“Are We There Yet?” Map Reading for Kids, Part 2

Geek Culture

The development of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and Global Positioning System (GPS) devices has changed the way we plan and undertake travel. And now, when it comes to navigation, most people rely on Google Earth and Tom Tom in their iPhones, or Karen Jacobsen telling them how to get to where they want to go. The implications of all this was brought home to me by a randomly overheard conversation and a journey I undertook with the kids.

Image: Luke Bennett

About three months ago, I was out in my front yard, preparing to take the kids for a long car journey. As I was packing the car, my neighbor and his visitor started to discuss how to get back to the city from our little town. What struck me was that the visitor said that he did not know the way. For me the obvious answer was look it up on Google Earth, or at least look at a map.

The next day, a couple of hours into the car journey, I started to hear the familiar cry of “Are we there yet?” from my daughter. My son was OK, as he had snaffled my iPhone, and was busy undertaking virtual undead-mitigating horticultural activities.

However my daughter was hot, bored, and not enjoying the journey. But more importantly she did not know where she was, or how long the journey would take. The only problem with this was that, so to speak, I was in the same boat. I knew I was on the right road. The road signs which we occasionally passed told me the route number, and the distance signs told me that we were slowly progressing towards our goal.

I did a quick cost-benefit analysis. Pull over, stop, wrestle iPhone from grasp of son, wait for Google Maps to load, enter our current location and the destination, and wait for the little gremlins inside to spit out a number which could correlate with how long it could take us. Or conversely, I could keep on driving, fob her off with an answer which sort of sounded right, and wait till she complained of feeling “car sick” and we had to stop.

Instead, I did neither. “Hey, can you read a map?” I asked her.

“Um, no….”

“Well, if you could read a map you could tell me if we were there yet.”

Silence, and the virtual sound of gears running around in my daughter’s head ensued. After my son had passed the state road atlas to his sister, I got her to turn to the page which covered our current location. She quickly located the last major city we had traveled through, and she then identified the road on which we were currently traveling.

We were getting closer to the answer to her question. At that point, I could see coming up a distance sign, which told us how far we were from the towns and cities that in front of us.

“Hey, can you see that sign coming up?” I asked her.

“Yep,” was the confident reply.

“That sign contains the information you need. It will tell you how far we are from the next town.” Once she read the distance sign, it was a trivial exercise for her to work out where we were approximately on the map. From there it was a simple matter for her to take the average speed at which we were traveling, then do the mental arithmetic in her head so she could work out how long it was before we got to the next town.

Once we got there, I talked her through finding a public toilet and a playground, so we could have a rest stop and something to eat. Once we got back in the car, I handed her the responsibility of working out where we drove. Which, in the scheme of things, was not too big a deal. We just had to get around a moderate-sized city, and then along a singular coast road. If we got lost in the city, I was not too fussed. I’ve done that myself numerous times, and managed to navigate my way out.

But it turned out OK. My daughter was able to work out where we where, give me advice as to how long it was before the next major intersection or township. The journey was a dream. I had a daughter that could now read a map, and I had managed to delegate navigation, so that I could concentrate on the important things, like driving and daydreaming.

Now this might all sound like a self indulgent rave about how clever my daughter is, but I can assure you that this is not the case. The point is this: I now know that my daughter can a read a map, and if, some time in the future, she finds that the data set of the GPS device she is using is incorrect, or it just plain fails, she has a Plan B.

I am now planning on teaching the kids how to use landmarks, such as hills, mountains and lakes, as visual confirmation of where they are. Maps can become outdated as well, but the real issue here is the implications of reliance upon a device, without having any introspective understanding of a spatial relationship with the world around us. GPS does make it easy, but it does so with the potential cost of leaving us blind as to where we actually are. If all our kids see us do is plug a destination into a device mounted on the dashboards of our cars, they will not think to do any more themselves.

However, if our kids have an intrinsic comprehension of the geography of the landscape in which they live, and the ability to read a map, they will be empowered and able to make choices. After all, sometimes the data set is not always 100% accurate. I should note that I am tempted to make a joke about Skynet and reliance upon satellites, but… not today.

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