Sequential development of understanding maps


A set of guidelines about children's ability to interpret maps is provided in this illustration. It also contains information showing the different elements of the understanding of maps, and the sequence of stages through which students' progress.

Learning goals

This illustration of practice is designed to help teachers improve their students' understanding of maps. The important pieces of information are presented in a list providing an overview of the sequential development of understandings by children as they progress in age and experience.

Geographical understanding and context

An understanding of multiple kinds of maps is central to a mastery of geography. As the research demonstrates, the key to this understanding begins at an early age. 

The multiple elements of map understanding and use are treated individually in this illustration. For each element the sequential development of understanding is given.

Learning approaches

The research on children's understanding of maps has revealed that there are a number of separate elements or sub-skills that need to be developed.

These elements of map understanding are:

1. Plan view

The first element of map understanding is that maps are a plan view of the land surface, as distinct from a sideways view or an oblique aerial view. Young children draw their first illustrations mostly from a sideways view, and they recognise objects most easily from this customary viewpoint. With practice and experience, they can understand that objects on the earth's surface look quite different from above, and that maps are always drawn from this perspective. They learn to visualise single objects in plan view, and later they learn to visualise groups of objects. The appreciation of relative size, spacing and shape of objects drawn on a map develops from the basic to the more sophisticated.

2. Direction

Understanding of direction is the next element of map understanding. This develops from random estimation (left, right, that way) to a more methodical use of north, south, east and west. The cardinal points of the compass have to be taught explicitly and revised. Although most children have no difficulty discriminating between north and south, there are many adults who always have difficulty with east and west. From the four basic compass points, the next stage is the use of eight points such as south-west, north-east. After this comes the understanding of numerical angular measurements, with a 360 degrees compass going clockwise from north, with north designated 0 degree.

3. Location and reference systems

Location and reference systems are the next element to be understood. The first descriptions of where places are on a simple map use words such as 'at the bottom of the map' or 'near the school building'. Children can be shown concrete grid systems on two-dimensional surfaces such as the school playground. The use of street directory-type alpha-numeric grids (for example, A4, C8, F2) can be understood by children first. They can progress from large-scale versions of these into smaller scale maps using the same principle. Next comes an understanding of the use of latitude and longitude lines as a grid system. At primary school level, most children will only get as far as using the integer degrees of latitude and longitude, and not minutes and seconds of degrees. Using six-figure grid references can be left until secondary school.

4. Proportion and scale

The understanding of proportion and scale is the next element of map understanding. Some students will find the sophisticated use of scale difficult. You may find that they can progress through the understanding of the relative sizes of objects and groups of objects at a large scale and a small scale, but they find the use of ratios difficult. When they have understood proportion, they can be introduced to the use of simple numerical or linear scales. The use of a ruler-type scale on a map (where one centimetre represents a distance such as one metre or 100 metres) is a good introduction. From there they can progress to a verbal statement of this scale. 

5. Distances

The measurement of distances on a map, using a line scale is closely related to the previously described understanding of proportion and scale. Some students will develop these abilities simultaneously, others will start from the concrete process of measuring, and some will grasp the more abstract idea of proportion more easily. Practice at measuring and estimating real distances in the room or outdoors is a good preparation for measuring distances on maps.

6. Representation of data

The representation of data on maps includes five sub-groups:

a. Map colour
The use of colour on a map is one of the important conventions with which children need to become familiar. They begin by using different colours arbitrarily but soon progress to the use of some conventional colours such as blue for water. A more complex understanding is of the conventions in the use of colours on thematic maps, political maps, and relief maps.

b. Base data on maps
Maps use conventions for their base data. Students first draw maps with thick coastlines, rivers and political borders, and progress to finer detail. 

c. Map signs
Recognising the range of map signs is important. There are signs on maps to represent point, line and area features. Examples include a dot for a town, a blue line for a river, a green area for a forest. Students need to become familiar with these, and progress to a larger number of signs on a map. Some signs have a hierarchy of importance and some are quantitative.

d. Lettering and numbers on maps
The lettering and numbers on maps use a number of conventions to distinguish between classes of features. Students need to become familiar with the use of the increasing size of font for increasing importance and the use of different font styles for different classes of features.

e. Representing relief on maps
The representation of relief is probably the most complex understanding. At primary level students will progress from simple verbal and single colour use (such as brown for hills) to a finer use of single colour on maps they are drawing and an ability to interpret layer colouring of altitude (such as used in many atlases). The more sophisticated reading of maps using contours can be left until secondary school.

What you need

Sequential development of mapping elements (PDF, 305 KB). This document has been adapted, modified and updated from Butler, J., Clough, R., Gerber, R., Senior, B., Smith, S., Wilson, R. (1983). Jacaranda atlas project resource book one. Milton, Qld: Jacaranda Press. The development of understanding of mapping elements is divided into six elements. The elements are listed from one to six, in an order which approximately reflects how children seem to grasp these ideas. The sixth element is the representation of data on maps, and this is divided into five sub-groups. In each of these elements, the usual stages of a child's development of understanding are listed in sequential order. The line drawn at one point in each sequence is roughly the point between primary and secondary school.

What does research tell us? (PDF 359 KB). An excerpt from Bridge, C. (2010), How children relate to maps. In S. Scoffham (Ed.). Primary geography handbook (Chapter 8). Sheffield: Geographical Association. You may also wish to read the whole chapter.



American Education Publishing. (2010). The complete book of maps and geography. American Education publishing. This is full of sheets of activities on maps and globes. Although the central section is on states of USA, it contains plenty of ideas for doing similar exercises on Australia. 

Gardner, J. & Mills, J. (2010). The everything kid's geography book. Adams Media. This book contains plenty of ideas related to map and globe use. Its theme is exploring the world.

Ritchie, S.(2009). Follow that map. Ontario: Kids Can Press. This is a first book of mapping skills for early readers.

Sweeney, J. (1996). Me on the map. New York: Dragonfly books. This is a picture book written specifically for young learners.


Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA). (2013). Australian Curriculum: Geography. Retrieved month 2013, from:

All other required resources are listed in the 'What you need' section above.