We all form impressions and images of our physical surroundings–even of places we’ve never been. These impressions are what geographers call our “mental maps.” No one has a totally accurate image of the world, so there is no completely accurate mental map, although people’s mental maps of their own immediate environment tend to be more realistic than those of places they’ve never visited.
To explore more about mental mapping, try this activity with your family:
Map Your Community
First, talk about mental maps.
Mental maps are the pictures of places we have in our mind. Think about some of the ways we use mental maps in day-to-day life, for example, when giving directions to visitors or imagining distant places. Talk about times when you have used mental maps, for example, when walking to school, taking a car ride to the grocery store, planning the quickest shortcut to get to friend’s house, or imagining a fantasy world from a novel.
Next, explore different kinds of places in your community and how you feel about them.
Think about places in your community that are important to your family, such as the examples below. Say each example and rate its importance using a scale of 1 to 3, with 1 being unimportant and 3 being very important. Talk about why each is important or unimportant, and why children might disagree about the importance of some places versus others. For example, kids might have different interests (like playing sports or visiting museums, going to the movies or stopping for ice cream).
• a park or other natural place
• a church, synagogue, or mosque
• a museum or arts performance
• a sports game or amusement park
• an airport or bus station
• a shopping mall
Make a map of your community.
After you’ve decided which places are most important to your family, work together to make a map of your community. Try to estimate approximate distances and directions between landmarks, and include a basic scale bar, legend (key), and compass rose marking directions of North, South, East, and West on your map.
Compare your map with a professional map.
professionally produced map of your area (town map, topographic map,
bike-route map, trail map, etc.), and compare it to your family’s
mental map. Which elements of the landscape did you include? Which did
you leave out?
“Ground truth” your map.
truthing” is a term geographers use to mean going on location to verify
information, such as maps, created about a site from afar (in this
case, your living room!). Go off exploring your community, and, when
you get back, update both your mental map and the professional map with
references from your family’s journey.
*This activity was adapted from a National Geographic lesson about mental mapping.
More fun mental mapping activities:
1. Use the same basic process to create a mental map of your family’s
next outdoor adventure: hike in a local state park, bike ride across
the county, canoe trip down a nearby river, etc.
2. Share your map of your community with a grandparent or elderly
friend and talk with them about how important landmarks in your town
have changed over time.
3. Create a mental map of a chapter book or fantasy novel.
4. Have kids create their own mental maps of a place (e.g. the woods
behind your house, a local park) and compare the similarities and
differences between the maps.
5. Make a mental map of place you’ve heard about but never been to,
such as New York City, and then take a family vacation to the location
to fill in your maps.
More mapping resources:
1. Four more mapping activities: Mapping Middle Childhood“(Appalachian Mountain Club)
2. National Geographic map-making guides and lessons.
3. Lesson about using topographic maps: Topo Map Skills (Compass Dude)
4. Make your own professional-quality topographic maps: National Geographic Maps TOPO! Explorer software package