Teach Your Child How to Read a Paper Map

It's an old-fashioned skill, but it's still relevant in today's world.

Public Domain Pixabay. Pixabay

Several weeks ago, my family took a four-hour road trip to visit the grandparents. Before long, the kids were asking where we were and how much longer it would take to get there. I tried explaining, but then pulled an old Ontario road map out of the glove box and passed it to the back seat. The kids unfolded it and I showed them exactly where we were, where Grandma and Grandpa live, and the route we were going to travel that day. They were fascinated, never having seen the province of Ontario laid out like that before.

They pored over the map for a long time, asking about all the towns, provincial parks, and other landmarks we've visited recently, and I pointed them out on the map. It made me realize that I take for granted the mental map of my home province and that, unless my own kids become familiar with reading paper maps too, they won't possess a similar mental version and are likely to have a poorer sense of direction.

Google Maps and GPS are modern marvels that have gotten me out of many confusing places, but paper maps still have a role to play in our lives, mainly because they offer a broader perspective of the world. Most of us adults learned to read them out of necessity, but it's up to us to pass on that skill to children whose need may not be so obvious, but who still stand to benefit from it. As Trevor Muir wrote in an article on this topic for Let Grow,

"When kids learn how to create and use maps, they are doing more than just learning how to get around. They are developing fundamental skills that they will use for the rest of their lives. Map skills still belong in today’s classroom."
©. K Martinko -- Studying a map of central London over coffee

© K Martinko -- Studying a map of central London over coffee

How do paper maps help kids?

Paper maps can help small children understand distance. For example, when I tell my smallest son, "We'll be there in forty-five minutes," he doesn't really get it and asks 30 seconds later if we're there yet. But show a kid a blue road line on a map, with all the little dots for towns that must be passed through first, and it becomes clearer.

Muir points out that paper maps are good for teaching kids to recognize symbols. "From traffic signs and desktop alerts to endless advertisements, interpreting symbols is crucial. Reading and creating maps is a way to practice this skill." They also help to orient a child within their own neighborhood, fostering that free-range approach that we love so much here at TreeHugger and giving them the skills to find their way home independently.

I can speak to the imaginative power of paper maps, too. As a child I had National Geographic maps taped to my bedroom walls and I spent a lot of time gazing at foreign countries, becoming familiar with their shapes and city names. This sparked curiosity about those places and made me more inclined to remember my geography and history lessons because they were tied to places I'd 'seen'. I've now also travelled to many of the countries whose maps I studied as a child (and always with a paper map in hand).

road map of Sri Lanka

© K Martinko – My Intrepid Travel guide Ajith, showing the route we covered during two weeks of travel in Sri Lanka (Dec. 2019)

Growing up in a remote forested region, my parents had numerous topographical maps, which I learned to interpret and appreciate. These reveal the physical features of an area, such as hills, valleys, cliffs, swamps, rivers, and lakes, and it was the first place we looked before heading out into the bush on hiking and snowshoe expeditions because it determined the route. A topographical map was where I looked when I wanted to find a new place to explore, such as the beautiful swamp behind fellow TreeHugger writer Lloyd Alter's cottage, where I used to take my (home)school books for a quiet afternoon of study on a sun-warmed rock.

A paper map has the marvelous tendency to put ideas into one's head. If you don't know what mysterious places lie beyond the borders of your familiar region, how will you know to go explore? Muir wrote,

"Knowing how to recognize different topographical features on a 2D map has opened the door for my family to find natural areas that are not listed on park websites or don’t have signs for them on the interstate. We’ve discovered waterfalls in southern California, hidden bays in Cape Cod, and small 10-acre patches of woods in the middle of our city. We get to experience all of this because of a skill I learned in grade school."

Additionally, paper maps are good for emergencies – and I think current circumstances are an excellent reminder of how rapidly unexpected events can derail one's usual way of life. Fortunately the pandemic has not affected GPS satellites or Internet connections, but my point is that it's good to be prepared with old-fashioned skills that can get you out of a mess without requiring a smartphone.

Last but not least, paper maps provide powerful perspective on one's position in the world relative to other places. It sparks 'big picture' thinking, showing kids that there's a much bigger world out there and helping to orient them within it. So, now is a good time to pull out those dusty old maps and lay them on the kitchen table. Let your kids see where they are and dream about where they'd like to go. Plot out your next hike, camping trip, or microadventure, and give yourselves something to look forward to.