At the base of Mount Southington, a small ski hill in Connecticut, I handed my seven-year-old daughter the trail map. A green run set like an arm akimbo elbowed out on the left side of the page. A quick black diamond shot through the trees on the right. Intermediate blues cut through the middle of the paper map.
“Where to?” I asked after hours of having her ignore my directions, hoping to at least partially disguise a map lesson as recognition of her sovereignty. She looked shocked and mystified by the power this chart afforded her.
There’s more to reading a map than following snaking lines and interpreting keys. It can teach children about the vastness of the world, and above all, about the amazing diversity that inhabits it. Some kids will get excited by globes. Others will find a cross-section of the Earth and its various layers fascinating. Many others will need a different approach. As an adult caring for a little one, there are a number of educational strategies you can try.
Navigate the real world
For years, my wife and I had bought globes and sat with our two daughters to color in state and country maps, but nothing seemed to spark their curiosity for the possibilities the world had to offer. But that day, standing beside the slopes, all of her focus was on the map. She just needed to connect those two-dimensional markings and what they represented to the world around her.
Parents can begin by simply opening up a local map, having kids select sites or features of interest, and then visiting those places, allowing children to make connections between drawings on maps and the actual spaces they represent. Engage with them by finding maps that might be intriguing, based on their interests or the conversations you’re having at home.
Once they’re more familiar with their immediate geographic area, try expanding to other states or countries, and linking faraway places with the things happening locally. For instance, when my wife would travel to London for work, I used a map to show my daughters where their mother was.
Sit down with them to explore the features, keys, and place names in the map. Consider asking open-ended questions, such as: “What place or feature on the map are you curious about?” or “If you could shrink down, where would you like to visit?”
Create a map challenge
Some kids just don’t want you to bombard them with questions about maps. That’s ok—for them, creating a hands-on map challenge might add the competitive factor they need to stay engaged. Start by setting a radius and establishing different missions. You can have a first level where they have to visit all of the green spaces on your local map, and then a second where they have to collect a rock from every body of water, for example.
You can also create scavenger hunts within a designated area. Depending on your kid’s age, it can be something as simple as heading into town with a local map and having them mark off the location of the post office and the bank. You can also create an itemized list of things to find in nature and tell the children to note them on their hiking maps.
Adventure-seeking families can also download a geocaching app, like the appropriately-named Geocaching, and set off in search of hidden treasures by following narrative hints and using basic map reading skills.
If you have older kids, you may want to take advantage of virtual maps or even Google Earth. To make scavenger hunts more interesting for them, level up the challenge by discussing elements such as longitude and latitude lines. You can create a circuit of places for them to visit by providing only their coordinates.
Get some help to plot courses
For more adventurous children who like to have a role in organizing family outings, plan a hike and have them play a starring role.
Find the trail map to your chosen location, and have your kids help you plot a course based on points of interest before you leave home. You can also challenge them to find the tightest contour lines to tackle.
During the hike, take the time to stop and look for landmarks to identify your location on the map. Keep referring back to it to show the kids how the features on paper or a screen offer real-world information.
Have them track the route
When kids are bored in the car or constantly asking “Are we there yet?”, hand them a road map and challenge them to trace their finger along the same route the car is traveling. If your children are older, you can make a game of using real world signs and surroundings to determine where exactly on the map you are.
If there’s more than one adult in the car, one of you might want to sit with the kids in the back and help them navigate the map. If anyone in your family is prone to car sickness, you might want to keep them away from the map, though. Instead, you can use the clues in the landscape to teach your kids about orientation, like recognizing where west is by looking at where the sun sets.
Let them map the neighborhood
For younger kids stuck inside—either because of the weather or any other circumstances—there’s nothing like learning how to read a map by creating one. Make them choose something simple, like your street, or maybe go big and have them map the entire neighborhood. Have fun by creating a unique key that includes houses with barking dogs and that two-story brick house that’s home to the elderly gentleman who always feeds the feral cats.
When you go out, walk with the map to check for accuracy. Don’t forget to bring pencils or crayons to make corrections and add any interesting elements they might have forgotten about.