When I was 8 years old, my grandfather would pick me up and drive me to my piano lesson each week. This was my special time with him and I deeply cherish the conversations we shared and the opportunity to have some treasured one-on-one time together.

While we would sit waiting in the car for my piano teacher to be ready for me, Grandpa took the opportunity to teach me to read a map. He thought it was a very important skill to have and thought it was silly that people thought women couldn’t read maps. So we’d sit there with the street directory and he’d ask me to find his street, my street, my school and many other places I would know in my city. He’d then ask me to trace out a route from my house to school or from his house to the Scout hall and I thought it was a wonderful game. Thinking on it now, I realise that because we did it together it was so special to me. And more than that, his belief that I, as a girl, could find my way around a map as easily as any boy, helped me develop my belief that all of these theories about boys having a better aptitude for maths than girls is all rubbish!

Everyone should be able to read a map. What counts is that there’s someone there to sit down with them and teach them how to navigate. With the technological marvel that is Google Maps, the opportunities for exploring your city and beyond are much more exciting than ever before. I only wish my grandfather had lived long enough to witness the wonder of the internet.

The best thing about Google Maps is that it enables you to scaffold your explorations to suit the ability and age of your child. Let’s look at some examples of what types of activities you can do.

Getting to school

Perhaps your child already walks to and from school. If they walk the route alone or with a sibling, ask them to tell you about what they saw on their walk today and to do a virtual walk together using Google Maps. Ask them which house is their favourite, which house has the best garden etc and get them to show you online using Street View.

Compare the time predicted by Google Maps with the time it takes your child to walk to school. Ask them how much longer it takes to walk than drive. Have them map out a route that would allow them to walk past a shop or a friend’s house and then compare this with Google’s suggestions.


Plan a car trip

If you and your family are off on a weekend drive or a mini holiday break, involve your children in planning the best route. To avoid all the “are we there yet?” complaints, encourage them to interact with the map and gain some perspective on the distance and the time it will take compared to their more familiar journeys. It is difficult for children to perceive time, yet they can more readily perceive and compare distances, especially when demonstrated in this way.

For older children, during a car trip to a different town, you can ask them to calculate how much longer it will take to get to your destination if they know the speed of the car and if they see a signpost telling them how much further there is to go. For example, if they see a sign telling them there is 55km until they reach the town center and they know you are traveling at 100km/h, they can estimate that there is a little over half an hour to go. This is a great way to practice fractions and units of time, speed and distance.

wind in the willows map

Explore a foreign city

Has one of your children’s friends just returned from an exciting destination? Are you planning a trip overseas or to a city your children have never been before? Or perhaps you’re just looking for something to do one rainy afternoon. Why not explore some of the landmarks of a foreign city, navigate around the narrow lanes and see the sites using “Street View”? Starting at the Colosseum, ask your children to find their way to the Trevi fountain, the Spanish Steps and then to St Peter’s in Vatican city. Let them find the quickest route or the most scenic route. Take a look at each location from different views. Ask them how long it would take to walk to all the different sites and if there’s a good place to stop off for a gelato.

For younger children you can keep the scope of your exploration to familiar sites and routes, helping them gain a perspective on time and scale in a scenario that is familiar and yet which you are discussing in the abstract. Using a tool like Google Maps allows you to develop abstract ideas (time, speed, network paths) in a familiar setting.

As children become more advanced you can expand the scope of the tool, asking them to plan and navigate routes in unfamiliar settings, discuss scale for larger units of measurement and familiarise themselves with something most of us use all the time.

And there’s one more thing that is really important here. You need to teach your child that currently, the human brain is still far more intelligent than the algorithms we find being used every time we engage with an app or the internet. When the GPS or Google Maps gives directions, these are just a suggestion, and your own unique knowledge of your surroundings and preferences are far better tools for navigating through your city and indeed throughout the world. These tools are starting points and it is up to us to refine them further.

We don’t want our children to get the impression that technology thinks for us. All technology is simply a tool to assist us in getting tasks done more efficiently and effectively. The thinking and the real problem solving, right now, is still up to us as humans.

Photo taken from http://google-latlong.blogspot.com.au/2010/04/earth-view-comes-to-google-maps.html