A+ Advice for Parents

Helping Kids Learn How to Use an Atlas on Family Vacation

Q: I purchased a road atlas for a trip, but my boys asked why we don't just use GPS. They have zero map skills, so I was hoping some atlas activities would teach them and keep them busy on a long trip. Do you have any suggestions?

A: Despite the wide availability of mapping services and apps, many long-distance travelers don't leave home without a road atlas. "An atlas helps you see the big picture, not just the next turn," says Bennett Moe, the director of innovation at maps.com.

Take that atlas along with you and put the boys in charge of it, says Moe.

"GPS devices are great for navigating from point to point, but an atlas gives you context to the areas you are traveling," he says. "It helps you eyeball distances. It alerts you to elevations, rivers and other topological features. Atlases often add cool information about states -- their mottos, state flowers and so on. Make that atlas your stealth teaching tool this summer."

Before you head out, cover map basics: Teach the boys how to read map symbols indicating various types of roads and highways. Show them how to read a compass rose to determine north, east, south and west, as well as intermediate points. Explain to your kids how to estimate distances. Learn how lakes, streams and rivers are denoted and how to read contour lines to determine elevation. Discover what symbols designate local, state and national parks. (For more information, National Geographic has engaging online map skills activities at education.nationalgeographic.com/education/map-skills-elementary-students.)

Next, create fun activities to align with your trip, suggests Moe.

"For example, if you plan to drive from Nashville, Tennessee, to La Crosse, Wisconsin, have the boys use the atlas to plan the shortest route," he says. "Then have them check their route using a digital mapping application. How close were their estimates in miles and hours? Have them determine the most scenic route, even though it may not be the fastest. Ask how many states the route will take them through, and so on."

Using sticky notes, have the boys mark points of interest they want to visit along the way. The more they familiarize themselves with the route prior to leaving, the more they'll anticipate segments of the trip.

"One great atlas activity is a variation of the license plate game," says Moe. "In addition to counting and graphing the state plates that you see, use the atlas to answer questions about each one. 'Where is that state in relation to where we live? Is that state larger or smaller than yours? What is the capital? How far do you think those in the car traveled to get here?'"

Use your atlas to plot geocaching, a treasure hunt GPS activity, suggests Moe.

"Geocaching combines lessons in navigation, longitude and latitude, geography, mapping, measurement, distance, satellites, strategy, teamwork and problem solving -- kids love it because it's high-tech," he explains. (Go to geocaching.com for more.)

A well-thumbed, annotated atlas is a great trip souvenir, says Moe.

"Map skills are important in many professions, from policing, meteorology, environmental engineering, to farming, city planning and marine biology," he says. "Your boys need this hands-on experience to develop strong geospatial skills they'll use throughout their lives."

(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)

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