Five Themes of Geography

In 1984, probably long before anyone reading this was born, a group of people decided what children should learn about geography. Basically, they decided that you should know about the Five Themes. Since then someone else has come up with something called the National Standards. When we describe a place we still use the five themes, the standards are more to do with the way we are taught things.

Here are the five themes. When you have finished reading them all, try out the exercise at the end to find out just how much you understood.






This is divided into 2 parts:

Specific location

General Location

Specific location is shown by an address. The address can be any type of address that gives an exact position. It is sometimes called absolute location
Here are some examples:
A Street Address:
1, Silly Street, Anywhere Town, Nowhere Place
A Map Address:
15o20′ North, 20o15′ West

Both of these examples well tell you exactly where a place is.

General location is shown by saying where something is in relation to somewhere or something else. It is also known as relative location.
Here are some examples:

  • ten minutes away by train
  • in front of the bank

With these two examples you can only find what you want if you know from where you are starting. It’s useful, though, for describing things. If I just told you that New York was located at 40o North, 73o West, you probably couldn’t picture that in your head. If I told you that it was in the North-Eastern United States, you could probably imagine it much better.


The place is a description of what the place is like, rather than where it is (location). It is a description of what makes that place different to others. If I was trying to tell you about the bedrooms in a house, and I wanted to explain to you exactly which one I meant, I could say, “the one with two beds and one window”. If the other rooms had only one bed each, or two windows, then you could easily tell which room I meant.

This is divided into 2 parts:

Physical Differences

xHuman Differences

Physical differences, or characteristics, include things that occur naturally, such as mountains, rivers, type of soil, wildlife, climate etc.

I might say that a place is flat with rich soil and many rivers. I’m still being vague, but already you can see a picture of it in your head, and maybe even begin to imagine what the land is used for.

Human differences, or characteristics, are things that have changed due to people, such as roads and buildings, how people live and their traditions.

This is where you can really go to town in your description. You can discuss the cities, lifestyle, culture and all sorts of other interesting facts that make the place you are talking about different and special.

Human/Environmental Interaction

This is about the relationship between people and their environment, or how they work together. It answers a lot of important questions: What effects have the people had on their environment? How has the environment affected them, do they depend on it for anything? What changes have they made to their environment to make it easier to live in?

It can be divided into 3 parts:

How people have been changed by the environment.
How the environment has been changed by people.
How people depend on the environment.

How people have been changed by the environment can be called adaptation. It is the way humans change to suit their environment.
An example of this is people who live in very cold climates wearing well-insulated clothes to keep warm. It can also include the way people transport things, in a desert the best way to transport some things is by camel.

How the environment has been changed or modification is the way people change their environment to suit themselves.
Artificially watering your lawn, if you live in a dry area is one example, or on a grander scale, creating fertile land in desert areas to grow food crops. Another good example is clearing forests to make room for growing crops.

Depending on the environment is when people depend on their environment for something.
Examples of this are using trees for firewood, or coal to warm us in winter, rivers to transport goods and natural resources like oil and coal, to sell or exchange for other needed items that are not available.

Sometimes it is difficult to tell exactly where something belongs . For example, if people clear forests to get wood for fires and to grow crops, that may be considered changing the environment to suit themselves and depending on the environment for something. When you think about the environment and people, just remember the three important questions:
How have the people changed? How have they changed the environment? Do they depend on the environment for anything?

If you have the same answer for two questions, then it must be important, but you don’t need to say it twice.


Movement includes the movement of people, things, such as goods, as well as communications (the movement of ideas).

We can describe the type of communications a place has and the main forms of transportation, as well as what goods are exported and imported. These all come under the heading of movement.


Regions are areas that can be grouped together by a set of things special to that region. We have countries, ruled by governments, areas speaking the same language, or having the same religion, and we have areas served by a particular service, such as a school district.

The three types of area are:

Defined by a government or physical characteristics

Defined by a function

Loosely defined

Regions defined by a government or physical characteristics are regions that are strictly maintained, such as countries or continents.

Regions defined by a function are areas served by a particular service.
Take the example of the school district for Geek’s Rule School. If Geek’s Rule School closes down, then the school district will no longer exist. Of course, it won’t just disappear in a cloud of smoke, but it will have to be named or described some other way.

Loosely defined regions are regions that are grouped together in general terms.
These are things such as the North, or the Midlands or the Buddhist World, or even the Far East and Middle East. They are the sort of definitions that people will argue about, and say that a certain place should or shouldn’t be included in the definition of that region.

Making Sense of it All

Now that you have found out a little about the five themes, how can you use them?

Imagine for a minute that you are a newspaper reporter. An important discovery of a lost land has been made, and you have the chance to be the first person to interview the returning explorers. Make a list of the questions that you might ask. Remember, the five themes and ask the most important questions from each.

Here are some questions to get you started:

  • Where is it?
  • Where exactly is that?
  • What does it look like?
  • How many people live there and where?
  • What settlements (cities, villages) does it have?
  • What sort of climate does it have?
  • Does it have any extremes of weather?
  • Is it prone to any type of natural disaster?
  • What are the natural resources and how are they used?
  • What type of agriculture is there?
  • What are the main types of transportation and communication?
  • What makes the people there different to people in other places?
  • What sort of government does it have?
  • Is it associated with any other place?

That is just the short list. It will give some basic facts about the place. Each of the topics can be expanded on to give a much more detailed description.

Five Times Five
The Five Themes of Geography
The Five Themes of Geography