Geography child’s play for this toddler genius

Prodigy can identify every nation, draw accurate maps

Some toddlers like to draw smiley faces and stick figures. Tavi Shaffer-Green likes to draw detailed maps of the world.

Sitting on the floor of a home in western Lawrence Thursday afternoon, the 2 1/2-year-old pointed out all the countries on a map of Asia he was drawing by hand with a crayon.

“We did Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, China, Afghanistan, Iran, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan,” he said in a sing-song toddler voice, tapping each country as he listed them. He drew a shape under Afghanistan and marked it with a “P” for Pakistan, then asked his mother to help him color the continent.

“Tavi can do the ‘Stans, and mommy can do the bigger ones,” he said.

Tavi is still in diapers and hasn’t yet started preschool, but he can identify all the countries in the world – with the exception of maybe a Pacific island or two – and can draw many of them by hand. He’s known all the planets since he was 20 months old and can tell you during what time period Antarctica formed.

In short, he’s a baby geographical genius.

At 2 1/2 years old, Tavi Shaffer-Green looks for Easter Island on a world map with his mother, Tanya Shaffer. Tavi can pick out every country on a world map, including Togo, which he likes because of its tiny size. Tavi also is the son of David Green. Shaffer is a Lawrence High School graduate, and her father, Harry Shaffer, is a longtime economics professor at Kansas University. Green was the recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship - or genius

“It started with him just studying the atlas,” said his mother, Tanya Shaffer. “Then he wanted me to draw the United States all the time.”

Nature, nurture

Brains and international savvy run in the family. Tavi lives near Berkeley, Calif., but he and his parents are in Lawrence for the next month to visit his grandfather, longtime Kansas University economics professor Harry Shaffer and stepgrandmother Betty Shaffer.

Tanya Shaffer, a Lawrence High School graduate, is an actor and writer. Her first book, “Somebody’s Heart is Burning: A Woman Wanderer in Africa,” is her memoir of a year spent roaming the African continent.

Then there’s Tavi’s dad, David Green, who won a $500,000 MacArthur Fellowship – often called the “genius award” – in 2004 for his work, which involves making cataract surgery and hearing aids affordable to people in developing countries.

How do you measure up against Tavi?

Test your geographical wits against 2-1/2-year-old Tavi Shaffer-Green, who knows the answers to these questions:

1. What’s the capital of Honduras?

2. What is the former name of the Democratic Republic of the Congo?

3. What is the name of the supercontinent that existed 225 million years ago?

4. What country ending in “stan” is bordered by Russia on the north and China on the east?

(Answers below)

Green and Tanya Shaffer said they don’t pressure their son to learn things; they simply follow his interests and make good materials available for him. When he was a baby, he liked to look up at the night sky, so they got him a mobile of the planets and he started to learn those.

With help from a United States jigsaw puzzle, he learned how to draw a U.S. map by hand, complete with all the two-letter state abbreviations. He learned a world jigsaw puzzle, too, and on Thursday he reminded his mom that when he gets back to California he wants to find a puzzle of Pangaea, the supercontinent that existed millions of years ago.

“He is the leader,” Tanya Shaffer said. “I follow what he wants to learn.”

Looking ahead

Just how smart is he?

To put things in perspective, typical learning milestones for kids approaching age 3 include understanding what the number one means, being able to count two or three objects, and matching circles and squares, according to the National Network for Child Care. Elena Long, who teaches elementary-aged students at Century School, 816 Ky., said she wouldn’t expect her oldest student, age 11, to know what Tavi knows.

“We’re going over states and capitals and just understanding U.S. geography,” she said. “They’re learning the continents and they’re having difficulty with remembering where they are.”

Tavi’s next big step is to start half-day Montessori preschool in the fall in California. His parents say they mainly want him to learn social skills and haven’t given too much thought to what his schooling step will be after that.

It should be interesting, though. When he went to visit the preschool, he looked at a map on the wall and saw that something was amiss.

Tavi says he told the teacher: “This a very old map. The Democratic Republic of the Congo was still Zaire.”

Quiz answers

1. Tegucigalpa

2. Zaire

3. Pangaea

4. Kazakhstan