Maps for kids

Walking to school was common and could be again. The Ride or Walk to School program encourages kids to ride to school by teaching them the skills they need to do it. Active Streets aims to improve the paths around schools to make it safe to do so.


  1. Why maps?
  2. Naive maps
  3. Modern maps
  4. The challenge of maps
  5. Ride or Walk to School

Why maps?

Maps are abstract and hard to read. Even adults find it hard to read maps and there is no shame in admitting this. Maps are an important and practical application of mathematics. Drawing and reading maps are something primary school children will learn. It is a form of literacy, just with pictures rather than words.

Naive maps

Ask a child to draw a map and they will draw a picture of themselves, their toys, their friends, or their parents. A map is what is important. If you ask them to imagine it from above you will still get people, pets, flowers and trees, with the size and prominence having something to do with importance. It has nothing to do with the scale. If you tell them to leave out friends, pets, parents, and toys, they at first perplexed. Only when they are older will they do better.

The earliest maps were not to scale and told a story of what they knew what they imagined. They were very childlike in their thinking. Jerusalem was at the centre, and what they knew radiated around that, roughly indicating the direction. On the edge were pictures of monsters and seas serpents. What else could live there? These maps were more like the subway map for the London Tube – certainly not to scale. Things that belonged together logically were grouped together.

Modern maps

What we understand as a map today follows ergonomic principles and is constructed with a strict set of rules.

  • A plan perspective – Modern maps show the picture “from above”. Only the tops of things are shown.
  • Specific things – Only certain types of things are found on a map: roads, rivers, buildings, points of interest. Other things are left out: people, trees, cars, animals, etc.
  • Symbolic representation – We do not draw most things the way they are but with symbols that mean certain things explained in a legend: rivers are blue lines, roads are black lines. Houses, shops, schools, or playgrounds are shown as strand symbols that are always the same no matter how different they may really look.
  • Drawn to scale – A map shows something much bigger. 1cm on the map is 100m street length in reality. Once this has been decided, it applies everywhere on the map and cannot be changed. This is hard to do.
  • Orientation – The top of the map is usually standardised to face north. This makes the map useful for navigation in the real world.

The challenge of maps

Start learning the idea of a map by drawing a picture of the school and marking on it a treasure you have buried. The maps are swapped with another group, so they can go find it. The children will learn that interacting and communicating their ideas with a map is not so easy – and reading it just as hard.

Estimating and measuring distance is done in a similarly experimental way. Throw a ball, estimate how far away it is when it stops. Measure it. Errors are assured, so make sure to make it fun and free of frustrations.

The concept if north is a rather strange concept. What is north precisely? And what good is it when I cannot tell by looking out of the window? Often a map will not have an orientation and we stand there, swinging around in circles, confused, until it makes sense or somebody explains it to us. All too often that extends to adulthood. Just recently, there was an article of a man with a new GPS device that got lost in the forest because he could not make sense of the map.

The scale may be provided by recognising something familiar which provides a sense of size. But this is never easy to do. Maps can be confusing because they leave a lot out. Is the building that I see the destination or the one behind it?

If kids do the trip every day, even a young child is pretty good at telling you when they need to get off the bus. They do not use a map but landmarks and memory. They learn from experience. They remember how to walk home.

Ride or Walk to School

The Ride or Walk to School program introduces kids to maps. Kids are taught how to get to school by being shown how, so the use of these maps is really a classroom exercise in primary school. Maths literacy is a curriculum requirement and finds many applications in high school.

The Physical Activity Foundation developed the Ride or Walk to School program for the ACT Government.

“The Physical Activity Foundation is a registered Health Promotion Charity based in the ACT and our goal is to reduce the incidence of sedentary lifestyle diseases in children.”

About Us, Physical Activity Foundation

Here is an example of the map for Harrison Primary School.

Draw your own route from home to school. Ride or Walk to School
The pink dots are drop-off points for kids to walk to school. Ride or Walk to School
Walking part-way from drop-off points is encouraged. Ride or Walk to School
Getting started is always the hardest. Walking to school starts with the first step. Ride or Walk to School
Kids need to be taught everything. All these things would be covered in class first. Ride or Walk to School

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