Mythical Cartography: A Creative Way to Foster an Explorer Mindset

This post was co-written by educators Nate Vanderzee, Lauren Sinclair, and Michael Camponovo, who took inspiration from one another’s work on mythical cartography.

Nate Vanderzee:

It was May 2015, and I had a small but growing YouTube channel about tabletop role-playing games (RPGs) I had started one year prior. In these games, it is common for game masters to create their own fantasy worlds for players to explore—a sort of creative playground for the storytelling that takes place in tabletop RPG adventures. After seeing some others try their hand at drawing maps of the worlds they had created, I was inspired to pick up a pencil and try it myself! And why not turn the camera on?

That first map video was a game-changer, as I discovered a passion for mythical cartography I hadn’t known was there. Additionally, the video (which became a series) was clearly also helping others discover that same passion.

While I was well into my 30s at this point, the seeds had been planted for me as a child. I had always loved to read my dad’s National Geographic magazines, including poring over the incredible maps. Meanwhile, reading books like The Hobbit and The Chronicles of Narnia drew me into the power of maps to help imagine a different time and place. I read these books from front to back, but I always dog-eared the map page near the front for frequent reference. It also helps that I’d always loved to draw; 13-year-old Nate was determined to be a comic book artist. Ultimately, I enjoy my day job as a social studies and video production teacher. I’m also glad, however, to have discovered such a wonderful way to continue my creative doodles.

Nate demonstrates a mapping technique in a video on his YouTube channel.

So the cartography videos took off, and I’m happy to say my work has inspired countless others to engage in this act of creation that is both liberating and technical. While in my social studies classes we certainly use maps, they are very much grounded in reality. I’m glad, however, that other teachers, like Lauren, are finding ways to use my work in fantasy maps in schools! Thanks to them, I’m starting to see all kinds of new possibilities. Maps are drawings, but they are also rich with history, anthropology, and future possibility. They are creative outlets that allow for a sort of wild freedom or scientific specificity, depending on personal preference or the stage of creation. It is such a joy seeing both young and old get lost in maps of their own making.

Lauren Sinclair:

After teaching various subjects and age groups for 10 years, I discovered an opportunity to teach digital mapping to middle schoolers. I began crafting both computer and hands-on activities, and my students were immediately enthusiastic about all of them. After experiencing one of my classes, an eighth grader approached me about creating a one-week art experience based on a video series she had found on YouTube. I took one look at Nate’s “How to Draw a Fantasy Map” playlist and was hooked. Not only did the activities look fun, but they also included all the essential cartography concepts I wanted my students to explore. I divided the playlist videos into daily tasks, gathered materials, and opened enrollment for a spring break “camp.” Enrollment filled immediately!

What followed was a fun, relaxing week of students sprawled all over the floor of my classroom, poring over giant pieces of butcher paper that they turned into the most impressive fantasy maps I’d ever seen students create. It was a true “flipped classroom” experience; Nate was the teacher and I was his sidekick in the classroom, demonstrating techniques in slow motion as requested, working alongside the kids and making sure they were stocked on supplies and kept cozy with good music and tea. I also broke up the occasional bean fights that erupted on day one. Watch this video from Nate, and you’ll see how those happened.

Lauren’s students use techniques that Nate described to make their own mythical maps. (Lauren Sinclair)

The camp was so popular that I started thinking about integrating the activities into my regular curriculum. After all, they’re a great way to teach core concepts of cartography, like thematic mapping. If I want to create a dark world of intrigue and evil, how can I communicate that story through mapmaking? What shape might my landforms take? What colors or shading might I select? What fonts and place-names might evoke a sense of danger? Going deeper, how can I connect to cartographic traditions and the human journey while taking a step forward, away from colonial perspectives that linger on some current maps? The possible conversations and lessons here are limitless. Mapmaking can help students develop a sense of responsibility and respect for other people, cultures, and the natural world, thus helping build an Explorer Mindset.

Students included geographic features such as coastlines and mountain ranges in their maps. (Lauren Sinclair)

I got the chance to add mythical cartography to my curriculum when COVID-19 closed our school in March 2020. My original plans were no longer practical and I needed a hands-on activity that used common household items to teach my sixth-grade class basic principles of design and cartography. I revisited Nate’s videos and introduced them to my students over Zoom—and they were enthralled! Each class turned into an eager show-and-tell of what students were learning about cartography: how to depict coastlines, relief, vegetation, waterways, and cultures. Even after we returned to campus the next year, I kept Nate’s “mythical carto” unit in my curriculum, and it has continued to be a school favorite. I also told Michael about this experience, which inspired him to turn it into a teacher training. 🗺

Michael Camponovo:

In my capacity as a GIS Outreach Coordinator and member of the Tennessee Geographic Alliance (TGA), I spend a lot of time working directly with K-12 teachers and students to help incorporate all aspects of geography in the classroom. Several years ago I had the good fortune to meet Lauren Sinclair at the ESRI User Conference, where I learned about her mythical cartography lesson. I immediately saw how we could use the lesson to teach not only about design and cartography but also about physical geography concepts like geomorphology, landforms, and climate patterns. I could not wait to apply Lauren’s ideas to teacher training here in East Tennessee.

Brian Smith, a local geography teacher and National Geographic Certified Educator, used Lauren’s suggestions and encouragement with his middle school students and experienced what it was like to have students fully engaged and applying their creative talents while also, secretly, learning. Working with the TGA and Oak Ridge Associated Universities, we hosted an in-person and virtual workshop for teachers in the summer of 2021. Over two days, we taught teachers methods of hand-drawn cartography, reviewed relevant physical geography concepts, explored historic and fictional maps for inspiration, and even had a virtual guest speaker who hand-draws fantasy maps. Through the support of a grant from Humanities Tennessee, we provided teachers with arts supplies and various books focused on fantasy mapping, which they were grateful to be able to take back to their classrooms. One participant said, “Thank you for supplying what my students need to draw maps! All the pencils, especially the class set of colored pencils, are much appreciated and will be put to good use next year!”

Teachers made their own fantasy maps during the workshop Michael organized. (Michael Camponovo)

Knowing that teachers would likely want to review the content from the workshop, we also built an interactive website with examples of student work, tutorial videos, historical and fictional maps, and more. You can explore it for yourself here.

For more ideas on how to promote the Explorer Mindset and geographic thinking in your teaching, enroll in one of National Geographic’s free professional learning courses for educators. From short, introductory courses to more in-depth, cohort-based offerings, there’s a course for every educator and every schedule. Register today!

Nate Vanderzee is a high school teacher as well as the creator of the YouTube channel WASD20. He specializes in tabletop role-playing games and fantasy cartography, and he lives with his family in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Lauren Sinclair maps and teaches mapping to K-12 teachers and students. She has seen the power of GIS mapping technology enrich classrooms of every kind, so why not introduce it to every classroom in the world? See what she is up to on Twitter @MrsSinclairMaps or at her website.

Michael Camponovo is the GIS Outreach Coordinator for the Geography Department at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Michael is also an instructor at the university, where he teaches his students how to use the power of location to answer questions and solve problems. You can find Michael on Twitter @mcamponovo or at

Headshots courtesy of subjects. Featured image courtesy of Lauren Sinclair

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