young girl points to United States on map

Map It! with Young Children

By Christina Riska, National Geographic Education

Do you remember the first map you saw?

When a map of the world showed the United States in pink, did you think it was literally a pink country? You may not now, but this is a common misconception when kids ages 3 to 6 see areas displayed this way. As adults, maps—whether print or digital—are a part of our everyday lives. But how do we first learn to read and interpret them? And what common mistakes do we make along the way? The answers to these questions have implications across subject areas. So whether you teach language arts or science or social studies, it’s critical to understand how children first develop these spatial skills.

young girl points to United States on map
Photograph courtesy ND Johnston/Shutterstock

Spatial thinking is arguably one of the most important ways of thinking for a child to develop as he or she grows. All individuals, to some degree, use this type of thinking as they interact with the world around them. It’s a way of thinking about the world and interacting within the world. Spatial thinking involves visualizing, interpreting, and reasoning using location, place, distance, direction, relationships, movement, and change in space. Children need to learn not just spatial concepts and skills, but also spatial language. The benefits are enormous. A student who has acquired robust spatial thinking skills and language is at a distinct advantage in our increasingly global and technologically interconnected society.

Here’s a glimpse of what this looks like at different developmental stages:

How a child in Grades preK-1 (ages 3 to 6) might interpret magnitude:

Conceptual Understanding → Understand magnitude of objects and associated vocabulary (e.g., bigger or smaller).

Possible Misconceptions →  May confuse the scale of an object with the number of objects (numerosity).    

How a child in Grades 2-4 (ages 7 to 9) might interpret identity and location:

Conceptual Understanding → Accurately locate places and landscape features on a map, but perform better with familiar locales rather than foreign locales.

Possible Misconceptions → Inconsistently use landmarks to verify locations.

How a child in Grades 5-6+ (ages 10 and older) might interpret overlay and complex spatial concepts:

Conceptual Understanding → May incidentally understand the concept of overlay without formal instruction (about half of all Grade 6 students do so).

Possible Misconceptions → May not understand “layers” without direct instruction, support, and guidance.

Here at National Geographic, we have created a free collection—Map Skills for Elementary Students—that addresses the spatial thinking abilities and the developmental appropriateness of young children.

We would love to hear if you find this collection useful, or if you have your own examples of how you help your elementary students understand spatial concepts and relationships.

Click here to read the full article.


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