Tag Archives: Neighborhoods

In GPS Era, Map Reading Skills a Lost Art

This article relates a tale that is no doubt being played out all over the developed world:

Two college students playing in an out-of-town hockey tournament went out to eat with their parents after a late game, but the restaurant they picked had just closed its kitchen.

“There’s another place just a few blocks away,” the hostess said helpfully. “Take a left out of the parking lot, go two blocks, turn right and go one block.”

The parents and the players retreated to their separate cars. When the players sat in the parking lot for a couple of minutes without moving, one of the parents walked over to see if there was a problem with the car.

“Not at all,” they said. “We’re just programming the directions into the GPS.’ ”

Is that where we’ve ended up, with a younger generation that can’t go three blocks without being told by a electronic voice where to turn?

Like the author, I found this story dismaying. I know GPS (Global Positioning System) and similar devices are helpful, but they can also be a crutch and, ultimately, a detriment.

According to the British Cartographic Society, high-tech maps get the user from Point A to Point B but leave off traditional features like geographic and built landmarks, and this could lead to a loss of cultural and geographic literacy.

I, too, find the GPS experience extremely limiting, especially when visual or voice commands tell me (sometimes incorrectly) where to turn just before the turn needs to be made. With a map, preferably one on paper, one can pull out to a bird’s eye view, get a complete picture, plot a route, and have true satisfaction and awareness about ones place within it.

Nothing wrong with having a GPS as a back-up, but I see far too many people who completely depend on them, to the degree that, like the boys in the restaurant parking lot, they’re afraid to travel anywhere, even a few blocks, without one.

One study, from the University of Tokyo, found that people on foot using a GPS device actually made more errors and more stops, and walked farther and more slowly than traditional map users. They also demonstrated a poorer knowledge of the terrain, topography and routes.

GPS, researchers say, encourages people to stare at a screen, rather than looking around at their environment. Also, most GPS screens makes it impossible for a user to take in both their location and their destination at the same time.

Ah, there’s that Big Picture again.

There are additional consequences to over-reliance on GPS devices. I wrote last year about Nature Disconnect in Britain. It seems that a lack of map skills is actually somewhat responsible for keeping a whole generation of children there, and surely elsewhere, homebound, fearful of exploring, playing, and being outside in the unknown. Children’s very sense of adventure is being terribly circumscribed.

Luckily, there are steps being taken to combat this. This list of ideas ranges from walking in ones neighborhood and making friends, to creating neighborhood green spaces and safe pedestrian and bike routes, to educating parents about unfounded fears. And, of course, one can and should learn basic map reading skills.

Interestingly, technology is helping with the latter, as geocaching (group scavenger hunts which use GPS devices) as well as old-school scavenger hunts continue to gain popularity. In addition, the Boy Scouts have responded to the crisis in map reading by upping their universal requirements for using a compass and map. (Girl Scouts also offer geocaching and orienteering badges and programs.)

Debi at Go Explore Nature offers some tips for getting out and geocaching.

Where is the paper map in all this? Some say it’s going the way of the phone booth and the milkman. I’m sure many of you remember family car trips, during which the map was unfolded, dutifully followed with index finger on highway line, and then folded up, yet never in quite the same neat way it had come. (We still honor this practice in our family and begin many adventures with a trip to the California Automobile Association, which stopped producing paper maps a few years ago.) Indeed, maps are on their way to becoming collectors items.

Here’s hoping that you get to enjoy the tactile pleasure of an old-school map, the inner satisfaction of locating your place, the fun of an outdoor scavenger hunt or other adventure, and the gift of knowing which way is up.

Images: Hands on Museum, Built St. Louis, Route 66 Guidebooks, Ferrell Digital

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New British Study about Nature Disconnect

A new study from Great Britain bodes poorly for children and their outdoor lives. According to researchers at Hertfordshire University, while most children are open to outdoor play, their parents are not, and a lack of confidence is often the reason.

Parents are overly fearful, the survey said. They fear cars, injury, abduction, ending up on private property, children running away, and .. dirt. From the study:

There seems to be an obsession about cleanliness. Perhaps because children are in expensive clothes, mud seems to be abhorrent.

What happened to play clothes? Are children showpieces? It makes sense to use inexpensive or used clothing precisely for play, to be dirtied and stained. Play is the job of children! Dress them appropriately and let them explore.

Another issue? Lack of map-reading skills. Said senior lecturer Debbie Pearlman Hogue:

None of the mothers I spoke to could read a map.

This is downright pitiful. As a result of skewed priorities and an extreme lack of skills, a whole generation is being deprived of outdoor play and experiences which, in turn, is going to render each successive generation increasingly bereft of experiences and abilities until we all just stay huddled inside our homes.

Poul Christensen, chairman of Natural England, says:

Children are being denied the fundamental sense of independence and freedom in nature that their parents enjoyed.

Children now want more opportunities to play outdoors. Whether through pond dipping or tree climbing, nature-based activities can play an important role in the educational and social development of children.

England’s Royal Society for the Arts points to a “risk averse” culture in which “youngsters were being deprived of the freedom to develop, to manage and take risks – and, ultimately, to grow up.” Of course, this phenomenon is not unique to England – It’s prevalent in the U.S. and in much of the industrialized world.

How can we reverse this unhealthy trend? A few ideas:

Make outdoor play a public priority by designing parks and safe, green play spaces.

Make outdoor play a personal priority by getting outdoors as a family or joining a nature club.

Educate parents about legitimate and unfounded fears.

Learn to enjoy wild spaces and trails as much as mediated, organized playgrounds and parks.

Dress kids appropriately for play and weather.

Walk instead of driving when possible.

Make friends with your neighbors.

Learn to read a map and kindle a sense of adventure about going somewhere new.

This site explains map reading and also offers some exercises and games for beginning map readers.

As an aside, I’ve always loved maps and atlases. I appreciate knowing the “lay of the land”, getting the big picture. For that reason, I don’t rely on GPS devices in cars. They remind me of driving through a tunnel, being told only what I need to know. I’d rather be armed with information and perspective. I fear that devices like GPS, while helpful, also tend to do the work for you, and that their prominence will only render people less capable of navigating their own, not to mention other, neighborhoods.

If kids and adults merely go out their doors and explore, and engage in simple map use and games, like treasure hunts, they’ll find themselves empowered to use maps and they’ll have a lot of fun. Look for treasure hunt tips in a future post.

Kings Norton Park in Birmingham, England: benkid77, Map of Twickenham, England: Creative Commons