352. Maps

We all know and/or are adults who have lots of trouble reading maps. Of course, there are many maps that are incorrect, but there are also correct maps that are unfairly blamed for people getting lost or ending up taking longer to get where they’re going.
I am fascinated by maps. I ask for window seats on airplanes when I travel far, partly because I love the view, and partly because I like to see that the shapes of actual bodies of land and water are the same as the shapes I’ve seen on maps. I enjoy spotting Lake Michigan (perhaps telling the person next to me) and then hearing the pilot announce, “We are approaching Lake Michigan.” In a world that is often so confusing and misleading, it’s comforting to see Lake Michigan looking the way maps say it’s supposed to look.
Maps were made long before people got to see what the world looks like from above, and that must have been quite a challenge, involving lots of abstract thinking. The maps made back then were mostly less accurate than modern maps, many of which are made using aerial photographs. People crossing oceans back then were often eager to see any land at all; it’s understandable that they sometimes made mistakes identifying the land they saw.
Children, who are known for having difficulty thinking abstractly (although many of us know children who are great at it), are often bewildered by maps. They long for something a little more concrete. Since they do know about
photographs, I have usually started map study units by displaying aerial photographs of the areas around the schools. These photographs are usually available at the local Department of Public Works, but NASA has aerial photographs of your area available if your own town doesn’t have them. I’ve explained to children that some people took a picture from an airplane, and since they were up so high, the picture shows more area than pictures we take here on the ground.
Children love finding their own homes on aerial photographs, and finding other familiar landmarks. So do adults. As far as I know, human beings are the only creatures able to do this, although monarch butterflies
and swallows do have the uncanny ability to find destinations that are far away. Unlike humans, when they travel without maps, they consistently do fine.
Once children have had ample time to explore aerial photographs, I’ve shown them maps, explaining that some of the details that appear on the photographs actually make it harder to find what you’re looking for. Details can get in the way. Sure, the photo shows a car parked next to a certain building. But that car may only be there temporarily; it could belong to someone’s grandparents, who live in Ohio, or to a stranger who has stopped to ask for directions or consult a map. And so maps, which are a little more abstract than aerial photographs, can eventually be easier to use.

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