Mapmaking from the Inside Out:

The Cartography of Childhood

by David Sobel

     It was our heart's desire all the autumn of fourth grade. The corn fields, overgrown pastures, thickets, and wetlands of the old farm stretched out just behind Kevin's house. They were strictly off limits, of course. No Trespassing signs hung on the barbed wire at the far end of our kickball left field. But this patchwork of countryside lured us as if we were compass needles and there was a giant horseshoe magnet buried in a field-stone root cellar somewhere out there.

     Greens Farms, our little corner of the Connecticut coastline, had undergone its first phase of suburbanization by the mid 1950s. The shoreline was mostly claimed by elegant seaside mansions, but the interior was still a mix of scruffy wild places and casually tended farms. We had an array of haunts--the salt marshes and phragmites thickets of Sherwood Island State Park, the tidal flats, and the haunted house--lair of hoboes and ghosts--with its decaying outbuildings and greenbrier thickets. We cruised the railroad station, the railroad tracks lined with gravel pits, honeysuckle, and seaside rose, and the sea walls, pocket beaches, and immense rock jetties of the fancy houses. In the summer our adventures were all shore-based, but in the fall, we became more stealthy and secretive. We headed for the interior.

     It started with a series of reconnaissance missions, short forays into the wilderness. After cookies and milk at Kevin's we would head out into the yard to play and, when no one was watching, surreptitiously slip under the bottom strand of barbed wire. There were rumors of shotguns loaded with rock salt and mean guard dogs. A fever pitch of alertness prevailed. On our initial foray, we made it to the edge of the first corn field and then retreated. Next time we made it down the dirt road into the woods to the old garage.

     After each exploration we returned to Kevin's room to review our new discoveries: "The dirt road leaves the first corn field from this corner. There are really four corn fields, not three. Did you see the bats fly out the windows when we opened the garage door!? I wonder where the road goes after the garage?" When it became too much to keep in our heads, we drew a map, hid it under Kevin's bed, and revised it after each exploration.

     It was not until November that we discovered the water tower, deep in the forest and located next to a puzzling, perfectly round pond with a perfectly round island at its center. The tower became the central feature of the map as we worked to figure out all the different possible access and escape routes. "How will we get away if he drives up the gravel road? Will he see us as we cut through this field?" And when we crept inside the tower and saw the ladders climbing up and up and up to a small windowed platform a hundred feet above, we knew our fate was sealed. If we made it up there, we'd be able to see everything sprawled out around us.

     Progress up the ladders was like inching up an ice-and-rock pitch in the Himalayas. The ladders were vertical, creaky, and covered with pigeon droppings. We'd make it to the middle of the second ladder, imagine we heard a car coming, and then run the half-mile or more back to Kevin's house, never stopping to look back. We'd call each other chicken to taunt one another to climb higher, but fear would eventually overcome us.

     After four trips and a bout of sewing machine legs, the platform and view was ours. The chimney of Kevin's house was barely visible beyond the maples bordering the fields. To the west, we could see out to Long Island Sound, to my house on the low ridge next to Burying Hill Beach, and over beyond the girls' school down to the salt marshes. Even better was an unexpected expanse of woods and freshwater wetlands that stretched east all the way to the beach in Southport. "That stream must flow into the upper end of the salt marsh. I wonder where it starts?" New horizons to explore and map. This was our land, from sea to shining sea.

     Somehow, the explorations never continued after that fall. Kevin and I drifted apart and the map got lost or thrown away. I remember a solo expedition in powdery snow to the perfectly round island when the pond was frozen, but the unexplored territory beyond remained unclaimed. It's funny how it still gnaws at me, how I still want to feel in my body how it all fits together, to put the last pieces into the puzzle.

     I escaped from crowded suburbia after high school and settled into the comfortable wilderness of southern New Hampshire, but a piece of me still feels rooted in the Connecticut coast. The sweet-and-sour smell of honeysuckle mixed with the sulfury smell of low tide makes me feel at home. The give of sun-softened asphalt under my feet evokes the thrill of night explorations. Whenever I draw a new map, I feel echoes of those first attempts to make paper match place. That first map was our way of both stepping back from and getting deeper into our discoveries--it preserved what we knew and launched us into further adventures.

     Mapmaking, in the broad sense of the word, is as important to making us human as language, music, art, and mathematics. Just as young children have an innate tendency to speak, sing, draw, and count, they also tend to make maps. When children share their homemade maps with me, I see their active yearning to make sense of the nearby world, their desire to record and share discoveries and their connections to place. "Here's the kick-the-can hiding place. That's the little path to Erin's house. The cross is where we buried our cat Noah." The stories of their lives are folded into the niches of their neighborhoods; their maps are the weaving together of inner emotion and external forays.

     In a wonderful little article entitled "Homo Cartigraphicus," Tony Kallett says,

It seems to me that one can think of mapmaking as a fundamental human activity, if not the fundamental human activity...Learning consists of looking at something new and beginning to see paths into it. You construct a map or a series of maps, each one an approximation and probably wrong in details, but each one helping you to go further into the territory.

     Kallet's description of learning captures perfectly the experience Kevin and I had exploring the old farm. We followed paths into it and used the map to assemble our experience. In the beginning the map was woefully incomplete, but it was as much as we knew at that point and it helped us go further.

     Many teachers will recognize this as analogous to the Writing Process approach to teaching reading and writing. Children make their first forays into literacy by telling stories, drawing pictures of their stories, and then writing, in their own words and with invented spelling, about their pictures. The sketchy picture and meager words are beginnings, first steps down the pathway into the landscapes of drawing and writing. In spelling, children first learn their own names, then Mommy and Daddy, then I Love You. These first words are a clearing in the woods, a known place they can come back to and use as a reference point for figuring out the way to spelling other words.

     I like this broad metaphoric use of the notion of mapmaking. Some educational theorists and neuropsychologists refer to constructing these maps of understanding as "conceptual mapping." The term suggests less of a linear and sequential model for how we organize knowledge in our brains and more of a spatial, multidimensional process. It's like the difference between tic-tac-toe on a napkin vs. the three-dimensional version. In British schools, educators add the skill of graphicacy to the traditional objectives of literacy and numeracy. By graphicacy they mean, "the communication of relationships that cannot be successfully communicated by words or mathematical notation alone." In everyday language this means being skilled at visual representations of information such as drawing, creating collages, constructing graphs, making diagrams, and making maps.

     Much good work has been done recently on the value of using concept mapping as an instructional device and as a tool for helping children organize their own thoughts. My desire is to forge an approach that fosters affective and cognitive connections--using mapmaking to teach the content of the social studies and geography curricula and as a tool for developing a sense of place.

     We need to begin by rooting the cartographic experience in visual, kinesthetic, and emotional experiences. We do a disservice to children when we jump too quickly--at a prematurely abstract level--into map reading and mapmaking. Children can begin mapmaking the way they begin drawing, by representing the things that are emotionally important to them. Children's early maps tend to depict experiences of beauty, secrecy, adventure, and comfort. With these affective endeavors as a foundation, we can gradually start to focus on scale, location, direction, and geographic relationships. Developing emotional bonds and cognitive skills can go hand in hand.

     Everyone has heard about the crisis in geographic education in the United States. Fifteen percent of our fourth grade students can't find the United States on a world map, fifty-five percent don't know the capital of France, and so on. This crisis has brought on an array of new programs in geographic education. Some are recitation and drill oriented with renewed emphasis on memorizing the state capitals and geography bees. The problem with these approaches is that they deny children firsthand experience. They emphasize abstract, long-ago and far-away information instead of focusing on the here and now of the child's world, thereby giving children lots of facts and little understanding.

     My eight year old, Eli, has picked up on my love of maps so we spend a lot of time poring over them. One day, during a four-month sojourn in Costa Rica, he drew two maps for me: one of the neighborhood we were living in and the other of the route from home to his school. The neighborhood map was a bit convoluted, but there were many recognizable elements and correct spatial relationships. His map of the route from home to school got the chickens in the road, the big hill, and the market in correct sequential order, but the school showed up right behind the gate to our neighborhood, despite the 15 kilometer distance between them. These maps were like the map Kevin and I drew of the old farm--partially complete and inaccurate, but good tries at making sense of his experience.

     On the other hand, Eli came home from his first grade class during that same time proudly displaying his "book of continents"--a perfect example of the outside-in approach that I am not enthusiastic about. He had dutifully traced around the prefabricated continent shapes and then colored them in messily. South America was all red, Antarctica had some blue splotches on it, Australia looked like a blue and brown zebra. He was very proud of it, mostly because he knows I like maps, but he had no idea what continents were or which continent we were on. Asking first graders to make maps of their neighborhoods makes sense; asking them to make maps of continents puts the cart before the horse.

     Another example: I was surprised last year to learn that the first-through-third multi-grade class at our local public school was studying the solar system. I have always been puzzled by the curricular commitment to studying the solar system because there is barely anything you can do that is tangible and hands-on. Very few teachers actually do night sessions so children can at least look at the planets and the moon. Instead, they make scale models of the planets and the information remains abstract. In the upper elementary grades studying the solar system jibes with a developmental interest in exploration and outer space, but its presence in the early grades seems frivolous. When I asked the teacher why she was doing it, she said, "It's in the district science curriculum--I have to teach it."

     These outside-in approaches to teaching do not tend to further the goals of geographic education. In actuality, they may do just the opposite. Instead of connecting children to place, this approach alienates them and cuts them off from their local environments. The inadvertent hidden message is: Important things are far away and disconnected from children. Close-by things, the local community and environment, are unimportant and negligible. Learning becomes copying someone else's shapes and consuming someone else's facts rather than drawing your own maps and finding out things for yourself.

     Don't get me wrong about having students engage with content. I knew all the state capitals by the time I was nine and I loved coloring in all those maps of Europe and Africa. And I quiz my own kids on New England state capitals. These approaches are fine as long as they are not done in isolation. Optimally, teachers will utilize both inside-out and outside-in approaches to mapmaking and social studies education in their classes and at times the two approaches will converge.

     I witnessed an example of this kind of convergence last year with students from the Monadnock Waldorf School in Keene, New Hampshire. One of the themes for the fourth grade curriculum in Waldorf schools is local and state geography. So the students in Maggie Myers's class went on long walks exploring the neighborhoods around the school and drew pictorial and panoramic view maps of the area. They studied the plants and animals of New Hampshire, and each child made his or her own individual raised-relief map of the state in preparation for a three-day hiking trip in the White Mountains.

     I was one of the parent chaperones for the outing and drove three of the children up into the mountains. As the Pemigewasset River valley narrowed and we approached Franconia Notch, I pointed out some of the mountains they had learned about when they made their maps. As Melinda gazed at the sinuous green peaks, she got a far-away look in her eyes and then exclaimed, "I know where we are! Remember where the mountains smush in close to the river between two long low mountains and then the big mountains are just beyond. We're between those low mountains and there's Cannon Mountain and the Franconia Range up there." As she spoke she gestured with her hands to show the river valley and ridge forms that she had shaped meticulously with her hands while making her raised-relief map. It was fascinating to watch the mapmaking images stored in her hands and mind snap into resolution with the mountain landscape spread out before us. The inner and outer worlds met in this ah-ha moment of well-crafted curricular experience.

     Craig Altobell of Henniker, New Hampshire manages a similar convergence in his ingenious solution to the solar system problem with fifth and sixth graders. He asks the students to assume that the distance from the sun to Pluto is a mile. Then he takes the class for a walk through the village, using a pedometer to figure out exactly how far away a mile is. The students sketch the route of their walk and take notes. When they get back to the classroom, they make maps of the route from the school to the mile-away point showing all the landmarks they encountered along the way. Then, after they've done the math, converting the walked distance to map scale, they lay the planets out along the route. The sun is right in front of the school and most of the planets are right down the street by the town library. But it's a long haul from Jupiter out to Uranus and Pluto at the edge of town. Mapping the structure of the solar system onto a neighborhood map honors the student's relationships with the community and provides an elegant bridge between the known and the unknown.

     A geographic curriculum based on building a relationship between the structure of the local landscape and the shape of children's lives must replace our nonsensical focus on the long ago and far away. We need a curriculum that aspires to ecological literacy--a deep understanding of the flora, fauna, water, culture, climate, and communities that children live in. Whether in the hills of New Hampshire or the boroughs of New York, the initial emphasis should be on what is right outside the door. Lucy Sprague Mitchell, author of Young Geographers and a teacher at the Bank Street School, focused all of her projects for the primary grades on Manhattan. Children roamed the docks, fish markets, ethnic neighborhoods, and construction sites of the city and made maps of them. When her students outgrew the immediate environment in the upper elementary grades, their movement outward was organic:

When the children first leave New York City and the immediate environment can no longer supply all the source material, they will probably follow the routing of some produce they have seen arriving in the city. Usually this will take them up the Hudson by boat or train. Or they may be tracing their water back to its source in the Catskills.

     The expansion beyond the local environment is achieved by tracing one of the pieces of the web of interconnections that ties city dwellers to the ecology of the surrounding countryside.

     At the Greenfield Center School in Greenfield, Massachusetts, the curriculum expands outward in a similar incremental fashion. Kindergartners make block models of their classroom. After field trips to the furnace room, the office, and all the classrooms, first graders model the whole school. In second grade, students look at how the school is heated. They locate and map where the oil is stored, who delivers it, how the heated air gets to the classroom, where the oil company's storage tanks are, and how the oil gets from the oil company to the school. By third grade the students study the city of Greenfield and in fourth grade they are taking canoe trips and making models of the Connecticut River valley in north-central Massachusetts.

     These approaches nurture a sense of commitment to place and community; the objective is to teach kids to care deeply and to want to make a difference. "Love it or lose it," summarizes David Orr. This is our challenge. We engage children in a developmentally appropriate mapmaking and social studies curriculum with hopes that they will become advocates for preservation. We use mapmaking as a means to an end.

     When the children in a northern New Hampshire town found out that the destination of their map-based community treasure hunt was a candidate for second-home development, they felt assaulted. "They can't do that. This is our place!" The students were immediately ready to jump into a study of zoning, land-use planning, and land owner's rights.

     Knowing through mapping builds a foundation of ecological values. Maps are clothespins--tools for hitching children's lives to their places.


     David Sobel is director of teacher certification programs in the Education Department and co-director of the Center for Environmental Education at Antioch New England Graduate School. He was one of the founders of the Harrisville Children's Center, has served on the boards of public and private schools, and is an editorial board member of the journal, Encounter: Education for Meaning and Social Justice. His books include Beyond Ecophobia: Reclaiming the Heart in Nature Education, Children's Special Places and Mapmaking with Children: Sense-of-Place Education for the Elementary Years (published by Heinemann, 800/793-2154) from which this article was excerpted.

     This essay was originally published in the Winter 1997/1998 issue of Orion Afield. To order a copy of this issue, please visit The Orion Society Marketplace, call (413) 528-4422, write The Orion Society, 195 Main Street, Great Barrington, MA 01230, or e-mail them at