IDEA #67. Navigate! Next time you take a journey, either by yourself or with friends or family, take over the map-reading and route-selection duties. Find the most detailed maps you can, and learn to read them carefully and accurately.
Map-reading is an essential literacy skill that adults (including, alas, many teachers) assume that children have learned through osmosis. Unfortunately, this is seldom the case, and so even map-illiterate-proof resources like Google Maps and in-car GPS navigation systems are not always enough to keep people from becoming lost.
In the United Kingdom, home of the superb Ordnance Survey maps that can be found in many households, map-reading is something of a fetish, and excellent school geography curricula ensure that few British people are ever geographically lost, at least for long. Although American USGS topographic maps are of excellent quality, they are generally useless for just “getting around,” and their delicious intricacies are seldom taught in school. Instead, Americans rely on inconsistently drawn and keyed road maps that are seldom of a scale to be truly informative; increasingly, they rely on GPS readouts that concentrate only on the route and the destination, utterly ignoring terrain, settlements, places of interest, and other features that can enrich map-reading and fuel curiosity.
Nonetheless, American children can become excellent readers of maps, and the household that takes the time to preface journeys of any length with a review of the route will be modeling the idea of using maps as a resource as well as instructing children in their use. At some point the child can be instructed to do the route-planning on his or her own, and there will be some pride of accomplishment when the destination is reached without incident. It would be equally fruitful and fun to spend some time looking at an especially detailed, high-quality map—a government topo, perhaps, or a navigational chart—of a place with special meaning to the child. Landmarks and landforms, routes and settlements, all these have been determined by and/or have determined how a place looks and feels to those who go there and live there, and to a skilled map-reader a two-dimensional representation can be as informative and evocative as a photograph or even an actual visit.
For families who share an excitement about places and maps, there is also the potential thrill of taking a “blue highways” trip, in the spirit of William Least Heat-Moon’s extraordinary 1982 narrative of that title recounting his journeys off the interstates on state and local roads often portrayed in blue on old road maps.