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Finding Ourselves
Mapping Activity

Overview: Using topographic maps available online, teachers will guide students through several lessons and activities related to the use of topographic maps and the location of the school, their community, and their place within the community. (Grades K-3)


  1. Relating the map to the ground. The students taking large scale topographic maps go out to the playground and complete the following activities.

    A. Pace Counts: Pace count method is a means of measuring distance. For each person, the number of paces to walk 100 meters is different. By measuring how many steps it takes to walk a certain distance, you can then use your pace to measure other unknown distances. Have the students walk a predetermined distance (usually 25 or 50 meters) to see how many steps it would take. Then using the pace count method, the students can measure various distances on the playground, to the cafeteria, or to the library. Older students can then start working on conversion from steps to meters, computing the number of steps to other places, and computing travel time based upon their own walking speed.

    B. Terrain features: Terrain features are geographic land features that are all around us. They include ridges, hills, valleys, draws, depressions, and saddles. By identifying these features on the ground and on the map, students can develop a sense of terrain and an appreciation for the land around them. The simplest way to identify land features is by the use of a terrain model. By building the terrain model to match the topographic map example, students can see and touch the terrain features in a quick time span. TopoWeb's topographic map reading guide offers some useful information about terrain and contour elevation.

    C. Map orientation: This involves laying the map out in relation to the terrain and features on the ground. This is accomplished by locating features on the ground and features on the map. Linear features such as ridges, roads, streams, railroad tracks or high tension cables provide a quick frame of reference. Prominent terrain such as large hills, large buildings or cemeteries allow for easy orientation as well. To find maps or aerial photos of your local area go to either or MSN Terra Server.

    D. Compass Directions This activity involves the use of a map, a simple compass and cardinal directions. The CHARTING A COURSE WITH A COMPASS site provides material about the compass rose, and the development of navigation. A simple way to determine direction on a sunny day and associate the direction with the location of the sun is to use the stick and shadow method for direction determination. Place a stick vertically into the ground and mark the tip of the shadow on the ground with a stone. Then wait 30 to 45 minutes and mark the second shadow tip with a stone. (The longer you wait the more dramatic the result.) The draw a line from the first point to the second point and this will give you an approximate East/West axis. The first mark will be the west end of the line and the second mark will be the east end. From this point you can then determine the north and south points. Then have students compare their directions with a compass and see how close they came. After this is accomplished, then have the students draw a compass rose incorporating the new directions that they have determined. (This is an excellent sidewalk chalk activity for good weather.)

  2. Send digital copies of the maps along with pictures of students completing other activities within the unit (scanned or digital pictures) as e-mail attachments to .


TopoWeb's topographic map reading guide This site provides basic information about reading and understanding topographic maps. This site provides printable copies of topographic maps for most areas of the United States.
MSN Terra Server MSN site that provides customizable maps and aerial photos of most areas of the United States.
CHARTING A COURSE WITH A COMPASS This site provides a nice description of the use of the compass rose and offers several examples of the types of compass roses used by early cartographers.

Updated 7/18/02