How Experience Mapping Helps Kids Envision Their Ideal Learning Environment

John Noble

A while back, I heard a segment on the radio program “This American Life” that appealed to my inner geographer. It was a story about mapping and it focused on a man who had developed a whole series of maps of his neighborhood in a small North Carolina town.

What struck me was that this man’s maps were less about how to get from Point A to Point B and more about documenting the experience of being in his particular neighborhood. For instance, he made a map of dogs that bark, a map of graffiti, a map that showed concentrations of jack-o-lanterns on Halloween. He even mapped shadows.

It turns out that map-making can be a really revealing activity and, as every early childhood educator knows, kids love to make maps. There’s a reason that the pivotal element in every episode of “Dora the Explorer” is the creation of a map. Maps offer a means to understand one’s world, to communicate about one’s world, even to “own” one’s world.

If you ask a four-year-old to make a map of their day, the results can be remarkable, offering insights into important relationships and priorities that could be difficult, if not impossible, for that same child to put into words.

Alternatively, if you ask a four-year-old to make a map of the world they would like to spend their days in, the results can be down-right revelatory. In preparation for creating a master plan for the Miami Valley School District in Ohio, SHP Leading Design asked students what they hoped their school would contain. While the older students mostly generated thoughtful lists of spaces and activities, the youngest among them resorted to, yes, maps of various sorts.
As you can see in the examples posted here, one child’s map included skylights and a lemonade fountain. Another student envisioned a “dragen cher” (aka: dragon chair). Yet another wanted a “secrit pashig way” (aka: secret passage way).

While there are, of course, few of the precise conventions of standard cartography, it is remarkable how clearly and accurately these drawings convey spatial relationships, prioritize activities relative to one another, and even suggest how spaces should be inhabited and utilized.

There are many delightful ideas and thoughts floating around young children’s brains and map-making is an excellent way to extract some of them in order to design environments worthy of their hungry, imaginative minds.

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