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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14 responses to “In GPS Era, Map Reading Skills a Lost Art

  1. What a great post to highlight the fact that we do not really need technology to enhance our time outdoors, in fact it can become a distraction and frustration. Don’t we spend enough time with gadgets indoors without having to bring them outdoors. I’m all for technology in the right hands and in moderation. (Finding a balance is key). The only gadget I take outdoors is my camera, I actually do not own a cellphone. One of the things my family and I love about spending time outdoors is escaping from all the “noise” (the noise being telephone, computers, cell phones etc….). Love, love, love this post Suz!!!

  2. I am happy to try Geocashing- it will be interesting to see how we fare. I guess at the end of the day we all just want to get our kids outdoors. If they have to take their gadgets in order to get them outdoors-then so be it! Each to their own!

  3. So true. Most golfers that’ve played with a GPS-aided system–usually in a cart– but becoming more and more hand-held, (for distance calculations) can attest to how quickly and easily it is to start to rely — in the main– on the tech. for reckoning.

    Combined with issues regarding frequent and consistent exposure to virtual 3-D imaging, (
    implication for skewing perception in the natural world become a legitimate concern

  4. Exactly why we’ve removed all electronics from our kids’ lives. Technolgoy is great, but dependency on it is a huge and growing problem – which too few people seem to be willing to face up to.
    Great post.

  5. Hello Marghanita, Randy and Karyn. Thank you all so much for your enthusiasm for the topic and for your terrific comments. It seems we’re all in agreement that technology has its place, but that we have to be mindful about its use, especially concerning nature and children.

    Marghanita, like you, I’m one of those people for whom being in nature is truly the time to unplug. Because I work in technology and social media, people are often very surprised when I am out of touch (the cell phone is basically for emergencies.) I personally enjoy the balance and the dichotomy and the chance to employ a full variety of senses and feelings.

    Randy, that’s fascinating about 3-D images actually altering our visual abilities and perceptions. I can believe it. There have also been studies about the increase in myopia from a lack of exposure to nature — with its wonderful, natural depth of field. I know when my eyes are fatigued from too much computer work and need the break, the colors, the space that nature provides. I can only imagine what it’s like for kids whose vision is taken up with a lot more than mine — with fast-moving games rather than relatively static web sites.

    Karyn, thanks, as ever, for the support and good for you! Kids certainly won’t limit their own technology use.

  6. This is a great post, Suz! I’m with M on this one – I prefer to enjoy my time in nature sans technology. My 6-year-old was only luke warm about our geocaching experience (when, interestingly enough, we didn’t find any treasures), yet is enthralled by maps and compasses. He seems to crave the need to understand his physical place in relation to the rest of his world.

    I do think, though, that we “purists” if you will, need to recognize that to reach out to today’s youth, we’ve got to speak their language. That will mean finding a way to put technology to use to connect kids with the natural world. But maps becoming a thing of the past? Dear God, I hope not.

  7. Yup, I agree.

    We did an old fashioned pirate treasure hunt last year with our lads that combined web-based digital research with clues that required reaching-out and actually meeting people around the neighbor to piece a map together.

    Also, on the myopia, I train peripheral vision as a part of our natural walking, tumble and recovery class. More and more good info is coming out and we’re using the latest flash sonar technique (technology) for the visually impaired to navigate in natural surrounding…like echo-location. Currently designing “an electronic vibrational navigation tools” for a “seeing-sound garden” project. In addition, this is an nice piece of research:
    “Humans constantly shift objects between central and peripheral vision and may encounter effects like the curveball’s break regularly,” the authors wrote. “Peripheral vision’s inability to separate different visual signals may have far-reaching implications in understanding human visual perception and functional vision in daily life.”

  8. Hi all. Thank you Suz for writing such a great post. I absolutely love all these positive, thought provoking comments. Deb, hearing these words make makes my heart sing – my 6 year old craves the need to understand his physical place in relation to the rest of his world.
    I also wholeheartedly agree that we need to recognize that to reach out to today’s youth, we’ve got to speak their language. Hence why I use the video series to reach my audience, this is a great way to put technology to use to connect kids with the natural world.
    Love you all. You live in love and I am truly grateful for all that you do to help instill a love of nature in our children.
    Wishing you all a beautiful day.

  9. Thank you, Suz, for such a great post!

    I am a firm believer in the tactile, kinetic experience of both books and map reading…I will probably die with a book in my hands and a map in my pocket.

    Maybe we’d never be lost that way. :)

    I love what you said Marghanita “my 6 year old craves the need to understand his physical place in relation to the rest of his world”–I think that is why getting kids outdoors is absolutely essential to their development of both a sense of place and a sense of self.

    Who Am I? and Where Am I? are simultaneous questions of mental, physical, emotional, and developmental states–and without the proper “space” and “time” given to all spaces and times in a child’s life–they will be hard questions to answer as an adult.

    Thanks again, Suz!

  10. Oh dear – I missed the last few comments. Thank you so much, Debi, Randy, Marghanita, Arielle, and Karyn, for this very meaty, worthy and thoughtful discussion. You are all so very eloquent about the role nature plays in the lives of children and the importance of their time in it. Debi, I love that your boy loves maps and compasses! He is on his way to finding his place! And, as Arielle brings up, aren’t physical place and sense of place in the greater world related? We do speak of grounded people as ones who follow an inner compass, after all.

    I also agree with you all that we need to engage younger people where they are, and that might involve some marriage of technology and the natural world. Randy, fascinating work you bring up about echo-location and the engagement of all the senses. Truly wonderful thoughts from everyone. I’m thrilled to have you all in my circle!

  11. It is the disconnect to our own surroundings that I find so hard to witness. Real landmarks are ignored in favor of an electronic screen. and it seems just one more way for people to lose faith in their own instinct and intuition.

  12. Excellent point Bernadette, I was just writing about the “Natural Foot” for a Children and Nature Network post — I’ll include your obseration about instinct and intuition. Thanks!

  13. Hi, Suzy: I enjoyed your talk at a Mill Valley Chamber meeting a few months ago. I thoroughly enjoyed your blog and the comments. My partner Glen and I are former managers of Thomas Bros. Maps. We have developed a “community map book” for Mill Valley and will be going to press this week.The maps are designed to “put you in touch with your community” for community identity, public safety and local business. Feel free to check our website: we are in the land of “buggy whips” since we love paper maps and are also developing cool applications on our website. The map book (or atlas) is a general purpose design. We plan to expand applications to deal in greater depth with cycling, paths to school, the WUI (wilderness-urban interface) that we love so well, emergency response, and welcome any suggestions you have to engage your peers, your children or any other group in the community.

  14. Pingback: Join a Jane Jacobs Walk in Your Neighborhood | Slow Family Online

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