Teaching map skills and geography in the elementary classroom

How to teach map skills in the elementary classroom

At the beginning of the school year, the first unit that I always teach in social studies is civics (since it goes hand-in-hand with discussing how to be a respectful classroom member), then map skills. My students LOVE map skills, and I can see why. It is pretty great as a kid to suddenly see how you are connected to the world around you. Map skills also lends itself to some fun activities that instantly engage students. As a teacher, my favorite units tend to be the ones with the most interesting activities for students. There is nothing that I love more than seeing my students truly love learning. Below, I have listed a few map skills activities I use every year, that not only help the kids learn, but gets them excited to start social studies!

I got this idea from a bakery near my house. They have a huge map at the bakery, and customers can mark where they have been wearing their bakery tee-shirt (it's a delicious and fun place....and I spend WAY too much money there). I buy a big map off Amazon (Glitter in Third is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising feeds by advertising and linking to Amazon.), but you could easily do this with a small map! Students thumbtack or mark the map with a post-it note with the name of the country or state that they have been. I don't have students use their names on this, because I don't want any of the kiddos to feel badly if they have not traveled much. I teach at a primarily military-family school, so there are some pretty neat places that kids have traveled before! This is also a great way for students to make connections with others.


How to teach map skills in the elementary classroomBelow are some book ideas that I enjoy using when I teach map skills. I am a big proponent of using whatever social studies or science unit that we are studying during our reading and writing time as well, so please note that I do the read alouds during those time periods! Below are a few of my favorites, along with an Amazon link if you're interested.

 I always go to the library and check out a bunch of books to display on my book shelves that go along with whatever unit that we are learning about. Make sure to check out your school library, there is always some good stuff lurking on those shelves! In the beginning of the year, I always come up with a list of read alouds that I will need and first see if my librarian will purchase for the school before I buy them for myself. You'd be surprised how eager and happy the librarian will be for suggestions, try it out if you haven't! (Glitter in Third is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising feeds by advertising and linking to Amazon.).

Students cut out all the continents and create labels for the continents and oceans. We lay everything out on the ground (I clear out all the desks to do this and push to the side of the room). I demonstrate longitude and latitude with yarn, laying it out on the ground. Then, students create a compass rose out of poster board. We use two pool noodles to create the equator and prime meridian, so that they really stand out from the longitude/latitude yarn.

When we have completed our interactive map, we quiz each other! I pick a student to create a question, then someone raises their hand to answer it. For example, "who can stand on eastern Europe?". Then a student raises their hand, jumps up, and shows us exactly where on the map we can find eastern Europe! This is an incredibly fun and memorable activity that I know your students will adore! I did this once for a classroom observation, and got rave reviews from administration regarding how engaged that students were.

How to teach map skills in the elementary classroom
How to teach map skills in the elementary classroom
How to teach map skills in the elementary classroom

I use my Map Skills & Geography interactive notebook with all of my lessons. The flips and flaps are not only fun for students to create, but also a good reference point. My interactive notebook is differentiated for learners and time. Each resource has a fully filled out copy, a partially filled out copy, and a blank copy. Sometimes I know that my social studies block will be extra short because we have an assembly/fire drill/etc., so I hand out notes already filled out and we simply discuss. Usually though I hand out the partly-filled slips so that we can figure out the answers together. 

Before each activity that we complete, I always have kids work on an interactive notebook piece beforehand. I want to ensure that my students understand the vocabulary terms, for example, before moving on to creating our own maps. 

Maps are all around us- the park, the mall, Disney World, downtown, the subway system, our GPS. In the beginning of the map skills unit, I send home a letter asking parents to look for maps in the every day world with their child. If the map is free, send it in! Together, students and I collect a ton of maps. I put these in our classroom library, and the kids enjoy looking and flipping through them during their independent reading time. 

An easy activity to go along with these maps is to find and identify the map features. After we learn about map features and complete an interactive notebook flipbook on map features, students work in partners to label the map features that they see. Each pair of partners gets Post-It notes and a Sharpie (this is always an exciting day in the classroom, it's hilarious how much my students love post-its and Sharpies!). They label the parts of a map, then when they are finished they flip-flop with another set of partners to check each other's work and see if they can add anything that they other group missed.

Have you used Google Earth in your classroom? Students go wild for this. I love it as a teacher because it's free and easy. I make it a little more special by having the kids pretend that we are taking a trip to each continent. We sit like we are sitting in an airplane.... I'm talking having an aisle and sitting in rows of three. I print out cute passports for each of the students to make this extra fun as we "visit" each continent. I stamp each passport before they "board" the plane. There are some free passports I found on TPT, but you could also just fold a piece of construction paper in half and have kids make their own!

We "fly" to each continent. While looking at each continent on Google Earth on the projector, I ask the students what they notice. How does the geography differ in various parts of the continent? How does it differ from other continents? What can we infer about the climate? Are there various regions that we notice? What are some countries that we can name in each continent? We so often talk about continents, but students do not always make the connection of countries and climate. We live in a globalized world, students need to understand how closely intwined that we are with all our geographical neighbors. 

I bring the class out to the playground in the morning before any grades are playing recess. We look around the playground, and create our own maps of the playground with a piece of white paper and a clipboard. I buy fun things at Oriental Trading (like whistles, sticky hands, etc.) then pass out one to each student the day after we create our intricate maps. With a parent volunteer, we take turns going outside to hide our treasure. Finally, students create a list of treasure hunt directions that another student can follow to find the treasure. For example, "look to the north of the basketball hoop)", then we give our treasure hunts to another student and go out on the hunt!

I always love using technology in my classroom, and am a Google Classroom addict! I included a video to show my Google Drive map skills resource. I use these as centers during our literacy stations for kids to reinforce their map knowledge. If you're a 1:1 classroom, I highly recommend this product to engage kids! It has drag-&-drop activities, writing pieces, KWL charts, map diagrams - it has the works for kids to learn all about map skills!

If you're interested, I have two products to teach map skills & geography that I love, love love! Otherwise, I hope you find some of my other ideas useful. Do you teach map skills in the classroom? What are your go-to activities that you enjoy doing with your students?

How to teach map skills in the elementary classroom

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