Back to Basics: Teach Your Children to Read a Road Map

Being able to read a map is an important life skill

By Mary Shoemaker September 8, 2020

Remember the days before GPS, when your parents would pull an actual road map out of the glove box, unfold it into a comically large size and use it to navigate to your destination?

Now tell me, have your children ever seen an actual road map? If your answer is no, it's a great time to introduce one. The skill of map reading is important, and beyond teaching children how to get from point A to point B without technology, map reading also helps grow their spatial reasoning skills when children imagine and visualize the positions of objects, their shapes, and their relations to one another.

Even if your child is too young to use an actual map, you can still introduce basic skills.

Here's how to get started:

1. Start small

Rather than overwhelming your child with a giant map that unfolds to cover half of your kitchen table, start with just a small section, preferably of an area your family already knows. You can probably find what you need online.

2. Teach symbols

The key, also called the legend, is a good place to start. You can also talk about common road map features: a red line indicates a major interstate, hatched lines are used for railroads, triangles mark recreation areas, etc.   

3. Explain the scale

This is how maps indicate distance. Usually miles can be measured in inches or centimeters and will give you a good idea of the distance between two destinations. 

4. Orient the map

The compass will show which direction you're heading and give you perspective in reading the map.

5. Practice in your neighborhood

Give your children a local road map and let them follow along during your drive. By letting them get more comfortable using a map in a place they know, they'll be ready to take on locations they haven't been to before in time for your next road trip.

6. Draw a map with your child

Start with rooms in your home and then expand to include locations your child knows within your neighborhood. Keep it simple with basic shapes and label things important to them, such as their bed or the swings at the playground. Then, take a walk together with the map and let them suggest new landmarks to add.

7. Let them lead the way

When you're out and about in your neighborhood, let your kids practice finding the correct route. Ask them things like, "To get to the park, should we turn right or left at this stop sign?"

8. Practice using spatial directions

Hide an object in the room and help them find it using spatial directions, such as "Check behind the couch," or "Look under the blanket." 

It's the perfect time to get back to the basics and teach kids how to read a map as many big family vacations have been replaced with road trips. Teaching your kids to read a road map means that every time your kids ask, "Are we there yet?" you can pull out the map and let them figure it out themselves.


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