Children and Mapping

The topic of children and mapping is a special subject within the broad area that examines the ways people see and interpret maps. Children are a special case of map users for two reasons. The first one pertains to the relation between the development of children’s conception of space and that of cartographic understanding. The theories of the children’s spatial development, mainly deriving from psychological studies, have provided the theoretical basis for approaching the way children use maps. The second reason is the educational perspective of school maps and atlases. Most elementary or high school textbooks contain a large number of maps, mainly the textbooks related to geography and humanities courses.

Among the various kinds of maps that children are exposed to, school atlases are the most noticeable examples, being traditional educational tools that help children acquire spatial knowledge and mapping skills. Their origins are traced in 1697, as part of an atlas published by Louis Courcillon de Dangeau. In 1753, an atlas by the great mathematician Leonard Euler was one of the earliest German atlases explicitly made for use in schools. From the beginning of the nineteenth-century, school atlases were systematically produced in Europe and North America. In our technological era, the atlas form has been changed and consists of packages, which are electronic atlases both software and spatial data, and characterized by various degrees of interactivity.

At the beginning of the 1980s, a discussion started on how to approach maps from the point of view of children. It was the beginning of a new perspective into cartographic research, approaching the meaning of maps from the user’s viewpoint. The next three decades were productive as far as the theoretical and experimental work done in this area is concerned. Children and mapping became a research topic in the fields of psychology, geography, education, and cartography. Children’s understanding of maps has been approached from different theoretical perspectives: the nativist views, Piaget’s theory, Vygotsky’s theory, and the cognitive perspective. Depending on the theory they are based on, the research and experimental studies in cartography can accordingly be distinguished as nativist, Piagetian, developmental (or neo Piagetian), culturalist, and cognitive. Many psychological studies have focused on spatial cognition and mental representation of space, and, as a consequence, maps have been used in these studies as means of accessing children’s spatial thinking. Research on this topic from a strictly cartographic perspective has been less forthcoming and nonsystematic. So, there is a lot of research evidence concerning preschool and early primary age children’s spatial thinking with large scale maps, though the evidence is rather limited on issues such as: children’s understanding of cartographic concepts, the development of spatial thinking with smallscale maps, how secondary school children deal with maps, the kind of maps that are more effective for children, the kind of maps children prefer, and the actual contribution of computer mapping to geographic education.

The following paragraphs summarize the theoretical perspectives of cartographic understanding, give some research evidence on the development of understanding spatial representations, refer to the basic characteristics of maps and the evidence as regards the children’s development of associated concepts, and, in closing, address the contribution of computer technology in children’s dealing with maps.

Development of Cartographic Understanding

Understanding Spatial Representations

Understanding the Basic Characteristics of Maps

Children as Map Users in the Information Technology Era