourists due to their cool climate and beautiful scenery.

Finishing with the human geography means that you can make links between what children have already learnt about Italy’s climate and landscape, and the river’s importance for industry and agriculture, to explain why so many people live there. Learning about the River Po also provides several worthwhile links to history. There is evidence of habitation as far back as the Stone Age. Many cities appeared in the valley during Roman times. The significance of the river in modern Italy is interesting to compare with the significance of rivers to the earliest ancient civilisations. Fertile land suitable for agriculture being located in the river valley is one reason, but now because of its significance to the Italian economy rather than for providing food to its inhabitants. It will be important to make links to the periods of history children have already studied, as well as examples of agriculture, industry and sources of energy they have already come across.

If you are using Italy as the main European region you study, you could focus on the Po River Valley and learn about it in more detail. In this case, comparison with the UK will be more important, and more time should be spent on comparison at each stage I’ve described above. I would also recommend a shorter introduction to at least one contrasting European country so that children are aware of the variety of climates and biomes in Europe (we do Scandinavia as a precursor to the Vikings).

To conclude, while I suspect many schools have selected Italy for a country study due to the link with the Romans, its particular combination of physical and human features make it a really worthwhile country to learn about in its own right, as there are opportunities to deepen children’s understanding of so many of the KS2 geography objectives.

3 thoughts on “Why you should teach a topic on Italy in Lower KS2

  1. Thank you. It would be useful to see evidence of the some of the learning outcomes you have produced with your class to help put all this information into context if possible.


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