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Student-Friendly Map Tools for your World Geography Unit
Students see the same maps year after year in their classrooms. The variety of maps in the world is far greater than what the average student is exposed to in school. When students only see one view of the world, they conclude that that is the only view. Maps teach us so much about perspective. There are many ways to look at the globe and maps give us different views of it.
One of the best ways to enhance a lesson is to add interactive tools that are used by scientists, geographers, cartographers, and historians to understand our world. It is so time-consuming to find great map tools that many educators opt not to, something I myself have done. To save you some time, I have compiled a list of five fantastic map tools you can use to enhance your geography lessons. From historical maps to interactive tools, you will find something for every age and every need.
Each tool includes discussion questions you can use to follow up on each map activity. (Read until the end for a special offer to kickstart your geography unit).
Barry Lawrence Ruderman Antique Maps is an antique map and atlas dealer who boasts an impressive collection of antique maps from many periods of history. Not only can you find high-quality images of maps and atlases on this site, but you will also find detailed explanations of the history of each map. For this reason, it is one of my favorite resources for teaching world geography.
One of the benefits of looking at a variety of original maps is that students can make inferences about the time period. You can discuss what people knew at the time and how their perceptions affected the result of the map. Students often see the same map – the Mercator Projection – throughout their schooling. Every map has its distortions, however, so you want to expose students to the hundreds of map projections that exist. When students only see one type of map, they think that it is the ‘correct’ one, but maps can teach us so much about perspective.
- What are your initial impressions?
- What places do you see on the map?
- Does the map have a compass rose, legend, and scale?
- When do you think the map was drawn?
- Why do you think this map was made?
- How does it compare to a current map of the same place?
- How have the boundaries of this area changed over time?
2. Intergovernmental Committee on Surveying and Mapping
Based in Australia, the Intergovernmental Committee on Surveying and Mapping (ICSM) offers surveying, mapping, and charting services on its website. There are dozens of great resources on map projections. This site provides a clear explanation of the purpose and types of map projection. This video from Vox also gives a fantastic visual explanation of why map projections are necessary for mapmaking.
Students of all ages benefit from looking at more than one type of map. In early grades, you may explore maps versus globes. In the middle and upper grades, you can go more in-depth into map projections and look at a variety of maps from ancient to modern.
- What are map projections?
- How can maps be distorted?
- What are the differences between these two projections?
- What is the benefit of each type of projection?
- Which type of projection is best for looking at this part of the world?
3. World Atlas
World Atlas has a collection of maps that you traditionally find in classrooms. From world maps to maps of specific regions and countries, it is a great resource for educators. You can also find student-friendly resources about geography.
World Atlas is a good resource for exploring different types of maps – from physical maps to road maps to political maps, they have an abundance of options. They also have multiple views of the same country.
- What are your initial impressions?
- What’s the purpose of this map?
- What does this map tell us about this region?
- How are these two maps similar/different?
- What are the physical features of this region?
- What is the elevation and terrain in this region?
- What are the boundaries of this region?
4. National Geospatial Program
U.S. Geological Survey is a part of the Department of Interior in the United States. They provide free geographical tools that are highly engaging and interactive. Explore the interactive National Map Viewer, their free training videos on geography topics, their 3D elevation program, and many other free tools.
Students will surely enjoy exploring the sources that the U.S.G.S. has to offer straight from the nation’s geographers and cartographers.
- What is topography?
- What is elevation?
- What is hydrography?
- What is the purpose of this tool?
- What does this tool show us?
- What is the best tool to use if you need to know about ___?
5. National Geographic MapMaker
National Geographic’s MapMaker is an interactive tool designed for students to create their own maps. The MapMaker includes political and physical data points that students can add to their own maps to better understand the world. They can even add multiple layers to compare two data points, for example, human migration compared to rainfall.
- What did you include in your map?
- Why did you decide to include these data points?
- What did you learn from looking at these data points?
- If you included ___ instead of ___, how might your map tell a different story?
Need a FREE geography activity for upper elementary?
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World Geography Resources
Primary sources are a fantastic way to pique curiosity and foster discussion. For a more robust unit on world geography, explore the resources below. The World Geography Unit is a 3-week introductory unit perfect for upper-elementary students. Explore more about the geography of Africa with this fun unit for the middle grades. Our Human Geography Unit for high school students goes more in-depth into the five themes of geography.
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