A parallax image

How to Teach Your Kids Map Reading Skills

Posted by Gav Grayston.
First Published Feb 2013; updated Apr 2023.

Map skills are an essential outdoor skill. Here's a successful method for teaching your kids map reading skills.

Even in the days of GPS devices, the ability to relate to what's around you with what is displayed on a map is a vital skill. Put the compass away and teach kids this skill first.

Map reading is an essential outdoor skill. Sorry. I'll correct that.  Reading the landscape is an essential skill (more on that later).

With GPS devices prevalent these days, you may have older kids with a GPS device built into their phones. Unfortunately, without understanding maps, all they learn with a GPS is to walk from point A to point B.... as per the device's instructions.

Give them a large map, and they don't know how to use it.

Here are some tips on how to introduce your child to map reading.

Put the Compass Away

Don't start them with the compass.

Yes, you could give a compass to young kids, who will like trying to get the needle to move, but this is a distraction from learning to map read.

Compass navigation skills come later once your child understands maps well. I would recommend that this be done with GPS devices (if they are familiar with GPS devices), as you can easily relate what they are familiar with with the non-technical equivalent.

Start with a Smaller Map

Map in plastic document wallet

Map in plastic document wallet to protect it from the elements.

The Ordnance Survey produces great maps. However, they can be big and unwieldy. Shrink yourself down to kid-size, and it's like trying to read wallpaper.

Rather than buying lots of expensive maps, you could use OS Maps, print out a small map section, and stick it in a document wallet (a lot cheaper than a map reading case).

Teach Map Symbols

A map is nothing more than squiggles and symbols. Teach some basic symbols before going outside.

map symbol bingo can be a fun way of teaching - click here to download

You need to teach map skills in stages. Don't do it all in one go, as you'll overwhelm them, and they won't learn as well.

Plan an area for their first map-reading navigation, and only teach the symbols relevant to that walk.

Here's the sort of thing to teach:

  1. How roads are shown on the map
  2. What footpaths look like
  3. Streams and rivers
  4. Wooded areas
  5. Contour lines (see below)

If you have more time, map symbol bingo can be a fun way of teaching. (Click here to download our free Map Symbol Bingo game).

How to Crack Contour Lines

pick a way of explaining that works for your child

Contour lines can be very confusing. At this stage, you need to explain the theory behind them. When you get outside, you solidify that understanding with what they see around them.

Each child is different, so you'll need to pick a way of explaining that works for your child. Get across that the lines show how the hill is sliced up.

Here's a suggestion for helping to explain contour lines.

Lego Contours

Using Lego, build up a hill shape.

Ask your child to draw the outline shape of each layer on paper by looking down from above the hill.

Show how the contour lines on the map equate to the outline of each layer of bricks, and they should see that's precisely what they drew.

Focus on the top of the hill, and show how this is the small 'circle' shown on a map. These are easier to spot on the map. They should then see how the contour lines are just the outline of the layers if you were looking directly from the top of the hill.

Include in your hill a steep side. Show how the lines between the layers are close together for steep areas on the map. Show this on the Lego model.

Try our Contour Building Challenge for more instructions and examples of how to use Lego to explain map contour lines.

How to use Lego to help explain map contour lines to kids

How to use Lego to help explain map contour lines to kids

More Details

We have a step-by-step illustrated guide that shows how to use Lego to illustrate map contour lines to kids. It is in one of the lessons in our Family Navigation Course.

View the Challenge

Now Get Outside

Kids Reading Maps

Choose a region that's fairly easy to navigate but has some different features. An area with hills is the best, which will help illustrate contour lines.

The goal is to teach them how to read the landscape and relate it to the map.

  • Point out any hills around them and get them to find them on the map. If you have two hills close together that are near you, that should be easy to find on the map.
  • Ask them to find your current position. You may be still in a car park at this point, which would be easier to find (especially if you told them what a car park symbol is).
  • Ask them to locate another a place on the map, such as 'something Church' or 'someplace lake'. Only help them if they're getting stuck, but even then, give them suggestions rather than pointing to it on the map.
  • Now, ask them to take you there. Get them to lead, even if they go slightly wrong.
  • Every time there is a feature that can help them identify their current position on the map, remind them to check to see where they are, such as crossing a stream, a fork in a path, or crossing a road.

A reward when you get to the destination is a good idea.

One step closer

Following the steps outlined here will make your child less daunted by maps.

The ability to observe what is around you and what the map shows is an essential skill. Once mastered, they could find where they are on a map without needing GPS. They will also be able to look at a map and see what the terrain is like further ahead on their route, which is essential for safe route planning.

Further Map Teaching Resources

Here are a few other things from around the internet that you may find useful when teaching your child map reading skills (links open in a new browser window).