Geography Fun: Shipping Ports Mini Unit

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People have been buying, selling, and trading since the time of Abraham or earlier. Business owners have carried merchants’ goods to other countries in ships just as long. Solomon had logs shipped from Tyre.

Most of the things you buy that come from overseas (clothing, computers, toothbrushes, medicine, toys, cars, bicycles) are shipped by cargo ship to a port near you. From the port, merchandise travels on train or truck to the store where you purchase it.

It’s really fun for kids to learn about cargo ships and shipping ports. There is so much bustle and activity at a port. The average homeschooling family never visits a shipping port unless they go on a cruise. In our state, many of the busy shipping ports are also cruise ports. If you do go on a cruise, take advantage of a teachable moment and show your kids the cargo ships docked at port.

Let’s explore shipping ports with our children with a mini unit.

Defining Terms

A ship is a large boat that carries passengers or cargo over long distances.

A port is where cargo and shipping containers are loaded on and off ships. At bigger ports, you can see cargo ships! They look like LEGO® ships to me! Search online for pictures of cargo ships and see if you can build one out of LEGOs.

Ports are often located in natural harbors. A harbor is a body of water protected by natural barriers. The Port of Baltimore is located in Baltimore Harbor. The Port of Boston is located in Massachusetts Bay.

Is There a Port Near You?

Ports are bustling, busy places, and people who work on the docks are rough and hearty. It is not always the safest place to be walking around with little ones.

In addition, railroad stations, oil refineries, and shipyards may be nearby. It’s just not always the most inviting for a family to visit a port.

With that in mind, I like to visit ports with videos and picture books. I find videos of ports are a great way to learn about ports. When we were studying the Chesapeake Bay, we found some great videos put out by the Port of Baltimore about container ships.

Here are some ways to search on YouTube for great videos to watch with the kids.

  • What is a cargo ship?
  • What is a container ship?
  • How is a cargo ship loaded?
  • What is a port?
  • Busiest ports in the world
  • Busiest ports in the USA
  • Parts of a ship
  • Ship terminology

Children can learn all about ships, including starboard (right) and port (left). They can learn what the captain, navigator, and sailors do on a ship.

Picture Books

Picture books are a wonderful way to learn! Here are some books to look for at the library.

  • Casey the Container and Her First Day in Port by Kristina Bowden
  • Peter the Cruise Ship by Hans Mateboer
  • The Usborne Big Book of Ships by Lacey Minna
  • Amazing Ships: Container Ships and Oil Tankers by Diane Canwell & Jon Sutherland

I’m sure you can find many more at your local library.


Find busy ports on a map or globe.

Here are the 10 busiest ports in the world.

  • Shanghai Port, China
  • Singapore Port, Singapore
  • Port of Ningbo, China
  • Shenzhen, China
  • Guangzhou, China
  • Busan, South Korea
  • Qingdao, China
  • Hong Kong, China
  • Tianjin, China
  • Port Klang, Malaysia

Here are the 10 busiest ports in the USA.

  • Port of Los Angeles, CA
  • Port of New Jersey & New York, NY & NJ
  • Port of Long Beach, CA
  • Port of Savannah, GA
  • Port of Houston, TX
  • Port of Virginia, VA
  • Northwest Seaport Alliance, WA
  • Port of Charleston, SC
  • Port of Oakland, CA
  • Port of Miami, FL

Find all these ports on a map or globe. Try to figure out how a ship would get from one port to another.

Do you notice that three of our largest ports are in California on the Pacific Ocean. All of the largest ports in the world are in or close to the Pacific Ocean. Doesn’t it make sense they would travel across to California?

International Trade

Many things we use are made in factories in China. In the USA, we use the dollar while the Chinese use the yuan. So, how do we pay China for all the stuff they send us on cargo ships?

The answer to that question is a bit complicated, but it can make more sense with this illustration. You have Oreos, and your child has raisins. If a pencil costs 3 Oreos, how many raisins would it cost?

Like the Oreo/raisin illustration, each country’s money is valued based on its relationship with another country’s money. So, today, when I checked the exchange rate between the Chinese Yuan and the U.S. dollar, it was 7.29 Chinese Yuan to 1 U.S. Dollar.

Of course, it’s not just the U.S. government or the Chinese government buying and selling but private companies. Han Lu, a Chinese business owner, sells 1 ton (2,000 pounds) of pencils to Sam Warner who owns four department stores in Chicago.

The pencils are packed in a container and loaded on a cargo ship in Shenzhen, China. The ship sails across the Pacific Ocean to the Port of Los Angeles where it is unloaded right onto a train bound for Chicago. From the train station in Chicago, a truck picks up the pencils and takes them to Sam so he can sell them in his department stores.

You might live in Chicago and go into his store to purchase some pencils.

There is a bit more to international trade like tariffs and regulations, but this can give children a basic understanding of what is happening financially at shipping ports.

Hands-On Fun!

We can’t forget some hands-on fun to learn about shipping ports.

Design-A-Store (Decide what products you will sell in your stores. Find out where those products are made and locate on map.)

Design-A-Produce-Stand (Decide what fruits and vegetables you will sell. Find out where in the U.S. they grow and locate on map.)

Build a cargo ship out of LEGOs.

The Ship-Wagon (Rename spots in your backyard to be a factory, foreign shipping port, U.S. shipping port, and store. Using a wagon as a ship, bring cargo from one port to another. Using a stroller as a truck, take products from factory to port and later port to store.)

Draw, paint, or color a picture of a cargo ship or shipping port.

You and your children know a lot more about ships and ports than before you started. I hope you had fun!

For more fun geography ideas, read Reimagine Geography here:

Until next time, Happy Homeschooling!

Meredith Curtis


Meredith Curtis, homeschooling mom, writer, speaker, and publisher, loves to encourage families in their homeschooling adventure. She is the author of Travel God’s World Geography, Travel God’s World Cookbook,  and HIS Story of the 20th Century. You can check out her books, curricula, unit studies, and Bible studies at Read her blogs at and listen to her at Finish Well Podcast.

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