Photograph by Westend61 / Getty Images
Photograph by Westend61 / Getty Images

Kids can’t explore the world right now. Have them map it instead.

Plus, 9 ideas for creative maps

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Right now, your kids probably aren’t exploring like they were a few months ago. So give them another option: Have them explore the world by making maps.

Maps show more than how to get from Point A to Point B—they also tell a story. They can reveal the travel path of a bug, explore animal patterns in your neighborhood, or even envision a future world.

Mapmaking keeps kids’ brains active by promoting language, geography, history, and art skills. Using a different perspective to think about people and places inspires creativity, and understanding spatial relationships increases reasoning skills important for STEM learning.

And during this time of social distancing, maps might be more important than ever. “They can help kids discover other places and people,” says James Meacham, a cartographer and geographer with the University of Oregon. “Maps reinforce how we’re connected.”

Here are some ideas for creating maps that will get your kid on a new path of exploration.

Getting started

The first step is figuring out what your child wants to map. Obviously, maps can be geographic, but they can also inspire different kinds of stories. These non-geographic maps show how things connect: your family tree, ingredients for a clown-faced cupcake, or the mid-air path of a paper airplane.

Spark your children’s creative side by brainstorming ideas they want to express, from favorite animals to events to topics they want to explore. This will help them visualize and organize the ideas.

Then have kids decide on three to five features the map should show. For instance, if the map tracks ants on the sidewalk, does it need every plant or just green to represent them? Does every ant need to be drawn, or just the trail they followed? Thinking about these things allows children to tell their story without feeling overwhelmed. “Some maps include more information than others,” says Joanna Merson, a cartographer who develops interactive online maps for UO InfoGraphics Lab in Eugene, Oregon. “It just depends on what the map is trying to convey.”

Building the map

Maps need data, whether it’s how to get from one place to another, personal observations, weather patterns, or fictional news about Bigfoot sightings on your block.

Start by making a chart to gather or track information. “If your child is mapping backyard animals, note when and where they’re seen,” Merson says. Include observations about any patterns, such as if the animal is on the ground, hides in shadows, or makes noises in certain spots. Use that data to build the map.

Martha Sharma, a geography consultant from Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, suggests asking open-ended questions to help the child visualize the world or story, gather information, and express it on the map. “You might start the conversation with, Are there any rivers? Do all the people live in the city? Tell me about the monsters.” Open-ended questions often start with who, what, when, where, and why.

If children are starting from scratch, they can start with simple stick-art doodles. But it’s not cheating to look at what’s been done for inspiration. “Cartographers often begin with an existing map and then adapt it to share the story their way,” Meacham says.

Let the child’s imagination create the map. Whether it’s crayons or digital renderings, paper or cloth, photos or drawings … anything can make a map. (You can even create an “ancient” map by crumpling it up and dunking it in diluted tea—just make sure to test another piece of paper first.) “Children who prefer art might want to draw a chalk map on cement,” Sharma says. “A child who lives to build with Legos might prefer a map with precise measurements and many details.”

And don’t sweat things like exact distances or legends—just focus on the fun. “Encourage creativity rather than precise mapmaking or textbook-inspired skills,” Sharma says.

9 ideas for maps

Need a creative idea for a map? One of these will surely inspire your kid.

Track backyard or neighborhood wildlife. Map ants on the sidewalk, look for snail trails, or observe where squirrels move throughout the day or where dandelions grow. “This activity can also include their friends,” Sharma says. Kids can open a video chat to compare what they observed, and talk about the differences.

Map from your dog’s perspective. Think about where it likes to walk, sleep, and pee; where its doggie friends live; how often it visits its food bowl; and other things a dog would care about. (Come up with a cat-friendly map as well!)

Imagine a map. Friendly monsters in the neighborhood? Create a map based on made-up sightings of mythical creatures in your neighborhood.

Make a friendship tree. This would include a kid’s BFFs, plus things like when and where they met, favorite moments, funny stories, and other connections.

Solve a mystery. Check under the bed or couch cushions for something that doesn’t belong, like a penny or dirty sock. Map how it might have gotten there, thinking about everything from supply-chain trucks to the bottom of a shoe. Make the tale even more exciting by adding unlikely types of transportation along the way, such as space aliens or dinosaur delivery.

Map for the future. Have kids think about what they want people a hundred years from now to know about, then create a map with key locations of things important to them: school, hangouts, BFFs’ homes, where something awesome happened, and other personal stories.

Or maybe way in the future. Map your city—but what it’ll look like in 50, 100, or 1,000 years from now.

Make mash-up maps. Put your favorite town locations in a book character’s neighborhood, on Mars, or in a famous place like ancient Egypt.

Design an aspirational map. If your kids have a place they’ve always wanted to go, have them find out who lives there (people and animals), what food grows there, the weather, and other things that make this location special.