Are we naive to hope for a "Dora effect"? Is it unrealistic to expect that preschoolers who are raised with the company of this perky pal should grow up to be devoted map lovers? They can't have a monkey for a real best friend, and repeating "lo hicimos" in that uninflected way does not a bilingual child make. But maps! Maps may well be Nickelodeon's lasting legacy to the youth of America.
A parent can dream, can't she?!
And, failing dreams and Dora both, she can teach her child to read a map. Maps are the ultimate real-life application of spatial thinking. A love of maps will bring many happy years of travel planning, shortcut finding, and route recommending. Maps answer the basic puzzle of our lives: "Where am I and where am I going?" Having a map at the ready often short-circuits the tension stemming from a spouse's refusal to stop and ask for directions. Existential peace, marital bliss—get out the map!
Your child's first map is a simple conceptual one. You are headed to the park, and you decide to ask "Shall we take a map?" You sketch a few lines, key intersections and cherished landmarks on an index card. Presto! Your outing just became an expedition. Your child doesn't know what scale is; don't apologize for its absence.
You are now bringing maps along everywhere you go. Before heading out, you create a Google Map of where you're headed. With enough printed copies for all the navigators in the car, you've never been so happy to have backseat drivers! It's almost irrelevant whether your child is following along. If you mark a few fun sightings along the way (and "fun" in this context can be as simple as a billboard you know you'll see or a grocery store along the way), your little one can keep pace and get a sense of how a map works. Someday, she can also read you the driving directions section as you need it, and someday, horror of horrors, you'll be one navigating when she drives. If you can open your eyes.
Another way to give a sense of a map to young children is to introduce them to a compass. Your dashboard or rearview mirror may have a compass feature built in, and the display may be visible from the back. A simple compass keychain or necklace (either of which makes an excellent party favor for an adventurer's birthday, by the way) is a way for your little one to chart your course, watching the spins as you cross town. Add in some basic facts about where the sun rises and sets, and you've got a budding cartographer as soon as he can recognize the letters of the four points.
But maps show you more than just where you're headed, of course. They also show you where you already are. It's a clever trick on Google Maps to zoom in and out to get the fullest context, but that may seem like just a magic trick to your wee one. Me on the Map uses words and pictures to zoom from a child's room through city, state and far beyond. And As the Crow Flies: A First Book of Maps shows how non-Googling creatures use nature's maps to make their way.
Now that you've got a little bit of context, perhaps it's time for the delightful This Land is Your Land map by eeBoo, drawn by one of our Savvy favorites, Dan Yaccarino. Its accompanying set of stickers makes the country personalizable and endlessly explorable. If you happen to live in (or visit) San Francisco, then you must keep a Guy Fox Children's Map of the city within reach. The same editions exist for Washington D.C, New York City, and oooh London too. Or you can create your own children's map for your hometown with any enlarged and not-too-detailed map plus a few stickers to mark your favorite spots. What's fun about these maps is that they are real but also personal -- and therefore perfect for preschoolers. The best map, of course, is the one that shows you your world from your very own perspective.
But you can hold off on the Saul Steinberg map-as-worldview explanation for a few more years...
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