LEARN NC was a program of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Education from 1997 – 2013. It provided lesson plans, professional development, and innovative web resources to support teachers, build community, and improve K-12 education in North Carolina. Learn NC is no longer supported by the School of Education – this is a historical archive of their website.

Now that we know what students can’t do, how do we help them develop the skills to read and interpret maps successfully?

You may not be surprised to learn that most of the research and literature on this topic stops short of offering actual suggestions. Worse news is that most of the elementary lesson plans I found that purported to develop map skills did not, in fact, really develop those skills. A lot of activities that use maps assume spatial reasoning skills and an understanding of map symbols and conventions without actually providing instruction.

Lynn Liben, a psychologist at Penn State University who has researched children’s spatial thinking abilities, offers these recommendations for teachers:

  • Beware unjustified assumptions about learners’ basic representational and spatial understanding, and assess and teach accordingly.
  • Aim for diversity in maps and map functions.
  • Link maps to the real world (not just to other representations).
  • Look for opportunities to encourage map-related experiences.1

With those points in mind, let’s look at a traditional map-skills activity and see what we can do to improve it.

Activity: Mapping your classroom (and beyond)

A common activity for building map skills is to ask students to draw a map of their classroom. I like this sort of activity because it gets kids actually doing something instead of just looking at maps and talking about them.

What seems usually to be missing from that activity, though — at least as it’s published in lesson-plan form — is assessment and follow-up. It’s offered as a one-shot lesson, rather than as a process of skills-building. Moreover, I rarely see any guidelines for assessment. As a result, it doesn’t do as much to teach spatial thinking skills as I think it could.

Instead of drawing just one map, we’re going to draw many different maps of the same space, at different scales and from different perspectives. Each exercise will address one or more specific spatial thinking or map-reading skills. Some of these activities are suitable for elementary students, some for middle school and older, so use your judgment in which you assign and in what order. I’ll also let you decide for yourself how to manage your classroom — whether to have students work individually or in groups, for example — although I’ve offered suggestions in places.

Mapping the classroom

For the first three mapping activities, give students a clear set of “required elements” — objects that must appear on their map, such as the door, the teacher’s desk, individual student desks, and so on. Anything not on the list is optional, but shouldn’t interfere with someone’s ability to identify the required elements.

  1. Symbolic representation. First, ask students to draw maps of the classroom using a consistent symbolic representation. They can choose the symbols — desks can be squares or stars or cartoon monkeys, as long as they’re consistent and clearly labeled in a key. If students have an opportunity to present and compare their work, you can have a discussion about what sorts of symbols work best and why it may or may not be a good idea to use cartoon monkeys to represent desks. There may not be right and wrong answers, but students should come to see that there are better and worse ones.
  2. Scale. Give the students rulers, yardsticks, or tape measures, and have them draw their maps on graph paper. They may choose a scale for their map, but must list the scale at the bottom. To the best of their abilities, students must draw the sizes and shapes of objects and the distance between them to scale. Assess on accuracy and consistency.
  3. Viewing angle. Have students draw maps of the classroom from various perspectives. For example:

    • a fly on the ceiling
    • an ant on the floor
    • the teacher at the front of the room
    • the student at his or her desk

    This would be a good activity to do in groups; the groups can then present and compare their solutions. Accuracy is a virtue here, but so is imaginative problem-solving.

Any of these activities can be repeated as needed or as time permits — in fact they should be if at all possible. (We don’t expect kids to learn to write with just one essay, do we?) To make that more interesting, try the extensions below (”Beyond the classroom”).


In daily life, we most often use maps for wayfinding — finding our way from one place to another. Being able to read maps is, obviously, important to that activity, but so is being able to create them. How often have you been asked to give directions to your school or your home? How often have you been given bad directions by somebody else?

For this activity, we’re again going to map the classroom, but for specific fictional scenarios involving wayfinding. We’ll drop the list of required elements; students should decide which elements are worth including on their maps — and should be prepared to defend their choices.

Give students any or all of the following scenarios, and ask them to draw a suitable map of the classroom:

  1. A robotic toy car located at (the student’s desk) needs to find its way to the door to the classroom. The car cannot recognize objects, so the leg of a chair could be a flagpole or an upright magic marker, for all it knows. It can, however, measure distance and angle precisely. Draw a map that will guide the car to its destination.
  2. An ant has just crawled in the window and wants to find the sandwich in the bottom drawer of the teacher’s desk. The ant can recognize objects like desks and chairs, so you can give it a key (it’s a smart ant), but it doesn’t understand distance or angle. Draw a map that will guide the ant to its destination. (Note that this map requires all three dimensions to be represented!)
  3. Draw a seating chart that will enable a substitute teacher to quickly identify students. (Students will, of course, see that this isn’t really to their advantage.)
  4. Draw a seating chart that will enable the student to quickly identify other students, especially the students nearest him or her. Note that this should not be the same as the chart in #3! In reading the chart, the student shouldn’t first have to find himself or herself; the student’s perspective should be obvious. (How? That’s the challenge.)

Beyond the classroom

That’s a lot of mapping activities, but you may find that you want to repeat one or a few of them. Here are some ways to extend the activities beyond the classroom.

  1. Repeat any of the above activities, but for the entire school, a wing of the school, or the school grounds. Work gradually outward from your classroom.
  2. Repeat any of the above activities on a field trip. For example, after a trip to the zoo, ask students to draw two maps of the zoo: one for an elephant trying to escape, and one for the zookeeper in a helicopter trying to catch it.
  3. Ask students to draw a map from birds-eye perspective of a place they’ve visited only on foot.

For inspiration

As students work on these maps, you may want to give them examples of clever or surprising maps as inspiration. (Or, you may decide to hold them out for the end.) Here are a few suggestions:

  • The azimuthal equidistant projection of the earth’s surface. It looks better than it sounds, and you can give students extra credit for accurate pronunciation. (This might be good inspiration for drawing the seating chart in #4 under Wayfinding.)
  • The map of the London Tube (subway) system, which strips out all information other than tube lines, names of stations, and a few key landmarks to make a compact, readable map — though one in which distances are not at all to scale.
  • A similar diagram of the Interstate Highway System. (Discussion topic: For what is this useful? Is it useful for anything, or does it just look cool?)
  • The Secret Spaces of San Francisco challenges you to think about what exactly is worth marking on a map.
  • For more inspiration, peruse Frank Jacobs’ Strange Maps, a blog about… strange maps. Many of them beautiful and fascinating. Others completely ludicrous.

North Carolina curriculum alignment

North Carolina Professional Teaching Standards (2009)

  • Goal 4: Teachers facilitate learning for their students.
    • Objective 4.05: Teachers help students develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills.