Learning about geography for kids can be fun when you turn it into a treasure hunt! Despite the ubiquitous GPS devices, map-reading skills are important and necessary. Obviously being able to read a map can help you on your way, but also the ability to imagine looking down from above improves spatial intelligence.
Howard Gardener, a renowned developmental psychologist proposed the theory of multiple intelligences in 1983. According to Dr. Gardner, we focus out attention on logical-mathematical and linguistic intelligences (math and reading). However, he argues that teachers and parents should also encourage the other intelligences: bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalistic, and spatial. This map-making, map-reading activity does just that- with a sweet treat as a reward!
Choose an area that has some landmarks- it can be your backyard, the school playground, a park, or a section of your neighborhood. Ask the children if they have ever been on an airplane and looked out the window.
- What did the ground look like?
- Could you identify houses? Soccer fields? Parks? Forests?
- How did the objects look the same or different?
Ask the kids to close their eyes. “Imagine that you are able to fly above us. When you look down, objects look a little different. If you fly above a swimming pool, it might look like a blue circle or a blue rectangle. If you fly above a house, it might look like a square. Right now imagine that you are floating right above us, and looking down. Now open your eyes.”
Tell them that they should try to draw the park (backyard, etc) as if they were looking down from above. It is helpful to walk around and count bushes, notice placement of playground equipment, etc. My 6 year old did need help figuring out the main placement of our house, but then she wanted to finish the picture (and succeeded!). With slightly older kids, you could have them make a key and use symbols on the maps instead of realistic drawings. We used a compass to show north, south, east and west and my kids loved the fact that as they spun around the red arrow always pointed north (and they got quite dizzy proving this and almost fell into the cold pool). See the useful map vocabulary for elementary students here.
Geography for Kids Part 2: The Treasure Hunt
Now comes the fun part! Once you have the maps finished, hand out little stickers to the kids. They need to hide treasures (we used leftover Halloween candy) and mark their locations on their maps with the stickers.
Then, they can trade the maps with a partner (or their sibling:) and use the maps to find the treasures. We had the older kids make the maps and mark them, and then my 4 year olds were able to read the maps to find the candy. FOUR year olds. My kids were literally running trying to find the hidden candy- it’s a miniature geo-caching activity you can do anywhere! They did get turned around sometimes- but my older ones intuitively would show them how to hold the map and stand facing the relative direction: “see the pool is there, so face the pool. The candy is behind you.”
For slightly older kids, using their more sophisticated maps with keys, this activity could look a little different. If you have compasses, perhaps they write out directions “10 steps north of the blue slide.” Even if you don’t have compasses, as long as everyone has the cardinal directions drawn correctly on their maps, the students can write directions (instead of using stickers) for their partners to find the hidden candy: “5 steps east of the green garbage can.”
After the treasure hunt, look at local city maps. For a follow-up geography activity for kids, have them try to draw the route they take to school or to a friend’s house, or work collaboratively to create a map of the neighborhood. Happy mapping! Share your favorite ways to incorporate geography for kids in the comments.