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Connecting with place through mapping

Instruction

A major component of environmental education is learning about place and through place. To ground one’s learning in place gives it context. What skills and mindsets enhance place-based learning? This and similar questions are valuable for all environmental educators to consider. As a result of own questioning, I have been diving into an exploration of the use of maps and mapping skills to support a range of student learning.

mapping with studentsMapping fosters many important skills for students including collaboration and critical thinking. Mapping also requires thinking differently about place. We must look at ourselves relative to our surroundings. This is true in the creation of maps, but also in using maps for wayfinding and navigating. To create and use maps requires taking information from the real world and changing it into more abstract representations and vice versa. Mapping can be used artistically, analytically, personally, collaboratively, or all of these at the same time. Because of their tremendous variety and utility, it is worth considering the value that maps might have as a tool to enhance place-based learning. What considerations should educators have when using maps with students?

David Sobel, author of Mapmaking with Children illustrates both the challenge and beauty that can emerge from using maps with young people. “We do a disservice to children when we jump in too quickly at a prematurely abstract level in map reading and mapmaking. It’s important to have children begin mapmaking the way they begin drawing; maps and drawings are representations of things that are emotionally important to children...children’s maps represent their experiences of beauty, secrecy, adventure, and comfort” (1998, p 5). To skip practicing mapping skills on subjects close to a child’s heart might have a negative effect; mapping loses its relevance and they may miss out on the chance to acquire mapping skills in a natural way.

Sobel goes on to recommend an “expanding horizons” approach to using mapping with children. This approach takes into account the developmental progression of spatial learning. Mohan and Mohan (2013) add to this by advocating for younger children between the ages of 3 and 6 years to use mapping in a way that complements their largely tactile approach to learning. Maps should be big so that children can explore them with their whole bodies. Subjects should be places that are familiar, such as home and school. Between the ages 7 and 9 years children can begin using maps in slightly more abstract ways, including the use of intuitive symbols (i.e. for legends). Mapping content can begin to move outward and reflect neighborhoods, communities, and other places that children experience routinely. By 10 years old, the expanding of horizons continues as children are able to comprehend and construct maps that are more and more abstract, using symbolism that might not directly relate to what’s being depicted. Content again expands outward to cover watersheds, bioregion, and beyond.

In my own teaching I have been using mapping as a way to facilitate interdisciplinary thinking and transfer of learning with 4th-6th grade students. Maps have proven instrumental in bringing alive conversations of natural history, indigenous history, and colonial history of Seattle. Looking at maps across time illustrates how much the region has changed through such actions as the dredging and straightening of the Duwamish River, the lowering of Lake Washington from the creation of the Ballard locks, and the loss of numerous streams, wetlands, and other small waterways.

In this lesson, maps become a way to tie together conceptions of the natural world and human communities -key components in our working definition of place. Looking at the power of human impact, students can then begin to think of how they personally and collectively fit into this discussion. Each of them have spent significant parts of their lives in the places represented on those maps. In this way mapping highlights equity and inclusion. They allow students to become part of the conversation and discover how their ideas and their voice connect to the world.

Maps are representations of place, but they can be so much more than that. They can translate information across scale, time, and culture. They are versatile because they can be objective, and yet they can be expressions one’s creativity and imagination. If we as educators put care and intention in how we share mapping with students, they can begin to discover mapping as an empowering and valuable tool for understanding the world.

References:

Mohan, Audrey and Mohan, Lindsey. (2013) Spatial Thinking About Maps: Development of 
 Concepts and Skills Across the Early Years. National Geographic Education.

Sobel, David. (1998) Mapmaking with Children: Sense of Place Education for the Early 
 Elementary Years. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann

    

A major component of environmental education is learning about place and through place. To ground one’s learning in place gives it context. What skills and mindsets enhance place-based learning? This and similar questions are valuable for all environmental educators to consider. As a result of own questioning, I have been diving into an exploration of the use of maps and mapping skills to support a range of student learning.

mapping with studentsMapping fosters many important skills for students including collaboration and critical thinking. Mapping also requires thinking differently about place. We must look at ourselves relative to our surroundings. This is true in the creation of maps, but also in using maps for wayfinding and navigating. To create and use maps requires taking information from the real world and changing it into more abstract representations and vice versa. Mapping can be used artistically, analytically, personally, collaboratively, or all of these at the same time. Because of their tremendous variety and utility, it is worth considering the value that maps might have as a tool to enhance place-based learning. What considerations should educators have when using maps with students?

David Sobel, author of Mapmaking with Children illustrates both the challenge and beauty that can emerge from using maps with young people. “We do a disservice to children when we jump in too quickly at a prematurely abstract level in map reading and mapmaking. It’s important to have children begin mapmaking the way they begin drawing; maps and drawings are representations of things that are emotionally important to children...children’s maps represent their experiences of beauty, secrecy, adventure, and comfort” (1998, p 5). To skip practicing mapping skills on subjects close to a child’s heart might have a negative effect; mapping loses its relevance and they may miss out on the chance to acquire mapping skills in a natural way.

Sobel goes on to recommend an “expanding horizons” approach to using mapping with children. This approach takes into account the developmental progression of spatial learning. Mohan and Mohan (2013) add to this by advocating for younger children between the ages of 3 and 6 years to use mapping in a way that complements their largely tactile approach to learning. Maps should be big so that children can explore them with their whole bodies. Subjects should be places that are familiar, such as home and school. Between the ages 7 and 9 years children can begin using maps in slightly more abstract ways, including the use of intuitive symbols (i.e. for legends). Mapping content can begin to move outward and reflect neighborhoods, communities, and other places that children experience routinely. By 10 years old, the expanding of horizons continues as children are able to comprehend and construct maps that are more and more abstract, using symbolism that might not directly relate to what’s being depicted. Content again expands outward to cover watersheds, bioregion, and beyond.

In my own teaching I have been using mapping as a way to facilitate interdisciplinary thinking and transfer of learning with 4th-6th grade students. Maps have proven instrumental in bringing alive conversations of natural history, indigenous history, and colonial history of Seattle. Looking at maps across time illustrates how much the region has changed through such actions as the dredging and straightening of the Duwamish River, the lowering of Lake Washington from the creation of the Ballard locks, and the loss of numerous streams, wetlands, and other small waterways.

In this lesson, maps become a way to tie together conceptions of the natural world and human communities -key components in our working definition of place. Looking at the power of human impact, students can then begin to think of how they personally and collectively fit into this discussion. Each of them have spent significant parts of their lives in the places represented on those maps. In this way mapping highlights equity and inclusion. They allow students to become part of the conversation and discover how their ideas and their voice connect to the world.

Maps are representations of place, but they can be so much more than that. They can translate information across scale, time, and culture. They are versatile because they can be objective, and yet they can be expressions one’s creativity and imagination. If we as educators put care and intention in how we share mapping with students, they can begin to discover mapping as an empowering and valuable tool for understanding the world.

References:

Mohan, Audrey and Mohan, Lindsey. (2013) Spatial Thinking About Maps: Development of 
 Concepts and Skills Across the Early Years. National Geographic Education.

Sobel, David. (1998) Mapmaking with Children: Sense of Place Education for the Early 
 Elementary Years. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann

    

About the Author
Tom Stonehocker

Tom Stonehocker is a naturalist and educator from the Seattle area. He is currently an instructor and graduate student at Islandwood on Bainbridge Island, earning a Masters in Education through the University of Washington.