Toward a Well-oriented Childhood

I will confess that I was in college before I “got” maps. I don’t know if this coveted ignorance was because I was not curious enough to care about my bearings or my place in the landscape relative to anyplace else. Or did I find compass bearings difficult–me versus the map–and feel inadequate and not interested because maps “threatened” me in some way? I really don’t know.

I do know many adults never care for map reading, will defer to someone else–the designated “navigator” on a trip–because they don’t want anything to do with that kind of geographic detail. They might be able to follow word directions fine, but put a map in their hands and it might as well be written in Klingon.

I suppose there is a kind of abstract thinking that is necessary to comprehend “you are HERE” kinds of information. YOU aren’t THERE, but if you want to have a starting place, you have to imagine an objective-model you, a present, a here-and-now, that is the first step to moving in some direction in your travels–real or cartographic.

What started this ramble was a reminder about an incident I recorded briefly on my laptop from our South Dakota trip back in May.

abbytsugatreat.jpgWhile we were there, I was exploring the Badlands on Google Earth. Seven year old grand daughter Abby walked by, and the usual question-barrage began.

I told her I was looking at a map of the part of the country where she lived. I figured that would be enough to make her eyes cross. But no, she wanted to know if we could see her town (Rapid City). I zoomed maybe 20 thousand feet up above her neighborhood.

“Where’s my house?” she asked, and we typed in her address and went down to seven thousand feet. Right away, she picked out her back yard, driveway, that sort of thing, looking straight down from above.

“Go that way to Jenny’s house” she said. I figured she made a lucky guess about the direction because she seemed to know which way to move.

“Now find my school” she ordered, and proceeded to tell me “that way”, then “more, more” and “STOP! That’s our playground.”

abbycreek.jpgI was surprised how well she put herself in the map, compared pictorial representation from an uncommon, novel vantage point to realities on the ground, with an appropriate sense of up-down left-right software movements as it related to her physical geography. For a seven year old, that was to me a surprising ability.

Abby is no stranger to computers, to “mousing” for instance, where hand movements are representational of screen movements which in turn relate to “maps” of virtual spaces of computer games. I wonder if, in spite all the obvious negatives of computer use in young people, if “getting the map” is one benefit?

Now, if we could just get her outside to play in that neighborhood shown on Google Earth and not just when she comes to Goose Creek.

Further reading (mostly pre-2000 sources but some good ones) on computers in early education from Learning in the Real World

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. I love reading maps. And I rarely get lost. I think some of us just think with a more spatial sense than others. I have some antique maps of the area where I live that adorn my walls. One was made in 1777, and it’s really more of a collector’s item than a useful map.

    I can’t remember just when I learned to read topographic maps, but I love those most of all. I think I love maps because they help me imagine and understand rather than merely know.

  2. Like Pablo, I have had a love of maps for longer than I can remember. As a youngster of 8 or so I “navigated” my family on a trip from Texas to Ohio and back. I remember having a map collection when everyone else was collecting baseball cards and comic books. Even today I can get lost for hours exploring in Google Earth.

    But as for this younger generations intuitive understanding of navigating on a map…Chalk it up to computers…Mainly computer games, most of which give you an overhead view of your playing “piece” with a view of the surrounding “map”.

    I need to run now and check the weather model maps for the current track of our next weather problem, Edouard.

  3. A favorite childhood activity on a hot summer afternoon was to take out my colored pencils, find a cool spot, and copy a map from the encyclopedia. Weird, I know.

    I have had people be amazed how I can take a strange country road and not get totally lost. But I can picture a map of the main highways in my head. As long as the sun is out, I am good to go.

    We are finally getting broadband access in our area. It will be over the powerlines. Hopefully, in a few weeks, I will be able to play with Google Earth. I have been envious.

  4. I too was the navigator for our family trip each year from Tennessee to northern Wisconsin because of my fascination with maps. I still love them, and I get to have my nose in them a lot as we take the “blue highways” all around the US in our small RV for months at a time. Our latest trip we had a GPS, but the map is what I use when we are outside of cities.