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.”

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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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