February 22, 2008

Putting Your Neighborhood on the Map

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As the middle of three brothers, 5-year-old Nolan sometimes -- okay, maybe often -- gets lost in our family's hustle. But his tendency to broadcast random facts to the family made me suspect there was a leader hidden beneath that introverted exterior.

On a hike at a nearby conservation area, I handed Nolan the trail map, which featured multi-colored elements depicting green trees, blue water, and brown trail. He was just on the cusp of reading, and I wanted to strengthen that connection between images and text that is so important to early readers.

He took to map reading like a healthy kid to germ-laden doctor's office toys. Once he connected what he observed to the symbols on the map, Nolan became our guide for the hike, pointing out with authority when the trail would curve near water and when to expect a stand of trees.

After returning home, Nolan carried that trail map everywhere. I asked him if he wanted to learn more about maps, and his enthusiastic "Yeah!" burst forth before I could finish the question.

"Would you like to draw a map of our neighborhood?" I asked. Without replying, Nolan ran to get paper and a pencil. His tongue sticking out of the corner of his mouth, Nolan drew that familiar rectangle/triangle combo.

"Dis," he said, pointing to the center of the paper, "is our house."

"And where is Carol's house?" I asked, referring to our neighbor. He grabbed the sheet of paper and drew a house next to ours. We talked about the house on the other side of us, and the houses across the street, and Nolan drew those, too, with a gray line in between to represent the street. "It's a hiking map of our neighborhood!" he said proudly.

To round out what he'd learned so far, I went to Google Maps (www.maps.google.com), typed in our home address, and found a map of our neighborhood, including landmarks like his school, train tracks, and our Victorian town square. I printed it out in grayscale, so that he could color it with his crayons.

While I'm proud of the connections Nolan made between the printed page and the real world, I'm also thrilled that stuck-in-the-middle Nolan is now at the front of the line.

Do you use maps as a teaching tool with kids? Click the comments link below to share ideas.

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Putting Your Neighborhood on the Map

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