Why Children Still Need to Read (and Draw) MapsIn a GPS world, where synthesized voices tell us when to turn to get from point A to point B, do kids really need to learn how to read a map?


While many skills have become obsolete in the digital age, map reading remains an important tool for building children’s spatial reasoning skills and helping them make sense of our world.

Temple University’s Dr. Nora Newcombe describes spatial thinking as “seeing in the mind’s eye.” Spatial skills are what allow us to “picture the locations of objects, their shapes, their relations to each other and the paths they take as they move.” Maps support spatial thinking by helping children visualize where objects, places, cities, and countries are in relation to one another. Quite literally, maps help them figure out their place in the world.

In a 2013 report on maps and education, National Geographic concluded, “Spatial thinking is arguably one the most important ways of thinking for a child to develop as he or she grows. … A student who has acquired robust spatial thinking skills is at an advantage in our increasingly global and technical society.”

Understanding maps is also freeing, says Dr. Julie Dillemuth, children’s author and spatial cognition expert: “When you look at maps, you are building a mental map. Mental maps are really important because it gives you freedom to navigate where you want to go” in face of inevitable detours, roadblocks, and GPS errors.

So when can parents get started? Even preschool children have the ability to understand the relationship between a map and the physical world, but they need guidance—someone to expose them to maps and teach them the basics of how they work. Here are a few tips and resources.

Mapping Books for Children

Picture books are a great way to introduce the concept of mapping and help kids develop spatial language. Here are six to get you going:

Digital Resources:

From interactive atlases to map-making tools, the web is filled with interactive resources that provide more than turn-by-turn directions. Use digital tools to . . .

  • Explore: National Geographic has a multitude of mapping tools and activities, including lesson ideas for PreK-6, an interactive Kids Atlas, and a map-making tool. Google Maps is another terrific resource. Zoom in on your neighborhood and look for key landmarks. Toggle between the map and the “street view” to help kids figure out the relationship between an aerial map and what we see from the ground. Before going on a trip, use digital maps to plan and explore the route.
  • Build: PBS’s Cat in the Hat Can Map This and That is a site that lets kids design and build their own indoor or outdoor map and populate it with objects such as furniture and trees.

Hands-On Activities

  • Draw a Map: Grab some paper and crayons and work with your child to draw maps of places you both know well. Start with rooms in your home and then branch out to favorite places such as a local park. Use simple shapes to draw and label objects such as furniture or playground equipment. Take a walk around the block together, looking for landmarks to include in a neighborhood map. As kids get more proficient, encourage them to create maps of imaginary worlds or of places in their favorite books or movies.
  • Treasure Map: After drawing a map of a room together, hide a special object somewhere in the room and then point to its location on the map. If they struggle, use spatial language to give clues, such as “It’s under a pillow” or “It’s inside a cabinet.”
  • Talk about Directions: As you drive or walk together, ask them to anticipate where you need to go next. “Which way do we turn at this stop sign? Right or left?” or “How many stops are left before we get off the subway? Let’s look at the wall map.”

As you explore mapping with your child, you might just find that it reignites some of your own curiosity about the world and what it looks like. As Judith Schalansky, acclaimed author and map lover, wrote, “Give me an atlas over a guidebook any day. There is no more poetic book in the world.”

Proceeds from the sale of books purchased at Amazon.com help support PBS Parents. Thank you!

About Deborah Farmer Kris

Deborah Farmer Kris spent several years as a K-12 educator and as an associate at Boston University’s Center for Character and Social Responsibility. She is a regular contributor for MindShift and the mother of two young children. You can follow her on Twitter @dfkris.

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  • Mary Mactavish

    “Me on the Map”by Joan Sweeney is pretty great, too, especially compared to the rather disjointed “Map on My Lap,” which is on the list.

  • Derek Tonn

    I think a big part of understanding and teaching the skills associated with reading maps is also understanding how different people’s brains are wired to navigate space in different ways.

    For many? They prefer to use maps that are planimetric in nature. Looking straight down on to a geographic area from the equivalent of directly overhead, with North usually being shown at the top of said map. Streets are mere lines, and if buildings appear in the maps at all? You generally only see their footprints. People who prefer these types of maps to aid in navigation usually also prefer things such as directions and distance to know where they are going. “Go 3.7 miles North until you reach Farmer Avenue. Turn East, go 3/4 mile until you come to Kris Street. Turn North, go one mile then turn West. Look for 123 Deborah Drive and you’re there!”

    For many other people? Distance and direction isn’t preferred, or nearly as useful. What they are looking for is landmarks. “Breadcrumbs,” if you will. Shapes, colors, etc. “Keep heading straight, through 5-6 traffic lights, until you see the large Target store on your left. At that light, turn right, and go through two stop signs, until you come to a red brick building. That’s the city library. Turn left, past a shopping mall and several fast food restaurants, around the big park with the water tower, then turn left at the stop sign. Our office is in the fourth building on the right.”

    Human brains seem to be wired to navigate space differently, depending upon whether we are outdoors or indoors as well. Outdoors? The population seems to be split fairly evenly between preferring planimetric maps (distance/direction most important, North on top) and preferring bird’s eye/oblique/pictorial maps that show building architecture, landscapes, etc. But indoors? Most people seem to revert to a preference toward landmarks and “breadcrumbs.” Rarely will you hear people giving directions using feet or “North” inside of a building, since many people seem to lose their sense of direction indoors.

    All that said, I completely agree that reading maps is an incredibly important skill we need to be teaching our children! All I ask is that people realize that a map can necessarily take on radically different forms. And one type/style of map (planimetric or pictorial) is not inherently “better” than another. Better for some! Absolutely. But one size (style) of map does not fit all, in every situation.

    • D. Schwartz

      Actually the difference between the two is very small and if you talk to map users you will see the freely swap between both. Or even blend them. As with all things it’s a matter of scale.

    • Kirsten Beier

      I use both landmarks and directions to navigate. I learned a lot driving through San Francisco and some landmarks are visible from many different points of the city so I used a specific landmark as a point of orientation. I also read maps upside down, sideways, etc – whatever point of the map was in front of me was the direction I wanted to head. My husband was in the Navy and he has no concept of north vs. west, it amuses me *lol*

    • https://ohkashdoller.wordpress.com/ Kash Dymé

      I can count the times on one hand i’ve heard someone give me directions saying coordinates (north, west, south etc). Where do you get this 50/50 mix number from?!

      • Derek Tonn

        Maybe it is all the time I spend around GIS professionals, app developers, et al? Or seeing countless people trying to use Google, or Garmin, or other services to get them to a destination? Rarely do any of those types of services provide you with any visual landmarks. It is almost always only “drive 3.7 miles until you reach Dymé Drive, then turn Right (East).” And many services won’t even tell you to turn Right! To which my wife will complain: “how am I supposed to know which direction is East?” :-)

        I’ve been producing and selling maps professionally for 22 years. Have interacted with, answered questions about maps, from thousands of individuals. And in my experience? The human population splits about 50/50 in the way their brains intuitively process spatial information. We all learn to function in situations where the information provided to us is in “another language.” Just like if I’m spending days in France, I can keep myself alive barely speaking “tourist French.” But different people navigate space very differently. Need/request very different types of directions.

        Those are my experiences. Yours may be very different! There really isn’t a “right” or “wrong” way to navigate space. Only people who treat others as “right” or “wrong” for not being in sync with their own way of doing things.

  • Rebecca Jensen

    Also: orienteering! Here in Seattle, WA, we have the largest junior orienteering program in the USA, run by Cascade Orienteering Club. http://www.cascasdeoc.org. Adults and kids alike are given a map, then find checkpoints (“controls”) in parks, forests, or college campuses, choosing what they think is the most efficient route along the way. There’s no gps in this sport, only map and compass. You can find other clubs in the USA via us.orienteering.org

  • Scott B

    They should bring back the little blue booklets of map skills I remember having through elementary and Jr high.

  • gordhun

    I think orienteering is popular with kids because it is like putting themselves in the middle of a video game. The map and terrain are the screen background and they are both the payer and the character. When they find a control point there is an internal explosion of endorphin and they are off to the next level (er control point).

  • Brian DeRocher

    For the seasoned mapper, say 9 years old, check out OpenStreetMap. It’s a map built by thousands of volunteers. OpenStreetMap is being used by Wikipedia, WeatherUnderground, and Craigslist. For an introduction search for LearnOSM.