Teaching Kids How To Read A Map

Learning how to read a map, an essential life skill for children

Teaching kids how to read a map is a survival skill that can be used both in a forest and in the city. If you have ever gotten lost, you know it’s not fun – sometimes scary – and one of your main concerns is probably that your kids never get lost either. Or that if they do get lost, they can find their way back to safety. One obvious solution is to accompany your children everywhere and that works when they’re small but you can’t do that until college. That’s where teaching kids how to read a map comes in handy.

Besides helping to find a way, reading maps combines reading and math skills and helps build spatial sense and visual literacy. You can’t say that of switching on an electronic device. I recently taught my 9-year old how to read a road map and it took her exactly 4 days for her to master the art but now she’s a perfect co-pilot in the car.  Here’s a breakdown of the learning experience.

Step 1: Finding Where You Are

Hey, you got to start somewhere so I gave a map to my daughter. I gave her a road map of Malta – because we were visiting Malta for the holidays – and basically told her, “Find where we are.” I was driving with my two girls and without a GPS, I needed a copilot I could trust with directions. So there, I gave her a map of a country she’d never been to, a map with strange names of unfamiliar places in a foreign language, and trusted her creative brain that she would find where we were. Her first reaction was one of intense frustration and confusion. To be expected So I gave her detailed instructions.

To most people who can read maps, it doesn’t take long to situate themselves on the map and trace a mental line to their destination. For children who’ve never done it, it’s a very tricky exercise. Maps include all sorts of text in various font sizes, lines of different colors, symbols and whatnots. Kids need to understand that maps are only a tool showing detail about an area and that fortunately, that tool has a key. It’s practically spy code material. Understand the key, understand the map. First thing you need to do is show the key – also called legend – to your child and have them read it out loud to make sure they understand all the symbols and lines. Red line = major highway, yellow line = crappy back-country road, green line = medium-sized roads, big dots = towns, etcetera.

My 9-year old daughter looked at the map constantly. My 7-year old and I read road signs and street signs, commenting on the landscape to give her clues about the terrain. About half an hour later, my 9-year old started to connect names on signs with names on the map. She’d understood the key! At the beginning, she recognized names after we’d passed them which was something but not very useful in terms of giving directions. We needed to orient the map to get somewhere. On to step 2.

Step 2: Orienting The Map – Never Eat Sogggy Waffles

By orienting the map, my daughter would be able to anticipate what was coming and find out where we were going. While orienting a map sounds like a difficult step it’s a lot easier than the previous one. Orienting a map simply means aligning the north arrow of the map with the physical north outside. First things first, your child needs to find the north arrow on the map. Here, kids have to remember 2 things:

  • For most modern maps, north is at the top and if they can read the text, chances are north is above the text in a straight line.
  • However they need to confirm that it’s the case with their map. To find the arrow, kids should look around the edges because cardinal arrows are usually drawn somewhere where they’re easily visible.

Found it? Good. Once you have north, it’s a piece of cake to find the other cardinal points. While kids learn them at school, they don’t always remember where cardinal directions are. Fortunately, there’s an easy way for them to remember what order they’re in if they can memorize this mnemonic: “Never Eat Soggy Waffles” – clockwise this will give them: North, East, South, and West. They can also try “Never Eat Sticky Worms” or “Never Eat Shredded Wheat.” If North is where your child’s head points, East will be their right hand, South their feet and West their left hand – NESW – easy.

Step 3: Finding Directions

Now that my daughter could put her finger on our location on the map and understand what was around it – coast, cities, mountains, countryside – finding directions was the next logical step. A direction is basically telling you what to do next: keep straight, turn right, turn around, go left. To find the direction, I had my daughter put a finger on our location and a finger on our destination and then I asked her to describe what the best way was between the two. In the real world, there will always be more than one way or one route so that’s a great exercise to understand logistics. You know those maze games that kids like to play? They are a fantastic brain workout to figure out the route between A and B.

Since we were driving, I asked my daughter to find the quickest route and not the shortest route. That meant, the maximum distance on bigger (faster) roads and the minimum distance on smaller (slower) roads. That’s where she got to use the key map, figuring out which line color she should look for and which line colors to avoid.

That last step took a day or two of driving around and messing up to master because it involves estimating distances on the map and anticipating the next move on the road with timely accuracy. How far is an inch on the map – is it five minutes or is it twenty? I guess she did it by trial and error but with practice and determination, she finally nailed it and became the best co-pilot I could have dreamed for. She even started planning itineraries for us, including several stops at historical landmarks along the way and getting us to our final destination.

As a sidenote, I tried the same experience with my 7-year old but as much as understanding our present location came easily, predicting where we were going was too stressful for her. I’ll try again with a simplified map for her.

Why It’s Important For Kids To Read Maps

In his book The Nature Principle, Richard Louv talks about hybrid minds for people who can balance high tech and natural knowledge. Part of the natural knowledge is knowing where you are and where you are going, a spatial awareness that few children have because they’re driven or walked to school or around their daily activities without ever having to find their own bearings.

Earlier this school year, we started riding our bikes to school with my girls. I made it a habit to have my 9-year old ride in front so she would learn the way. Since she had never been used to finding her own way anywhere, it was a lengthy process for her. She expected my guidance at every single street crossing, even after we’d done it 40 or 50 times. It’s like she didn’t register the way and put her brain on hold while I was within earshot.

And yet, learning how to navigate a city, a forest or a country is an essential skill for life. While city streets are somewhat easier to navigate because of the presence of signs and people, finding your way in the outdoors and the natural world requires increased attention. In the words of Tom Brown’s Field Guide: Nature And Survival for Children,  understanding maps – and teaching children not to rely on sight alone for bearings, but rather to pay attention to what they feel, smell, or fear – can prevent children from getting lost or assist them in finding their way out.

That’s why it’s important for kids to learn how to read maps. Because one day they’ll need to fly from the nest and become independent. Being able to know where you are and where you are going is a huge freedom of movement. It’s a free pass to go out there and explore. Now that 9-year old is map-proofed on roads, we’re going to be experimenting on the trail with a compass.

Resources for Parents

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Laure Latham

Laure is an author, environmental advocate, blogger, open water swimmer and now mother. She's passionate about inspiring families to enjoy the outdoors with their children, learning to unplug and living a healthy lifestyle, giving kids life skills and exploring the world around us sharing Family Friendly, Fun Ideas for the whole family on Frog Mom.

In a nutshell

  • 3 easy steps to reading maps
  • Parent resources
  • Empowering kids to understand the landscape, wherever they are
  • No screens/electricity required for this skill

2 Responses to “Teaching Kids How To Read A Map”

  1. March 31, 2013 at 4:28 pm, Ben Pease said:

    Hi Laure,
    All good advice, and interesting to hear of where each of your kids is at at their own age and pace and interests. There is a risk that your kids will grow up to become cartographers, but it’s a risk worth taking.*
    My parents had a USGS map posted on the kitchen wall, which I studied for fun and gradually figured out where school, shopping, the train station, swamps, and ponds were in our town. As I grew older, I would figure out where I wanted to go bicycling, and then go do it, and see what trips I could append to the trip I just did. They also had a huge USGS map of metropolitan Boston (the top edge was a little out of reach and we lived a few inches above that map, but we did a lot of trips into the City so I knew the harbor, neighborhoods, airport, stuff you see from the train vs. the road). The USGS maps are (like the Ordinance Survey map in your illustration) useful in showing both the roads and the terrain, so you can get a sense of landscape, streams, habitats, as well as industrial centers, mills, etc.. They don’t label every street so you have to do a certain amount of navigation by counting 3 blocks past the major street, or turn left at the church… Combined with a bicycle or public transit, a kid can start to see how things connect that aren’t on their busy grown-ups’ routes (to work, to school).

    A particular publisher we know and love has a Best Hikes with Kids series, in which the maps have bright colors, quirky typeface, decent trail info, but NO information about the terrain except that streams run in valleys and triangles mark peaks. Their Best Hikes with Dogs series overlays the routes on full-detail topographic maps with shaded relief, contour lines, and landscape details. Why do dogs get better maps than kids? Of course the maps in the books are just a starting place, and the park brochures or online maps may provide your budding cartographer additional clues as to where you are going or just went.

    Reply

    • April 03, 2013 at 4:52 am, Frog Mom said:

      Ben, you raise excellent points and I value your expert advice in this matter. I agree that all maps should have some terrain info even if it’s basic as it would tremendously help to connect the map with the real world. Hopefully some day that publisher will reach your conclusion and improve the info on the map:) I find flat maps without terrain a bit disturbing as they’re such an abstract view of the world, especially when they refer to hilly areas. At least most SF bike maps have info on street grades – that helps!

      I love that your parents had a USGS map posted on the kitchen wall, that’s such a great learning experience. It must have taken you a wile to figure out what was what because USGS maps aren’t exactly user-friendly in layout. My 7-year old has a Kids’ map of London that she loves because it’s completely simplified and has drawings of the main fun spots for her age. She brings it whenever we go out but it’s completely useless in terms of finding your way. It’s good to know roughly where you are on the map but not much else. As far as my 9-year old, she now gets the maps of places we visit in her hands and we ask her to lead the way. She’s still learning but she’s getting there and she’s definitely quicker at identifying big areas on the map. I think it’s good practice to see different types of maps too – gives you a different perspective on how people view an area.

      Now I’m thinking we too should have a big topo map on the kitchen wall or in my girls’ bedroom. Food for thought. Thank you Ben!

      Reply

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