by Judy Cuthbertson

Students are explorers by nature. Maps are one kind of tool that help guide children in their explorations.  They show children where they are, where they’ve been, and where they can go.  Through maps, children can see their physical connection to the world, its people, and all of its creatures; through maps, children begin to learn about their place in the world.
A Sense of Place for Environmental Education and Interpretation
by Jeanie & Richard Hilten

Ms. Kennedy, a preschool teacher at Zigler Head Start Center in New Haven, noticed that children in her class asked many questions about the tallest building in the neighborhood – 360 State Street.   After reading a variety of books about skyscrapers, construction workers, and equipment, they recorded their questions and began planning a visit to the building.  In addition to finding answers to their questions and seeing New Haven from the thirtieth floor, Ms. Kennedy wanted to use their walking trip as a way to introduce the class to a tool map.  For young children, it is difficult to go from the three-dimensional experience of seeing the faces of buildings to knowing how to represent them on paper.   A tool map is one solution to the challenge of how to show buildings on both sides of the street.

Preparing the children for their walk, Ms. Kennedy explained that they would stop along the way and take photographs of  “important” buildings on their route.  (insert 2 pix of buildings)  When they returned, the children would use the photographs (enlarged and mounted on large wooden blocks) to assemble a three-dimensional map of the route from Zigler Head Start to 360 State Street.  This activity provided lots of opportunity for discussions and disagreements about placements of the buildings, as well as for practicing vocabulary of location and direction. (insert pix of tool map).

Of course, the activity didn’t stop here.  The children had their own ideas about what should come next – the roads along the way, and the skyscraper, 360 State.  Conversations, sometimes heated, focused on how to construct such a big building from blocks?  What part comes first?  Which blocks are best for the doors?  How do we keep it from falling down?  Will it be taller than we are?  Through trial and error, close observation of the photograph and teacher-led mediation, the building took form, each day rising higher and higher.   Many small groups worked on the construction, and all felt a sense of pride and ownership when they agreed it was “built and reached the sky.” (insert pix of  block building)

As I watched this project progress, several noteworthy mapping concepts became clear: maps are a valuable bridge between the real and abstract world, and mapmaking needs to begin as drawing begins-making maps of things that are emotionally important to children. Reflecting on the fits and starts of the block building, I was reminded of what Eleanor Duckworth explained in, The Having of Wonderful Ideas, “Exploring ideas can only be good, even if it takes time.  Wrong ideas, moreover, can be productive. A lesson learned from a mistake is stronger than the lesson learned without the mistake.”