School Blog

September 13, 2018

Making Sense of the World through Mapping

Julia Wickes
A fifth grade student holds up the map he made of his classroom, drawn to scale.

Last week SCCS fifth graders worked on drawing a map of their classroom to scale. Using a yard stick and graph paper they plotted out the walls and key pieces of furniture according to real-life proportions.

Mapping is part of the SCCS experience from kindergarten onward, beginning with the most immediate terrain of the classroom. Kindergartners draw a picture of their classroom while first graders build a model with blocks. As students grow in age and ability, their maps become more sophisticated, incorporating concepts like scale, direction, and depth. SCCS students have been spotted on our school grounds sticking rulers into puddles after rainstorms to measure depth. They use the data to create maps that mimic topographical maps of lakes. But however sophisticated the skills involved, our teachers always focus on familiar, nearby places–our classrooms, school grounds, neighborhoods, and city.

Mapping at SCCS is inspired largely by the books of David Sobel. In his book Mapmaking with Children, he argues that children naturally love making maps in the same way that they love drawing pictures or building forts–as a way of making sense of their world. He recommends starting close to home by having children map things that are emotionally important to them.

Ultimately, we want what every school wants– for our graduates to become responsible, skilled, caring citizens, capable of solving our world’s complex problems. However, in the well-meaning desire to create good citizens, some curriculums introduce children to big, faraway problems, like the destruction rainforests in South America. This approach can create what David Sobel calls ecophobia— feelings of despair or powerlessness in the face of overwhelming global problems.

The solution is to foster a sense of attachment, affection, and agency towards what is local and within the realm of influence. A Charlotte Mason educational experience really shines in this area. We work on recognizing and memorizing the names of flora and fauna in our own school garden, the grassy median on Reber Place (yes–as an urban school we cannot be too picky about our green spaces), and in Tower Grove Park just across Kingshighway. We learn the concept of distances and our cardinal directions according to the paths we walk and drive right outside our own door. All of these concepts, developed on a small, local scale, will later be transferrable to the broader world.

“Give children a chance to love the earth before we ask them to save it,” says David Sobel. We want to avoid burdening learning with what Charlotte Mason calls “the utilitarian spirit,” that robs the world of imagination and delight. Starting with the local, personal, and relational allows for students’ emotional bonds to keep pace with growing cognitive skills– a foundation that will empower them later on as they go on to apply what they know wherever life takes them.

Fifth graders measuring for a classroom map.
A third grade student learning how to read the legend on a map of a local St. Louis park.
Bird’s eye view mapping activity in first grade.
After visiting the St. Louis Zoo, first graders collaborated to make a bird’s eye view map.
A first grader’s map of her route from home to school.
A bird’s eye map of a first grade classroom made with blocks.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Beyond Ecophobia: Reclaiming the Heart in Nature Education, by David Sobel.

Childhood and Nature: Design Principles for Educators, by David Sobel

Children’s Special Places: Exploring the Role of Forts, Dens, and Bush Houses in Middle Childhood, by David Sobel

Mapmaking with Children: Sense of Place Education for the Elementary Years, by David Sobel

The Geography of Childhood: Why Children Need Wild Places, by Gary Paul Nabhan and Stephen Trimble
The Last Child in the Woods, by Richard Louv