This year many of our youngest children have been traveling and there has been lots of conversation about vacations and trips to visit family. We often talk about how children traveled: Was it so far away that you took an airplane? Could you drive? Did you need to sleep away from home? Where did you sleep? Did you go over the ocean or over land? As we talk together, our classroom globe is featured and we help children find where we are now as well as where they traveled, so that we can show how far the trip was on the map. This informal and often spontaneous conversation also leads to questions about the globe itself, and we often talk about the symbols children notice, whether they show land forms, water, continents, animals that live nearby, etc.
Teachers decided to see if a more formal project might develop from this interest. We decided to start by asking families to help by sharing places around the world that are important to each child’s family identities. We posted this information in each location on 2 huge hallway maps – one of the United States and one of the world. And as information came in, we began our project by taking children out into the hallway to find their names and notice all the places associated with their families.
What a powerful beginning this turned out to be! For some children, finding their names and the names of countries important to family members has been the primary focus. For others, the interest has been in the maps themselves: Why is a globe round and this world map flat? Why does the United States look so big on this map and so small on this one? We live in Massachusetts – where is it on this map? Why can’t I find my house on the map? Why are there dots or lines or bumps? Blue is the water – there is land and water. What makes this place an island?
Our next step was to invite children to work together on a map of our classroom. Because so few children are representational in their drawings now, we used shapes as symbols for our table surfaces, hoping that would help children visualize our classroom activity centers and other features. Children looked around the room as we decided the best shape for each area and how to place it. We noticed the shape of our whole room – where the shorter and longer walls are. We found doorways together and noticed that only one wall has windows. When children weren’t sure, we walked over to the room area in question with our map, comparing what we placed with what we saw in our classroom space.
Many children chose to continue this process by making their own maps and with a focus on both family identities and our immediate shared environment (the classroom) we found the maps that children made also held personal meaning. Many maps of children’s houses were made, along with maps of the route children take to school. Details included our neighboring mountain, the Great Blue Hill, and children have added the road that passes Houghton’s Pond, another neighborhood landmark. Other children drew themselves in the car on family errands to the store, or on the way to a favorite gymnastics class. Some drew maps they could use, like a map of the zoo that shows the way to see monkeys, elephants and giraffes.
When families supported this project by allowing children to bring in family photos or artifacts that represent important places and people, our conversations were deeply enriched and children made new connections to each other. Some families have brought in books featuring places important to their cultural identities too, and we hope that this will continue.
Right now children are finding maps around the classroom, asking for details, and finding places relevant to their family experiences and identities. The book “Me On the Map” by Joan Sweeny has stimulated many conversations as children clarify the scales of different kinds of maps, and we’ve found children drawing themselves on classroom maps as well. Books featuring global families or houses often have maps in the back, and now children find them on their own and ask for more details about where the stories or people they’ve read about come from.
And we’ve seen children begin to represent land areas in their art. One child, when she mixed a beautiful shade of brown new to her, decided to surround it with blues so she could make “an island” We find children using lines to connect shapes, and are hearing more and more children label their work as a representation of a “house” or “mountain” as they develop their capacity for symbolic thinking.
We are taking the time to observe and collect information on what’s most important to the children so that we can offer meaningful extensions to this project. We know we want to find ways to think more deeply about land forms. We know we want to extend our classroom mapping experience to other parts of our school environment. As the weather gets warmer, we may be moving outdoors for more experiences relating to our mapping experiences – thinking about the outside of our building and our playground, and thinking more about the landmarks and features of our neighborhood.
And we’ll continue to look for ways to include families in this shared experience. Our annual multicultural family lunch is coming up, and we are hopeful that at least a few of the foods we share will represent some of the rich diversity of family experiences and identities that are present in our community.