Gordon was learning about maps in his kindergarten class. His teacher read a beginning book about maps to the class, As the Crow Flies: A First Book of Maps (Hartman, 1993), and asked students to paint a map of anything they wanted. The image below is Gordon's map of the world.
Children's ability to read maps was one of the many things investigated by Jean Piaget as he built his theories about child development (Piaget & Inhelder, 1969). As he frequently did, Piaget described the stages children go through as they learn to see things from different perspectives, a necessary skill in learning to read and understand maps. The three stages are as follows:
- Topographical: Children are able to use directional labels such as north, south, east, and west
- Projective: Children are able to use their own position to determine a location, such as knowing what is in front, back, left, or right of them
- Euclidian: Children can accurately perceive spatial relationships such as those that are used on a map
Piaget's stage theory can provide a teacher with a general framework in thinking about developmentally appropriate practices for different ages and grades, and students probably move through these stages in the same order, if not all at the same age.
Research on learning and teaching geography has further explored this relationship between the development of thinking and map reading skills (Forsythe, 1995; Gregg & Leinhardt, 1994; Stoltman, 1991). Findings show that children are able to understand map symbols and that they represent places and things on a map, but it is more difficult for them to read and interpret more abstract symbols and to understand the relationships between the symbols. Scale, measurement, and the frame of reference for maps can also be difficult for children. Instruction in map skills should therefore be clear, structured, and developmentally appropriate. It's important to note in addition that Trifonoff's (1997) research revealed that even young children demonstrate the ability to use advanced mapping skills with appropriate instruction.
To address the difficulty that research shows students may have with more abstract map symbols and the relationship among these symbols on a map, introduce map skills with literature that contextualizes mapping in a narrative, can be related to where in the world each student lives, and engages students by "doing geography." Recommended best practices today reflect this constructivist approach to teaching geography, particularly the value of hands-on, active learning and inquiry approaches, such as activities and projects (Bednarz, 2003 ). For example, relating new concepts to locations in the students' world and using visualizations, demonstrations, and student-created models, charts, and graphs enhanced student learning (Hickey & Bein, 1996); map-makers learned more than map-readers (Gregg, 1999), and students making maps in groups had a better understanding of map concepts than those who worked individually (Leinhardt, Stainton, & Merriman Bausmith, 1998).
Choose and read a book appropriate for the grade level that introduces key concepts and terms in either a narrative book of fiction or an engaging informational book. After reading and discussing the book, and encouraging students to relate the terms and concepts to their own experience through reader response questions and prompts, students can learn to both read and make maps that show the spatial relationships among people, places, and environments. They can use primary data to make their own maps and secondary data in the form of maps they read.
Primary data: Students can collect the primary data necessary to create their own maps in the classroom and school, or in the community on a field trip. They can count and measure spaces in their own environment, such as the school, or take photographs with digital cameras on a field trip, such as one to city hall. They can also keep records of observations in both types of places. These data can be used to construct their own maps.
Secondary data: Students can use maps as a secondary source of information. A good way to begin is to link their experiences to the map. Other secondary sources are online databases and books, such as an atlas. In these sources, they can read maps, charts, tables, and graphs with geographic information.
To provide developmentally appropriate instruction in map skills, begin with the locations most familiar to students in Grades K through 2 — such as their own rooms or houses or the classroom, school, or community. Instruction in Grades 3 through 5 can be expanded to cities, states, the United States, and the world; in Grades 6 through 8, a historical view can be added through the use of maps of the ancient world and other historical periods.
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Even the youngest students can go online to Mapquest and request a map for any location, such as their home, school, or community. Digital cameras can be used to photograph sites in the school and community to help students create maps and use symbols to represent the sites on maps. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) website includes numerous map collections that students can search. Maps.com and Maps101.com offer access to thousands of maps, mapping software, and ideas for teaching activities and lesson plans.
Geographic Information System (GIS) merge various layers of information in a computer environment that allows for retrieval, storage, manipulation, analysis, and visualization of geographic information. Research on GIS use in elementary schools has shown that it can help students practice geographic skills, that it is extremely motivating, and that it enhances student learning (Keipet; 1999).
The popular PBS television game show for children Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? built knowledge of geography, taking children around the world as they searched for the elusive Carmen. Carmen Sandiego began as a detective in a computer software game by Broderbund Software, and animated adventures on DVD and other products are available worldwide. The game can be projected from the computer onto a screen or large monitor. Students observe and take notes, and they acquire knowledge of geography and maps as Carmen travels worldwide.
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Read aloud Mapping Penny's World by Laureen Leedy (1998). In the book, a young girl makes a map of her room for a school assignment. She then becomes inspired to map all the places that her dog Penny loves. While the book is in a narrative form, it also provides good explanations of map vocabulary, such as compass rose, scale, lzey, and symbols. It provides examples of the kinds of maps that young children can read, understand, and make themselves. Ask students reader response questions and prompts: What part was the most interesting to you? What map would you like to make?
Do a mini-lesson on map vocabulary by preparing a chart with key vocabulary, asking students what they already know about the terms, using the book to model the meaning of the terms, and planning how they can use each of the concepts the terms represent when they make maps on their own:
- Compass rose
Students can first make a map of their own room, drafting it from memory and then revising it at home. Then make a map of the classroom with students by first measuring it and then creating an appropriate scale to make a map. For example, one foot in the classroom could equal one inch on the map. For the youngest students, model making a map to scale with the measurements on a piece of chart paper or butcher paper. A more advanced project would be for each student to use graph paper or simply measure one inch to one foot for the scale of the map. Students can add a compass rose, scale, key, and symbols to their maps.
Recommended children's books
The book People, by Peter Spier (1980), while not a book specifically about maps, takes a global view of the world and all the people in it. It is a wonderful read aloud that tells how people all over the world are alike and different, but that each one of us is unique in our own way. After using reader response questions and prompts to talk about the book, such as "What is unique about you?" and writing about their unique qualities, students can build on this experience to learn map skills. Students can collect data that identify their own birthplace or the birthplaces of their parents, grandparents, and other family members. Use the following tree map template to help them collect this data.
|Where in the World Are We From?|
|Where I was born: _______________________________|
|Where members of my family were born: _____________________|
|Mother: _____________________||Father: _____________________|
|Grandmother: _____________________||Grandfather: _____________________|
|Grandfather: _____________________||Grandmother: _____________________|
|Where I live now: _______________________________|
On a large map of the world in the classroom, students can use sticky notes or stick pins of one color with labels attached to show where they were born. The birthplaces of parents can be shown with another color, and grandparents, if known, using another color. In most classrooms in the United States, the plotting of these birthplaces would cover many parts of the world. Each student could also connect their birthplace and that of their parents and grandparents to show the relationship among the locations for each one of them.
Each student can identify the cities, stages, countries, continents, and hemispheres of their birthplace and that of their parents or grandparents on the large world map, and they can then share these with the rest of the class. On their own copy of a world map, they can then identify the following:
- Hemispheres: Northern and Southern
- Continents: Africa, Antarctica, Asia, Australia, Europe, North America, South America
- Oceans: Antarctic, Atlantic, Arctic, Indian, Pacific
Recommended children's books
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English language learners
Tapping into the background and prior knowledge of English learners is a first step in meaningful instruction for students whose home language is other than English. This is accomplished when students do research and create maps of their own homes, schools, communities, and places of family origin. Other important strategies for ELLs include using visuals such as maps and models such as a globe, which are also used in learning about maps. Primary language support can be used with books in the home languages of ELLs. For example, the book People (Spier, 1987) is available in Spanish.
Recommended children's books
Map frames with labels can be used for students creating their own maps. For the classroom, provide a black line outline for the room measurements to scale. Add labels for Compass Rose, Key, and Scale, with space for the student to fill them in after the information has been modeled for each one. Together, create a list of symbols that the students can then copy and place on their maps.
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The maps students create will demonstrate their understanding of mapping skills. Checklists for different types of maps and grades can also be used not only to assess whether students have used map making tools correctly, but also to guide them in doing it. They can use these checklists as a to-do and self-editing list. They can also work in pairs and assess and edit each other's maps, revising and improving as necessary. They can also include written comments explaining how they created each item and how each one is used.
|Checklist for Maps, K-2|
|Compass Rose|| || || |
|Scale Symbol|| || || |
|Key Symbol|| || || |
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Does your child like to draw pictures of where she lives? That is not surprising since there is nothing more familiar to a child than her home and neighborhood. Well, except for her room perhaps! By making familiar places and objects part of learning activities, you immediately capture your child’s attention and create a more relevant, and fun, learning experience.
Creating simple maps of familiar places, and then asking kids to use these maps to find hidden objects is a fun way to teach kids basic map skills and hone their spatial skills. This activity will also help kids develop an understanding of direction (which way?), location (where?), and representation (what a drawing stands for). As you do the activity with your child, use words that describe an object’s location and position relative to other objects, such as above, next to, below, behind, and between. Encourage your child to use these words, too.
Skills: geometry and spatial sense
Age Range: 3-6 year olds
What’s That Shape?
Take it Further
Choose a familiar place to map. If it’s your child’s room, spend some time with your child discussing the shape of the room and the location of different pieces of furniture in the room. Use position vocabulary such as next to, on top of, under, between, over, behind, etc. Ask your child, “Is your room shaped more like a square or a rectangle?” Ask her to describe where her bed is relative to other furniture or room features (e.g., is it next to a window, between two windows, or next to the door?). Do this with other furniture, too. Once you’ve spent some time talking about your child’s room and what’s in her room, you are ready to map it! If it’s a nice day you might want to create a map of your backyard or a nearby park.
What You Need:
How to use the mapping tool:
- To create a new map, choose: “Start a New Map.”
- What is the shape of the room or outdoor space? Choose a layout and then click “Next.”
- What is the floor of the room or outdoor surface made of (e.g., wood, tile, carpet, grass, and stone)? Choose a floor or outdoor surface. Pick a color for the floor or outdoor surface. Then click “Next.”
- Now you are ready to add furniture or other items to your room or outdoor space. For furniture, click on the red chair at the top left of the map tool. For outdoor items, click on the green tree. For other things such as shapes, a treasure chest, a window, or a door, click on the button with the red “X” and purple circle. If you want to add an item that is not shown, you can use the drawing tool (button with marker on it) to draw a picture of it. TIP: To move the items into the map, click on the item to pick it up, move it where you want it in the map, and then click on it again to drop it.
- Position the items exactly where you want them in the map by using the tools along the bottom. You can “Move,” “Rotate,” “Flip Horizontal,” “Flip Vertical,” and “Resize” any item. You can also change the color of any item with the “Color Changer.” If you want to remove an item from your map, click on the “Remove” tool and then click on the item. If you want to remove all the items from you map and start over again, click on “Clear All.”
- You can add text to your map by clicking on the “Text” tool and then clicking on the place in the map where you want to add the text. A line of text will appear. Click on the line of text and then type over it to change it to whatever you want it to say.
- Once you finish your map, you can use the buttons in the bottom right to either “Save” it or “Print” it. If you want to start all over again and create a new map, then click on “New.”
- When you save a map, you will be asked to give it a name. Be sure you give it a distinctive name, so you won’t have any trouble remembering it if you want to reload it in the future.
Once you’ve mapped your child’s room, invite your child to play a hide-and-seek game with a “treasure” such as one of your child’s favorite stuffed animals.
- Hide the “treasure” somewhere in the room. Mark its location on the map with an “X.” You will find an “X” in the mapping tool by clicking on the button with the “X” and the purple circle. Now ask your child to use the map to find the treasure. As she looks for it, give her clues by using position words. For example: “It’s between two pillows,” or “under a table,” or “ next to a chair.” Once your child finds the treasure, as her to hide it for you to find. Show her how to mark its location on the map.
- Understanding even simple maps can be challenging for a young child. You may first want to try this activity by hiding the treasure and then giving hints with only your words. For example, “It is under something big and blue that we sit on to read books together;” or, “It’s under the bed;” or, “It’s behind the door.” Once your child is familiar with the game and the position words you are using, you can introduce her to the map.
Challenge your child to a shape guessing game by using the shapes that are available in the mapping tool. Choose a layout, and then click on the button with the “X” and purple circle. You’ll find six shapes—square, rectangle, pentagon, triangle, circle, and oval. Click and drag a shape into the layout. Ask your child to name the shape and count the sides. Or if your child does not know the name of the shape, just ask her to count the sides and then say, “That’s right, the shape has 3 sides. A shape with 3 sides is a triangle.” Now ask your child to use the drawing tool to draw a matching shape. Continue this activity with other shapes.
Create a treasure map that your child can use to find “buried treasure” in your backyard or in a nearby park or playground. Put small toys or candies into a box and hide it somewhere outside. Mark its location on the map by using the “X” or the treasure chest icon found by clicking on the button with the red “X’ and purple circle. As your child is searching for the “treasure,” use position vocabulary to help guide her. For example, “What’s that next to the big tree?”; “Is the treasure under the bush or between the bush and the tree?” When your child finds the treasure ask her to describe where she found it using position vocabulary.
Use the “Text” tool to label items in your map. For example, “Bed,” “Table,” and “Door.” Ask your child to tell you what letter each word begins with, and what sound each letter makes. For older kids, ask them to name items in the map and spell them for you. Introduce kids to new vocabulary by typing labels for items in your map that might be unfamiliar to your child. For example, “dresser,” “wardrobe,” “fountain,” or “birdbath.”
Map: a visual representation, usually on a flat surface, of an area or a space.
Position Vocabulary: up, down, above, over, under, on, beside, inside, outside, in front, under, around, through, behind, next to, on top, near, far
There’s a Map on My Lap!
By Tish Rabe, illustrated by Aristides Ruiz. Random House, 2002.
As the Crow Flies: A First Book of Maps
By Gail Hartman, illustrated by Harvey Stevenson. Aladdin, 1993