Mapping Middle Childhood. Photo, AMC Archives.
caption Middle childhood is a "prime age" for children to begin learning how to orient themselves in new
places. Photo: AMC Archives.
By Kristen Laine
AMC Outdoors, May 2010

David Sobel developed an early fascination with maps as a boy growing up on Long Island Sound. At age 12, he wrote to tourism boards around the country and asked them to send him state highway maps. He discovered USGS topo maps around the same time, and can still remember the thrill of seeing contour lines instead of roads.

Now director of Antioch's Center for Place-Based Education in Keene, N.H., Sobel continues to study maps and mapmaking. He considers them to be a powerful way to understand the developmental stages children go through in creating connections to the natural world.

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It's no coincidence, as Sobel sees it, that he was 12 when he became intrigued by maps. Beginning in late elementary school, around age 9, children enter what he calls "the prime age for path-making." In our hunter-gatherer pasts, children in that stage took on coming-of-age challenges that drew on their mapping and path-making abilities. Even now, Sobel sees middle childhood as an opportunity for boys and girls to move from orienting themselves in known and comfortable landscapes into figuring out new places, new worlds.

AMC Education Programs Coordinator Cary Rhodes teaches map and compass skills to students who come through AMC's nature programs in the White Mountains. She sees a similar combination: Her students are drawn to the cool concept of putting three dimensions into two dimensions—creating maps, in other words—and in learning how to use gear, such as compasses, to determine direction. Her students are also often driven to explore. It's natural to put the two together. Rhodes and Sobel offer the following ideas for encouraging those map- and path-making impulses:

The hand-drawn "pop-up" map. Rhodes helps her students visualize one of the basic elements of a map, contour lines, by drawing concentric rings around the knuckles of one of her hands with washable marker. She holds her hand flat, like a two-dimensional map, and then makes it into a fist. Knuckle "mountains" pop out, and valleys appear. "You can see them getting how maps work," Rhodes says.

"Put red Fred in the shed." Rhodes plays this active game to help kids remember the different parts of a compass. She starts with the names: "red Fred" for the magnetic end of the needle, "the shed" the movable arrow under the compass housing, "360-degree circle" for the dial, and "baseplate" for the base of the compass. Then she tells students to "plug the compass into their belly buttons," facing away from themselves, and gives them a series of directions, like "Turn the 360-degree circle to 45 and take four big steps," putting "red Fred in the shed" with each change of direction. Rhodes can immediately see when they've grasped the basic concept of using a compass, and can continue the game until everyone is stepping and turning the same direction.

Shaping landscapes. Building raised relief maps out of salt-dough or clay gives children a real "hands-on" sense of a landscape. Literally shaping mountains, valleys, and coastlines helps children internalize the landscape they've modeled, creating "mental maps" and deeper connections to the natural world. Sobel saw that "mental mapping" in action on a trip with a middle-school class to Franconia Notch. One student, who'd molded the Pemigewasset River valley, exclaimed, "I know where we are! Remember where the mountains smush in close to the river between two long, low mountains and then the big mountains are just beyond?"

Treasure maps and quests. Even younger children can practice exploring and map-making by creating their own maps or by following the clues in scavenger huts and organized letter-boxing or quests.