Addicted to novelty since 2001

How Did You Learn to Use a Map?

When I was in grade 6, we were assigned the task of planning an imaginary trip across Canada. We went to the local BCAA office and got brochures, guide books and maps. We figured out how far we should drive each day, how much money we could spend on hotels, and what attractions we’d want to see. We wrote (and drew and glued and so forth) it all up in a nifty report.

It was the kind of great, cross-subject project that works well as an educational tool and is a heck of a lot of fun for the student. Among the various things it taught us–planning, budgeting, etc–we learned how to read a map.

My map-reading skills were subsequently buoyed by a few years of Dungeons & Dragons, where drawing the map was as fun as playing. What can I say? I was (was?) a dork.

The fact is, some of us can navigate from a map and some of us can’t. I’m not dissing the non-map readers (I’m sure, for example, that they can make small talk, which is well-nigh impossible for me). I’m just curious as to when and where others learned to use a map?

18 Responses to “How Did You Learn to Use a Map?”

  1. Derek K. Miller

    My parents and I took many driving vacations when I was a kid, starting when I was around seven. I also used the BCAA/AAA maps and helped us find our way where we were going.

    Plus I always loved maps. Our giant National Geographic Atlas of the World was one of my favourite things for almost as long as I could remember. When my parents were living in Ontario and I was here with roommates and a poor college student, and even scrounged together the money (at least $100, I think) to buy an up-to-date copy of that same atlas, which I still have.

    So I find car GPS navigation systems cool and occasionally useful, but still prefer occasionally referring to a paper map and trying to get my own head around the shape of the landscape without relying on turn-by-turn instructions.

  2. double-plus-ungood

    I don’t remember evernot knowing how to use a map, and am actually surprised by the question about having to learn. Isn’t it obvious?

  3. Tom

    Hmm.. I’ll have to attibute mine to D&D as well.

    Also from the boyscouts. I have a Merit badge in using a map.

  4. Andrea Coutu

    Girl Guides. We had to do tracking, orienteering (is that the word?), and, at a very basic level, mapping out directions to our homes and meetings.

  5. Andrea Coutu

    Oh, but I should add that I became proficient with maps when I got Adventureland and had to map out caves. I eventually used the concepts to build my own adventure games.

    Any wonder I still think of maps in terms of written directions?

  6. Meg

    I think we formally learned how to read them in the fourth grade in Edmonton, but my best experiences with them were going on trips into Vancouver with friends in high school (navigating the city) and road trips across the prairies and down into the US in college. My dad has a killer sense of direction, as does my mother, but I don’t actually know my right from my left most of the time.

  7. Gar Fisher

    Never really learned how to use a map until I took up the sport of orienteering, the sport of the athletic geek. People will wonder why I am holding the map upside down. ( the first skill you learn as an orienteer, is to always keep the map oriented ). It’s much easier to navigate that way, especially when you are running full-tilt through a forest.

  8. darren

    Gar: You know, I’ve always thought I’d enjoy orienteering. I should get in better shape and check it out.

  9. Chris

    I’m with ++ungood – I don’t ever recall learning to read a map, I just kind of knew it. I remember drawing maps in grade 6, incredibly detailed ones of South America (damn you, Mr. Hunt!), but I definitely knew how to read them by then.

    As I didn’t get into D&D until later, I can’t attribute anything to that, but I do enjoy navigating a good hex map now and then :)

  10. darren

    Maybe I just have differently-abled map readers in my friends and family, but I think it’s a learned skill.

  11. Jarrett

    I played with atlases as a kid (kid=4-8). I’d take a look at a map of the Soviet Union and plan my trip, and places to avoid and how to get to Japan to see certain kinds of whales.

    Every month we had themes of study in school (October was the month we studied pirates!), and I tried to fuse them all together. It got quite bizarre after a while.

  12. Ian King

    I was one of those kids who pored over atlases and maps until I sort of figured out how they worked, so I can’t nail a definite age. Cub Scouts (technically Wolf Cubs) was where I got introduced to orienteering; I’d have been around 9 at the time. (Yes, it also made D&D easier to grasp… who said that scouts is for loasers?)

  13. Monique

    My mother was a cartographer and funny enough couldn’t navigate us to and from the grocery store.

  14. Jessica

    I think it’s true; map reading is a learned skill. I used to be hopeless at it, but through necessity (traveling)I’ve definitely improved…

  15. Andy K

    This is a really cool question, Darren. I’m one of those people to whom it has always seemed innate. As a kid, I remember pouring over atlases at home and reading maps on vacation more because I love maps, not because I was learning to use them. Same thing for D&D, it was the map and exploration aspect that appealed to me, not the avatar role-playing–obviously I didn’t play long.

    Maps appeal to me because they tell me something about a place I’ve never been, like a photo. I don’t know when I “learned” to read a map and make the connection to physical directions. My family often went on vacation road trips around the US and Europe, so we were always using maps.

    I used to think that map reading was something everybody could do, because most literate people can to some extent (direction finding is a different story). But when traveling in India and trying to get help on a Lonely Planet map, I realized it was just lines on paper to some people. So representing the world abstractly on paper seems to be a learned skill.

    I’d definitely be interested in reading any cognitive psychology studies or other research on the topics of map reading and spatial reasoning.

  16. Andy K

    Forgot to add that orienteering always sounded cool to me too, although I never tried it. Closest I get is off-trail route-finding in the mountains. For those rebuffed by map-reading, there is the much more social hashing.

  17. Dustin

    I remember learning about the elements a map should have and how to understand them in high school. I think I learned about mapping before then, but I think it was kind of gradually. Trips with family would have maps, and I always remember thinking maps were cool and checking them out when possible.

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