Mapping Skills Made Fun: A Series – #5

September 28, 2012
By Maggie S. Hogan    Print This Post Print This Post

Having gotten some good practice with navigating on foot, your students should be more than prepared to start learning how to navigate on the road. Use these ideas for teaching geography and mapping skills to your older kids.

Mapping with Older Students

In addition to a widespread decline in rudimentary knowledge of geography and social studies, the average person’s navigational skills have suffered tremendously with the advent of technology. I recently read an article that described an incident where three women in an SUV followed their GPS directions right into a lake! People should know how to look at a map, find where they are, and figure out how to get where they’re going, without the aid of a GPS (and without driving into a lake!).

One of the most important things for your older students to learn is how to navigate a car. There are several ways to give them practice with this before they start driving.

When going to a new place, have them write by hand the directions as you drive there. Then, on the way back, have them direct you back home by reading their directions in reverse. Don’t offer any help, and turn only where they tell you. This will give them practice in paying attention (this is important!), looking for landmarks, and becoming more familiar with your area.

For your next cross-country road trip, teach them how to use an atlas and how to navigate interstate highways. Let them help you plan which route to take, and teach them about mile markers, exits, toll roads, freeways, and such. Appoint them the official trip navigator to give you verbal instructions on where to exit. It’s best to teach them how to navigate properly before they learn how to drive.

Find a detailed map of your town or county and give a copy to your students. Using markers, tape, or pins, have them mark your family’s most common destinations (your house, a friend’s house, church, post office, grocery store, library—places you travel to weekly or daily. For one week, each time you drive to one of those destinations, have them mark on the map which route you take. Once they have recorded the routes to your family’s common destinations, have them sit down with the map and try to find faster or more efficient routes. Try these routes next time you go out! This will make your students more familiar with your area geography and might help you find a few shortcuts.

Two other geography-oriented activities that are excellent for older students are letterboxing and geocaching.

Letterboxing is an appealing mix of treasure hunting, riddles, navigation, and exploring. Originating in England, it became popular in the US after an article describing it appeared in Smithsonian Magazine (April 1998). The premise is simple: Take a small waterproof container, and inside it, put a journal and a stamp that in some way represents the area. Then hide it in a place that is legally accessible to the public. Write clues about how to find it and post these clues on the letterboxing website for others to find. Or go letterboxing yourself. The website has clues available for most states and a number of countries. Bring along a family journal and stamp it when you find each box. Before setting out on a trip, check to see if there are any boxes hidden along your route and make time to search for them. This makes a great diversion for long car rides. For many families, this has developed into a hobby everyone enjoys. Visit

Geocaching is like letterboxing for people who like to explore and love gadgets! The word geocache is a combination of “geo,” which means “earth,” and “cache,” which means “a hiding place.” It follows the same premise as letterboxing, except instead of geographic, treasure-hunt-style clues, you have to follow latitude and longitude coordinates with your handheld GPS unit. Instead of a stamp, many geocaches have little treasures in them. From baseballs and maps to CDs and even money, there is supposed to be a little gift as a reward for finding the cache. The hitch is that when you take a reward, you are supposed to replace it with a different treasure for the next geocacher. These caches may be hidden in a nearby park, high on a rugged mountain, or even deep within the ocean! Boy Scouts can even earn a Merit Badge in geocaching. Visit geocaching.

Geography and mapping skills are often forgotten or pushed aside. But no matter what age your students are, it is important to teach them how to navigate. Try some of these ideas and let us know how they work for your family!

In 1991, Bob and Maggie Hogan began homeschooling their two young sons. The first years were exciting and challenging, but with little curriculum available, they had to work hard to find or develop their own materials. As they created materials that worked well for their family, Maggie began speaking and encouraging others at homeschool conferences. Her handouts grew longer until Bright Ideas Press was born. Bright Ideas Press promises to publish Christ-oriented, affordable, and easy-to-use curriculum that will fit into homeschoolers’ hectic lives. See their popular products, such as The Mystery of History series, All American History, Illuminations, and recently, WonderMaps.

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