Lawrence and Douglas County

Lawrence and Douglas county

Geography child’s play for this toddler genius

Prodigy can identify every nation, draw accurate maps

May 26, 2006


Maps pose no challenge to talented toddler

At first glance, he appears to be a typical toddler, but spend some time with 2 1/2-year-old Tavi Shaffer-Green and you might just learn a thing or two. Enlarge video

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 award" - in 2004.

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 award" - in 2004.

"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


audvisartist 12 years, 1 month ago

Stories like this are cute, but from what I've seen from my own 2 year old, toddlers are capable of learning LARGE quantities of information in a very short amount of time. A BIG part in the developmental process is how the parent(s) interact with the child and go about teaching him or her. In this day and age, I don't think that kids are getting the one on one parental approach to learning during their first few years that they need. Seeing what the "approaching 3-year old milestones" were was quite a shocker! I figured those were "approaching 2-year old milestones!" Maybe I should send out a press release? Hmmm... nahhhh.

Nikki May 12 years, 1 month ago

The milestones are likely averages. I got an email newsletter yesterday about what milestones my 4.5 year old should be reaching. He'd mastered them ages ago. Is he gifted, not a chance. However, there are plenty of children that aren't up to the milestones yet to even it out.

cms 12 years, 1 month ago

Yep, I was thinking the exact same thing. My oldest son was just as intelligent in many different areas. But before we totally bash the story and minimize the talents of this baby, I wouldn't have been able to tell you the capital of Honduras!

Michael Stanclift 12 years, 1 month ago

I knew one of the four (Pangaea) and even the it took me a little bit to remember.

mom_of_three 12 years, 1 month ago

I can't even identify the countries on the map, (or tell you the names in that country) but we didn't have to when I was in school. But I am amazed at his ability to draw the maps and realize the age of the maps to know when and what countries are missing.


OldEnuf2BYurDad 12 years, 1 month ago

The bumper sticker on my car will read "My toddler beat up your geography-genius toddler".

What do we expect? The kid is swimming in brains. If he ever flips burgers it will only be for the purpose of studying the aerodynamic qualities of ground beef. I wonder if I can get him to help me rebuild the carburator in my 86 Chevy C-10? I bet he could do that.

I also only got Pangea, but I reject the test results. That quiz was racially biased against... well, whatever I am.

jayhawks71 12 years, 1 month ago

I'd lay my annual salary on a bet that you did not read the story. They are visiting Lawrence, they don't live here.

OldEnuf2BYurDad 12 years, 1 month ago

Or maybe it's a reading comprehension issue. Not all of us could draw Kanfreakistan on a napkin when we were 2.

Andrew Juby 12 years, 1 month ago

As soon as I got to the part where the article said who is grandfather was, I was instantly not suprised anymore. I had Professor Shaffer a few years ago for economics, and the man was smart as hell. It only figures his progeny would be as well.

Rationalanimal 12 years, 1 month ago

Has anyone hit this kid up for a city commissioner job. The pay is great for a toddler.

OldEnuf2BYurDad 12 years, 1 month ago

How did this make the news? Let's see... he's visiting his GRANNY, then SOMEONE called the paper, now there's a story about him in the paper.

WHO would have called the paper, I wonder?

KaraGourley 12 years, 1 month ago

Think his room has toys, trucks and books like Good Night Moon or is it full of the solar system, maps, a dictionary and encyclopedia's.


planetwax 12 years, 1 month ago

My 2.5 year old doesn't know the states or continents, but she is reading sight words like, "Mommy, cookie, Sam, etc." I can't take the genetic credit since she was adopted. She's just smart.

I believe that the average milestones reflect what our society expects, rather than what toddlers are capable of doing.

Topside 12 years, 1 month ago

I would pose the question that this child possibilty has autism or something. I did not read the article so I don't totally discredit that this child may be a doogie howser....but, he/she could also be a little "Rain Man" too.

PS- I don't know much about autism either. But, a child that can excel so far in one area raises a flag with me.

topekahawk 12 years, 1 month ago

This definitely shows that all-day kindergarten is not enough. The state should mandate public school for children right after birth.

Fatty_McButterpants 12 years, 1 month ago

"Oldenuf": Why do I get the feeling that the original bearer of that tag is not the one usually posting now? You use of language, rhythm, courtesy, implementation of slang words, etc. has all changed. You went from reading like someone who was old enough to be my dad, to reading like someone who was old enough to be my age or younger.

Just an observation.

Sigmund 12 years, 1 month ago

Topside's bit of wisdom, "PS- I don't know much about autism either."

Obviously. Nor, apparently, could you be bothered to educate yourself or to even read the article before sharing your insights and expressing your concerns. On the plus side you appear to have quite a facility for TV sitcoms!

OldEnuf2BYurDad 12 years, 1 month ago

It's still just me.

I need to change my handle. I'm really not old enough to give the impression that I'm really old. 42.

Ragingbear 12 years, 1 month ago

This type of stuff really ticks me off. This kid is now going to have more expected from him than most kids his age. Now whenever he doesn't live up to snuff, which will happen alot, he will have to deal with this "guilt trip" from teachers and family alike.

Topside 12 years, 1 month ago

Simund quotes?- "On the plus side you appear to have quite a facility for TV sitcoms!"

Why do you say that? I don't post that often.

I am not a mental health technician, I stated I don't know anything about it. I have seen other cases (disc. channel or something) where a child can pick out shapes and images way before most other kids can, but that same child never learns to tie their own shoes or some other simple function most of us do unconsiously. Anyway,I have too much other crap I have to learn and know about without studying the complex world of autistic disorders, esp. since I don't know anyone that is autistic.
I typically, learn on a need to know basis. My time is spent learning stuff I need to know (Master's degree studies, NRC regs, OSHA regs, etc.) I rarely have time to discover outside stuff. If someone wants to school us on the topic feel free.

Topside 12 years, 1 month ago

Ragingbear_ your right I have known a couple of different very intelligent persons that know so much they have trouble fitting in or relating to others. I have an uncle who is super intelligent who does nothing. He works check out at a grocery store. Either expectations or social probelms leave a lot of these folks behind. Long story short, instead of helping to put a man on the moon, I wouldn't be surprised if this kid winds up helping people find their seat at a chiefs game.

Christine Pennewell Davis 12 years, 1 month ago

people why all the fighting it is a nice little story about a cute kid and it does not matter who called ljw it is nice to read about other things than the slt and crime and school budget , just enjoy a nice little story relax for a little bit.

Sigmund 12 years, 1 month ago

I am just little sensitive by how quick some people are to sneer at those who achieve success. Instead of praising this mom for nuturing her child's inquisitive mind, lets conjour some imagined developmental problem or a disaster in the future without a shred of evidence and without bothering to actually read the article! Feel better now, feeling more adequate?

Too many parents today just plop their kids in front of a TV set or DVD player then hope, against all the evidence, that the public schools will educate their children. Johnny can't find Kansas let alone Afganistan on a map, but he has a great ability for recalling TV sitcoms and movies! What a suprise.

Then to top it off some people feel free to critique the War because they watched Fahrenheit 9/11 a dozen times, or condemn the Catholic church because they saw The DaVinci Code, or helpfully, publicly, caution the very proud parents of a very bright child against autism, because they saw Rain Man and watched Doogie Howser, MD.

Welcome to Lawrence, where we excel in finding the cloud behind your silver lining, and we will do our best to drag you down to normal, if we can.

KsTwister 12 years, 1 month ago

Robbie, the 5 yr old drummer did a couple of news programs,Channel 14 and 27. Was sure sorry I missed it but get to watch him play most any day and I am glad to be able for the chance to see the magnificience.

Topside 12 years, 1 month ago

Sigmund- I hear ya loud and clear. I did go back and read the article and it certainly seems like this kid DOES have the genetic make up to be this special. It looked like his whole family could power a small country with their brain wave energy. Anyhoo....I am a positive person so peace out. and everyone have a good weekend.

PS- I saw the Da Vinci code and thought it was mild at best. It was one of the few books I have read for pleasure lately. The movie is not worth getting bent out of shape for by any means. ALso, my mother did work for Social services and with special needs people and pseudo explained autism to me. I am aware that a true "Rain Man" person is extremely unique if really possible at all.

Linda Aikins 12 years, 1 month ago

What a cool thing! And great posts, mamma and Sigmund. I agree - why poop on this kid's achievement?

And if I was his granny, I'd be bragging too!

Dixie Jones 12 years, 1 month ago

forceable learning AHHHHH priceless.........

OldEnuf2BYurDad 12 years, 1 month ago

Pride infects all grannies. As incurable as the common cold.

Don't forget to call the KC Star and USA Today.

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