Map Skills (KS2) Made Easy

A Lego explorer holding a lego map and compass.

Image © Andrew Martin from Pixabay.

Map skills are the ability to read a map and navigate a journey.

Using paper maps give a sense of adventure, can get you into the great outdoors, and is just a useful skill to know. That is why map skills are an essential part of geography lessons at school.

However, we now live in an age of technology with readily available GPS systems, so we may be a little rusty on our knowledge of using maps. We have all the know-how about map skills for children to make teaching this important skill that much easier.

What Is A Map?

A map is a two-dimensional drawing of a specific area. They can be of a small village or town, a whole city, country, continent, or even be a world map. They are used to help people get from one place to another without getting lost. They also reveal landmarks like hills and castles. Maps can be on paper, laptops, mobile phones and GPS devices.

Ordnance Survey (OS) is the mapping agency of Great Britain. OS maps are standardised, up-to-date, and accurate. These are the basis of teaching children map skills in Geography class.

Using A Compass

People use a compass to help read a map. A compass shows the four directions: north, east, south, west. North is at the top of a map. A compass needle will always point north, so you can figure out which way is north and match it up to the map.

It is not actually recommended to initially teach children to read a map with the aid of a compass because it can be a bit of a distraction. Rather, it is recommended to use a smaller map and navigate with the aid of GPS as they are a lot less technical.

The Scale and Grid

Maps are not drawn the same size as the ground because maps would be massive and super hard to read. So, maps shrink the size of the area to a smaller scale. The scale compares distances and is written as a set of numbers, for example, 1:20,000, which means that the actual size of the area is 20,000 times bigger than what is on the map.

The grid is made up of blue boxes across a map. Each side of the box is one kilometre in length.  Grid references allow you to find where something is. The first letter/number is the horizontal position and the second letter/number is the vertical position.

Child holding open a map, reading it and pointing to a location.
Image © Free-Photos from Pixabay

Map Keys, Symbols And Contours

Maps are scaled-down, so it would be really difficult to put everything on there in writing. Map symbols show important areas, landmarks and places. There is a map key that shows what each symbol means and thankfully, they are the same across all OS maps. Here are some examples of map symbols for kids:

  • Tourist attractions are shown with blue symbols.
  • Different roads use different colours. A main road is red, a motorway is blue and narrower roads are yellow or orange.
  • Footpaths are shown with dotted green lines.

Contour lines show high and low areas. One continuous contour line shows an area that is the same height above sea level. When contour lines together are close together, it shows a steep area like a hill or mountain. When the lines are far apart, the land is gently sloping, or undulating.

These features are useful to know when planning a route so you know what your journey will be like.

What Map Skills Are KS2 Kids Taught?

Maps are a key to getting around and that is why it is essential to KS2 Geography lessons. Kids are usually introduced to map skills in Year 4. The National Curriculum states that children should be able to read large OS maps and identify a broad range of symbols and features. Using a compass is also taught to children, and they usually practice getting around on a field trip.

Teaching Kids To Read A Map

Young boy holding up a map reading it in the countryside.
Image © StockSnap from Pixabay

Before you read the map, ensure your child is familiar with map features. Go outside with a small map and choose an area with a lot of different features for your child to experience. Get them to look around the landscape and relate it to the map. After you have done this a couple of times, try it with the aid of a compass and GPS. A simple outdoor exercise could look something like this:

  • Ask kids to find their current location on the map.
  • Get them to locate a familiar place on the map and ask them to take you there.
  • A treat at the end destination makes the activity extra rewarding!

Did You Know?

Here are some fun facts about the world of maps.

  • People who make maps are called cartographers.
  • The first maps were created in prehistoric times. Cavemen would mark out their territories on cave walls.
  • Ptolemy, a Greek cartographer and mathematician equations that are still used in today's maps.
  • In the past maps were made by hand but today they are made by GIS computer systems.
  • The first jigsaws were of maps. Jigsaw puzzles were created in the 18th Century to teach maps in Geography lessons.

Fun Activities For Map Skills

There is no need to fret, Kidadl has you covered with free resources so that your and your child are confident with geography.

We have already mentioned going outside, and teaching mapping for kids could be an excellent excuse to travel to different locations across the United Kingdom.

There are loads of ways to make learning map reading skills fun. Have a go at map symbol bingo and try some of these Geography games!

How about something creative? Kids can create their own map for your neighbourhood, a fantasy land or an area from their favourite tale.


Written By

Danielle Outen

Danielle was born and raised in London but has travelled all over the world chasing waves. Her mum is one of ten siblings, so she has always been surrounded by a massive network of family. Danielle is always looking for new and fun activities to do with her relatives. If it is outdoors and adventurous - even better!

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