Learning Landscapes: Maps and Paths

Maps and Paths

Cool, crisp wind tickles our faces and delights our nose with the scents that remind me of fond childhood memories. Our bare feet relish the cool, soft dirt path that follows the stream. We walk along silently as we carefully step over the few fallen leaves that dot the path. Birds sing a different song now as they are busy preparing for what is to come and we hear the scrambling feet of small creatures foraging for food and climbing up tree trunks for safety as we approach. A few of the leaves on the underside of the poplars are starting to turn, the first of the new season (though not the first sign for those who have been observing with all our senses).

This is home.

What story do children come to know about home? We are story-making, storytelling and story-craving creatures. Stories, at least those that are remembered, are not for the mundane. The stories we continue to believe and tell is our living tradition of our time and place. It is our mythology. Mythology from our ancestors that trill the listener still today is anything but mundane.

Stories, those that resonate, hold the promise of mystery, extraordinary challenges and hope. These stories connect us more deeply to ourselves, others and Earth by inspiring us not only cognitively, but through a lifeline to our heart and spirit. What story of “home” are we co-creating as we help our children shape the learning landscape in their own local place?

“Developing a local sense of place leads organically to a bioregional sense of place and hopefully to biospheric consciousness.”
– David Sobel, Childhood and Nature, p. 34

How do children know, really know, their home? Stories heard and (most importantly) experienced through the mindbody, heart and spirit hold the power of change, regeneration and even transformation for humans and Earth. Education is our greatest resource, but every “lesson” needs a story. What is the story of home that our children are hearing compared to that which is possible to experience?

Current Educational Story

How we go about “teaching” (as well as what we teach) is a cultural activity. For better or worse, culture does not usually change quickly. Our current cultural educational fallback is to focus on learning with “high-interest activities,” like games, puzzles, dramatic presentations and the like, as the core of the learning landscape. These activities alone, without a greater story in which they are woven, rarely support development or challenge learners in coherent ways.

The current educational story, if one exists at all, is to connect with the material (knowledge or skills) first and foremost. Perhaps educators then work to develop a relationship with the students as a means of helping create a safe learning environment. Where or when in this “story” do children come to a deeper understanding of themselves and their relationships with all?

Changing the Story

There are many ways to craft the educational story. Sometimes people assume that children are not capable or interested in helping craft the story, but this would be presumptuous. I would argue this is also dangerous as it disempowers our children from learning not just the “what” but the “how” and “why” as well. Our children deserve to be integral in their own journey for truth and meaning.

What if instead of the core of our children’s learning being focused on the material our educational story was crafted to cultivate curiosity about and a connection with the following in this order?

  • Place
  • Self
  • Other children and youth
  • Material
  • Educator

As adults in the community, we can play the role of educational mentor and help shape the learning landscape. Community-oriented learning calls on all stakeholders, regardless of age, to work together to ensure children have safe, welcoming and equitable access to learning landscapes that hold the promise of mystery, extraordinary challenges and hope. One of the ways we can do this is to help children map out the learning landscape and craft their own unique path within it rather than seeking to write the storyline which is the path that children walk that leads to the final destination.

Maps and paths in the learning landscape can be co-created metaphorically and literally. To help children learn educational cartography explore maps, paths and your local place – literally. Using maps and paths is one of the design principles for educators as described by David Sobel in his book Childhood and Nature.

Children are naturally drawn to explore and understand Nature in their place and time. The reading of, playing with and making of maps and paths helps children develop a connection with and love for Earth. It is only for those things that we feel connected to, have a love for, that we then feel grief when it is not cared for. Through active, playful love children are naturally drawn to know more about and take actions to care for Earth.

Maps tell a story, be it a story of the terrain, location of natural resources, geopolitical boundaries, human movement, changes over time or any of the multitude of purposes for maps that can be integrated into our children’s learning environment. Having maps of all sorts easily accessible to children to not just look at but play with, along with intriguing fictional and factual stories in maps help characters navigate their journey, can inspire interest in not only the use and history of maps but also exploration and creation of new maps of their local place and time.

Have fun and think creatively about how maps and paths might help children connect with and develop a love for “home.” Here are a few ideas in addition to reading and playing with premade maps:

  • Create a map of a local forest from the perspective of a hiker and yet another of the same place from a bird’s eye view
  • Create a treasure map of one’s own yard or neighborhood, “bury” treasure and invite other friends over to go on a treasure hunt. Those that planted the treasure might even want to guard it turning a regular treasure hunt into a sort of capture the flag game. (Note: Children from the early childhood ages through teenagers have been enthralled with a treasure hunt, as long as each is allowed to integrate developmentally appropriate imagination and fantasy into it.)
  • A fun and challenging twist to the treasure hunt is to have markers on the map with clues that require observation of Nature through other senses to find three or more treasures. For example, after navigating using the map to the first marker the children might find a riddle on birch bark that requires them to use their “Dog Nose” and “Owl Eyes” to find a pungent flower or “Raccoon Hands” to find a soft, cool moss. It is here the treasure is found.

As Emily Dickinson wrote in her poem “Nature” Is What We See:

“Nature” is what we see—
The Hill—the Afternoon—
Squirrel—Eclipse— the Bumble bee—
Nay—Nature is Heaven—
Nature is what we hear—
The Bobolink—the Sea—
Thunder—the Cricket—
Nay—Nature is Harmony—
Nature is what we know—
Yet have no art to say—
So impotent Our Wisdom is
To her Simplicity.

What might the story and future of our home (Earth) become if such playful and connecting experiences in, among and between self, others and Nature were a central part of the framework, not the exception? Connection, love, empathy and even transcendence between children and the natural world should be our main “educational” story. Maps are creative educational tools that might, just might bring a bit of the much needed promise of mystery, extraordinary challenge and hope into this story. What path might the map inspire our children to forge?


Jen MendezJen Mendez
Jen is mother of two joyous children, Community Experiential Education by Design (CEED) facilitator and founder of PERMIE KIDs. PERMIE KIDs is an educational resource network that uses whole systems thinking tools and ethics to help families and educators around the world discover the art, science and wisdom of mentoring children on their journeys in learning and life. Through educational programs, resources and workshops, we help parents and educators work with children to co-create personalized educational plans and projects driven by their passions and connected to their place, culture, family, and community.


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