Geography Lessons / Maps / Spatial Thinking

Make Room for Maps

Where am I? Where are we going? Where did the Pilgrims live? Where do penguins come from? Is your child likely to ask “where” questions? If these sound familiar, maybe it is a good time to introduce maps and the broader concept of geography.

Over the years, I have met many folks who find maps daunting. I am sure that these same folks are grateful for the navigational applications on their phones; apps that can instruct them on how to get from here to there. I think it would be a shame, however, if kids grew up depending on this technology without basic knowledge of map reading. I think others share my view. I heard a report recently that even the Navy is once again training its seaman in the use of sextants. Yes, our naval vessels have high tech electronic navigational equipment, but should there by a cyber attack, this equipment may not work properly if at all. So, rather than only relying on fancy technology, time is being set aside to train folks in old fashioned navigation skills.

For children, an introduction to maps serves many purposes. First, is just getting to know more about this great blue marble hurtling through space that we live on. Second, learning about other people, in other states or in other countries seems to excite young children. When they can pinpoint those places where a grandparent lives or where they have visited, they experience a sense of accomplishment and pride. Importantly, while building a global awareness is important for children, I believe building local knowledge and comfort in their immediate surroundings is also a plus.

Finally, using and drawing maps builds a number of cognitive skills and particularly spatial thinking. Spatial thinking has lots of advantages but also correlates with performance in math and science.

Give maps a try. Preschool children have a surprisingly sophisticated understanding of the spaces they occupy. You will be delighted to discover this and expand on it.

If you are unfamiliar with how to use this blog, please see the section entitled “What is Guiding Curiosity.” Thanks!




What is a map?


How do I use one?


Where am I? Where do I want to go? How do I get there?


How do they draw maps?


Are there different kinds of maps?


What do the colors or symbols mean on a map?


How do I measure distance on a map? Remember some maps contain information about other sorts of measurements, or depth (nautical maps), elevation (topographic maps), or wind speed or rainfall amounts (weather maps).





Maps are abstract representations, and younger children may take some time to begin to piece together what a map characterizes or how to use one. A good place to start, if you have one, is with a globe. A globe can spin and handled in ways that encourage exploration (turning it upside down). If you do not have a globe, a world atlas can also be a place to begin to examine maps, but it should be reasonably big so that its various labels and symbols can be distinguished easily. The younger the child, the bigger the map should be. A large floor map is best for younger children, so if you want to invest in a new carpet here is your chance to find one that will also inspire learning.




Remember that many younger children cannot yet read, but the shapes and patterns on maps are of interest. Point out the United States (or the country you live in) on the map. Invite your child to trace its outlines with a finger. Its distinctive shape is probably already familiar to a lot of young children. Find your hometown and point it out. If comfortable, place a pin tack or a Post-it note nearby for reference until finding that spot becomes automatic. Understanding that a dot on a map represents a location is a first step in map reading, and one of the earliest and easiest for children to comprehend.


If you still have his interest, ask if there is another place he would like to find on the globe. Maybe you could locate where a grandparent lives (unless the grandparent is across town and then you need a different map), or someplace from a favorite book or movie. The movie Frozen is very popular these days and ostensibly is based in Norway. Here is a great site for determining where other Disney characters are from:


At first, maybe stick to a globe or one type of map, but as your child’s understanding progresses, you can introduce a variety of other types of maps, or road maps, gazetteers, topography maps, nautical charts, or whatever you have available. Some libraries will have a selection of maps on their shelves. Remember that if you visit museums or zoos, you may receive on entry a pamphlet with a map of that place. These are great as your child is in that immediate space and the representation of that space on the map can be experienced first hand. If you can find these maps on-line before you go, maybe allow your child to study it and ask questions before your visit.  Ask the basic questions, where are you, where do you want to go and how can you get there?


In viewing maps, there are many lessons to be learned. With younger children start with where they are or where something interesting is and talk about relative distances, or what is near, far, inside of or next to.




Observe and discuss the symbols on a map. A map is an abstract representation as are the symbols, so for younger children this can all be a bit much. It may take repeated exposure to a map to begin to decipher even those symbols that are easily recognized icons. Some symbols “stand for” or represent something that your child may not have a lot of experience seeing. This may be particularly true for children younger than about 7 or 8. So, take the time to describe and discuss. Find symbols that represent things your child finds fascinating. Does he like trains or trucks? Railroad lines and highways are easily identifiable on maps. Watersheds or lakes and rivers are also usually easy to identify.


Try to find a compass rose on the map or a symbol indicating which way is north. Does the current orientation of the map match the compass direction? That is, are you holding the map correctly?





This section is in a slightly different spot relative to the other steps of inquiry for this post. I think it is worth building knowledge of maps from personal experiences, and then comparisons or measurements will make more sense.


A good first experiment is to invite your child to map a proximal space. This could be a room in your home or your yard. Her bedroom is probably most familiar. By mapping, I am not necessarily talking about drawing the space. Drawing requires a certain level of fine motor skills and the perceptual skill of looking down on something and then translating what that new perspective is by creating a 2D image. Not an easy assignment and one that takes lots practice. But if you have a child who likes to draw and is interested in trying this out, then by all means.


For other kids, maybe start with building the map. Invite him to use blocks, Legos, or cardboard boxes. First, what is the outline of a room (build a rectangle or square)? Where do the various pieces of furniture go? Where are the doors and windows? Is there a rug on the floor? Is there shelving or a dresser in the room? How do these fit in the space? The pieces of furniture can be blocks or perhaps shapes torn or cut out of paper. Consider cutting magazine pictures out and using these as “symbols” of one’s furniture and placing them in the appropriate spots.


Repeat this exercise focusing on other rooms in your home, a classroom, or another area familiar to your child.


Think also of mapping spaces out of doors. Choose small and manageable areas. Where are the trees, bushes, and sidewalks? Where does a patio or porch begin and end? For these maps, you might want to use photos you have taken if your child does not feel like sketching.




Remember that for these first attempts to make maps, the size of the overall space and the objects placed within are probably going to be way off, or too small or big. Resist the temptation to point this out. Just getting the idea of placing things in relative space is a start.


When he has finished you might ask how he might do it differently next time, if you cannot resist and think there is a lesson there. Invite him to stand next to things and describe how big he is in relation to something, so you are discussing relative size. Do not expect production of an exact model for some time. As always, have some fun with it…Use a doll or stuffed animal to show relative size. A doll or toy figure may be a giant in that space, or too big for his bed. Make it playful, find something that is hilarious and worth a giggle.


There are lots of fun maps that you can suggest extending these activities. Where were the Easter eggs hidden this year? How do I get to my best friend’s house? If planning a trip or just returning from one, map the route you traveled. If your child has a favorite story and the major character was on a journey of some sort, map that route. Create maps of both real and imaginary places. Makeup symbols for an existing map. Create a treasure map.




Over time, you might want to begin to use graph paper or a grid to correct for relative sizes of things (maybe best for children older than 7). Measure the size of a room and then assist your child in thinking through how many inches or feet the lines on the graph paper or grid will represent. I suspect that you may not have to provide too much assistance (do NOT give the answer). If your child has some experience with building or drawing maps and shrinking things down, I believe that when you introduce graph paper, it may be intuitively obvious how to use it. Wait a bit and watch how she puzzles it through, only providing assistance as needed. These activities represent the concept of scale. Maps are representations of things shrunken down. This is a perceptual and cognitive exercise, or shrinking things or enlarging them to scale; that takes lots of practice.



Compare and Contrast

If your child has built or drawn maps, take photos of those maps. These can be arranged, sorted and compared.


Compare weather maps cut from a newspaper over several days. These could be maps of national or local weather patterns, but these maps should change and can bring something to life that could be static.


If you have a road atlas, compare the patterns of streets in various cities. Here in the southwest, our streets are in grids. In older cities, the streets can be random patterns.


Collect maps..any maps. Subway, bus routes, maps of state or national parks, zoos, museum. Keep these in a box for considering and sorting. If you have old National Geographic magazines, they are full of maps. You can buy back issues at used books stores for very little.


On a world atlas, initiate a discussion of continents versus countries.





The obvious thing to measure on maps is distance. Begin with the concept of this city is farther away from me that that city. Or, this country is bigger than that country.


You can begin to introduce to children distances on maps, but take some time as there are several steps to translating what is represented into an actual measurement. That is, an inch on a map may represent 100 miles. The concept of an inch may make sense to your child, but remember now that inch “stands for” something else or multiple miles. Start with just looking for the key or legend on a map that describes what the symbols mean. This can be fascinating in itself.





Find puzzles of maps. No not the 3000 piece version, but whatever might be age appropriate for your child. Putting these together is very hands on and reinforces developing visual-spatial skills. Puzzles of the 50 states are easy to find.


Take a look at the globe or world atlas and initiate discussions of different languages around the world, different foods, and different traditions. These are cultural variations. If you have a child who loves animals, maybe talk about maps as ecosystems where you find particular animals (polar bears, elephants, rhinos come to mind as specific to geographic areas).


There are many books on geography for children. So a visit to the library to find these could be an interesting outing.


Explore the concepts of longitude and latitude.









Abstract representation



Relative size

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *