Monday, April 6, 2015

Map It!

While planning a short trip this weekend, I started thinking about maps. Having recently acquired a great camera, I wanted to drive along back roads in the hopes of finding something picturesque. Plotting my trip on Google maps was a nightmare. Google wants me to take the Interstate (which we all know is scenic wonderland) and had a fit when I attempted to pull the shortest route in a different direction.  It was so annoying having to make the map smaller and larger as I plotted my route that I finally pulled out my trusty atlas of "The Roads of Texas.

Some of us are old enough to remember road trips of our youth filled with license plate viewing games, stops at Stuckeys, and watching seemingly endless landscapes change while our parents argued about how to refold a map. We got a first hand view of the vastness of the southwest, the height of the Rockies, and the differences in regional restaurants and speech. Children of today will remember road trips filled with electronic games, cell phones, fast food, and selfies taken in the back seat as a robotic voice from the front says turn left. 

Several years ago I asked 4th graders about their spring break ski vacations and discovered that many of them had no idea what state they visited. Sometimes if a I listed a few ski places: Taos? Aspen? Breckenridge? it might ring a bell. One child's family even had a condo that they visited several times a year, yet the child looked blank when I asked where it was. Obviously, if a family has enough money for a ski vacation the lack of location awareness can't be put down to economic deprivation. But in this world of cell phone maps and GPS is learning to read a paper map, locating a country on a globe, or remembering how to get to a new friend's house worthwhile skills? What is acquired from reading paper maps and navigating without GPS ?

  •  "Spatial navigation skills can cause the hippocampus and the brain to grow, forming more neural pathways as the number of mental maps increase. Neuroscientist Veroniques Bohbot said, 'The results of studies suggest using spatial memory regularly may improve the function of the hippocampus and could help ward off cognitive impairment as we age." 
  • People learn by creating paradigms.  Knowledge of a location helps a child remember what happened there. It is more difficult to learn and memorize history or current events if you don't have a mental image of where it happened. 
  • Understanding a region's climate and environment makes travel more fun.  A study from the Applied Research in Quality of Life found that vacationers felt the happiest before a trip! It is difficult to enjoy the anticipation of travel if one has no idea where one is going. 
  • People dutifully following a GPS have been known to drive off bridges, go the wrong way, or get totally lost. Walking head down following a phone with GPS limits a person's perception of what is around them, and how they got from here to there. Orientation and navigation skills help a person feel more in control. "The more humans uses GPS, the more cut off from the real world they might become," writes Rebecca Maxwell. 
  • Getting a perspective of the size of states, countries, or towns is easier on a globe or large map. While we may appreciate the ease of a map on a phone, a child may not yet have an image to relate size and direction. 

School children are still asked to make maps of their classrooms and taught to read a map. Like any skill, practice adds to the mastery. I urge parents to make maps and a globe available to a child. Plan a trip with your child. Use a map to locate where you are going and how you are getting there. Discuss what you might see and what else is in the area. Ask your child to give you directions to the local grocery store. Play a few observation games on a road trip. Give your child skills that give her confidence to notice and question an obviously incorrect robotic voice's direction.

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