Learn All Year Long
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Where Are We? Learning to Read Maps
- Computer with Internet access and printer
- Online mapping sites, such as Google Maps, Bing, National Geographic Maps, or the Xpeditions Atlas
- National Atlas Map Maker
- A color map of your state
- A color map of your city or town
- Local phone book
- Atlas (optional)
- Globe (optional)
- Before you start the activity, familiarize yourself with how at least one of the mapping websites works so that you can use it with the child. Look also at the National Atlas Map Maker. Find a two-dimensional map of your state and one of your town or city. Review the maps, looking at their type (whether they are topographical, political, road, etc.). Also take note of other features, including
Legend or key, which shows what the different symbols on the map mean. For example, your state map might have symbols for the state capital, roads, borders, railroads, airports, parks, schools, and even historical places.
Scale, which shows the relationship between a distance on the map and the true distance on the ground. For example, one inch on the map may equal one mile in the real world, or it may equal ten. Because scale can vary widely from map to map, it’s important to look closely at it before estimating distances.
Compass, which gives the orientation of the map, showing north, south, east, and west.
Index, which lists the cities and towns of a region in alphabetical order. The index often relates to a grid on the map. For example, to find a city that the index says is located at D2, you would look across the map’s vertical grid lines for D and then down to the horizontal line labeled 2. The city will be in that quadrant.
Colors, which are used to show different features on the map. Water is usually blue, while landforms are often shaded according to how high or low they are.
Longitude lines, which run north to south and show distance from the Prime Meridian in Greenwich, England, and latitude lines, which run east to west and show the distance from the Equator. Atlases typically include these lines, but local maps do not.
- When you are ready to begin, ask the child: What is the difference between a map and a globe? If you have a globe available, you might show it to him or her, along with the state and town maps.
The answer is that a globe is a spherical representation of the world. A map is a flat representation and may show only a part of the world. (An interesting point to make is that since flat maps don’t take into account the curvature of the earth, they are all a bit inaccurate—but not enough to make them less useful!)
- Discuss the many types of maps that are available, and how they all present specific information. For example, topographical maps show land surfaces, with both natural and manmade features. Political maps focus more on state and national boundaries, capitals, and major cities. Road maps show highways, railroads, airports and other places that might be of interest to people planning a trip. Still other maps focus on population, climate, or natural resources. There are even maps of the ocean that depict the topography of the ocean floor miles beneath the surface.
- Define “atlas.” An atlas is a collection of maps that typically give additional information about the social, political, and economic conditions of a region. If you have an atlas available to you, look at it with the child.
- Once you’ve reviewed the basics of maps, share the state map, discussing the type of map it is (topographical, political, road, etc.). Share the features discussed in Step 1 with the child and talk about them. Use the map to find your town or city, and talk about other places on it that may be familiar to the child.
- Share the town map. Can the child find where he or she lives on the map? Using home as a guide and a local phone book for addresses, have the child locate several other landmarks, such as his or her school, the town hall, police station, fire station, hospital, parks, and any historic sites.
- Using the scale as a guide, give the child a ruler and ask him or her to estimate the walking or driving distance between a few locations, such as home and school, school and a favorite park, and the park and the town hall. When measuring, remind the child that the shortest distance may not always be possible to actually walk or drive if there are no roads or bridges.
- Next, spend some time looking at interactive online maps of your state and town. Have the child compare and contrast this version with the two-dimensional printout. For example, most online sites offer aerial (birds-eye) views via satellite, a zoom feature, driving directions, estimated arrival times, places of interest (historical sites, restaurants, hotels) along the route, and even current traffic conditions.
- Finally, go to National Atlas Map Maker and have the child zoom in to your state. Explore different types of information available using the links to the right. Note that each time you choose to add more information to the map you will need to also click on the Redraw Map button for it to appear.
- Have the child become a cartographer (mapmaker) by creating a travel map for someplace they’d like to visit. Include several natural or historical points of interest, as well as a legend, compass, and scale, if possible.
- Maps can look very different depending on what they are used for. Compare the level of detail found in a topographical map with a subway map, bus map, and hiking trail map.
- Give your family’s GPS the day off! For your next local outing, have the child plan a route and read the directions aloud.