After memorizing all the state capitals — from Montgomery, Ala., to Cheyenne, Wyo. —Gabe Murphy wanted to know more.
He wondered how each state looked, what people do and eat and talk about there, what the weather's like. How cool would it be, he thought, to have a picture postcard from every state in the nation?
His travel budget being somewhat limited, Gabe went a different route:
The virtual — but still fun and educational — vacation.
Summer is prime travel time for many families. But youngsters who can't or don't plan to venture far from home often find other ways to see and learn about the world.
Flat Stanley projects, based on the 1964 children's book by Jeff Brown, are used by countless elementary school teachers to enhance literacy, geography skills and more.
Students read the book, then make paper replicas of Stanley Lambchop (or themselves) and mail them to friends around the world. They return with photos, videos, postcards and journal or blog entries documenting the adventures.
Gabe, 7, who will start second grade at Jackson Elementary in the fall, used e-mails, Facebook and lots of help from Mom and Dad to solicit postcards from all 50 states and Washington, D.C.
"I just thought it would be fun," he said. "I like learning about the states, and I like getting mail."
Tracy Callard, who teaches Gabe's accelerated class at Jackson, said the boy "became a geography nut" during last year's lessons on maps and geography.
"I have to think it's because nobody really does it anymore," Callard said. "I mentioned memorizing state capitals and the kids wanted to do it. They couldn't wait."
Increasingly difficult demands of the No Child Left Behind law have prompted many schools to cut back on social studies, including history and geography, to devote more time to math and reading.
"For some of these kids, it's all new," Callard said. "So they get really excited."
Cooperative projects such as Flat Stanleys, pen pals and postcard collections take the lesson a step further.
Wichita-area Girl Scouts spent last school year escorting a stuffed toy "Brownie Elf" on excursions and vacations, taking pictures and logging her adventures along the way. She even had her own Facebook page, where she posted a video montage of her "Elf-capades" before retiring in April.
"It makes geography real," Callard said. "They see that there are actual human beings who live in those places. You hear from them or talk to them, and that's a lot of fun."
Gabe's collection, tacked collage-style to a tri-fold board, includes photos of Florida manatees, New Jersey lighthouses, Alaskan dog sleds and the St. Louis Arch.
The parents of a family friend who grew up in Hawaii sent a postcard of boys on a sandy beach.
"Dear Gabe," the couple wrote. "Maybe you can learn to blow a conch shell like the Hawaiian boy on this postcard, or paddle in an outrigger canoe. Aloha!"
A high school classmate of Gabe's mother sent a postcard from Iowa that showed the historic Franklin County courthouse. "The very first drunken driving conviction in the United States took place here," she wrote.
"We all chuckled at that," said Lynette Murphy, Gabe's mom. "Kind of an interesting piece of trivia."
She said the project taught her son about geography and history but also showed how people are interconnected.
"Gabe would say, 'I can't believe we
know all these people,' and I'd say, 'We don't,' " said Lynette, a director of development at Wichita State University. "There were friends-of-
friends who sent cards. Some were complete strangers."
Toward the end of the project, when Gabe needed only a handful of states to complete the collection, Lynette e-mailed college development directors in New Mexico, North Carolina, Delaware and elsewhere.
One from the University of Mississippi responded with a postcard, then explained that she had an ulterior motive for participating.
"My mom will be celebrating her 60th birthday this November, and my siblings and I are trying to complete 60 random acts of kindness in her honor," the woman said in an e-mail. "I took a picture of that silly postcard and will include sweet Gabe's picture as well. My mom will LOVE that one."
The postcard map of Mississippi, which featured riverboats, cotton fields and antebellum homes, completed Gabe's collection.
"I thought that was just the coolest thing," Lynette said. "She contributed to our project, and we helped with hers. That was a great final lesson."