X marks the spot.
As easily as that, you can get a kid interested in a map. Who doesn’t like looking for hidden treasure? But ask that same kid where north is or how far it is to her grandmother’s house, and she might not have a clue.
Lisa Gilbert, an instructor with AMC’s education program A Mountain Classroom, has a few tricks up her sleeve for mastering maps. While Gilbert usually works with kids in grades 5 through 12, her strategies are tweakable for parents who’d like to introduce navigation skills at home.
DIY: Draw It Yourself
The first thing to do is to look at a map—a real paper map—with your child, Gilbert says. Talk about what the different colors represent, what the different lines mean, which are human-made versus natural features. Discuss the key, the compass rose, and the scale. Get out a ruler and figure out how many miles 1 inch equals.
Don’t think just because kids are learning, it can’t be fun. Once you’ve explored every inch of a few paper maps, have your kids draw up their own: of your neighborhood, a nearby park, or even the inside of your house. “It can feel very adventurous to kids, like you’re a pirate making a treasure map,” Gilbert says.
One of the activities she uses in A Mountain Classroom is Alien Abduction, in which one group of students hides, leaving a map with directional clues behind, and another group has to find them using the skills they’ve learned. You can easily make this into a game in your backyard or a local park, helping kids understand familiar spaces in a whole new context.
Which Way is West?
The two most challenging concepts for kids are cardinal directions—understanding where north is—and distance, Gilbert says. Because children are often ferried around in cars or school buses, they may not be used to tracking their own location.
For starters, you can help them practice paying attention. When you go on a hike or even a walk to a friend’s house, take paper and pencils along and have your kids draw a map en route. Ask them to include the roads and houses they pass; the trees they notice; and any stores, streams, or other landmarks that are significant to them. This is a great way for kids to make connections and to really start to process their surroundings.
Where in the World?
Gilbert stresses that patience is key. “Keep doing it again and again, and find ways you can work it [into your routine],” she says.
Just as we teach our kids to walk before they run, we can help them learn to make sense of their surroundings before they (or we) automatically turn to our phones. Understanding where you are in your neighborhood, town, state, country, and the world is something everyone should know. Now that’s a real treasure.