PathwaysMapmakingEngaging Students With/in Place through Community Mapping

By Susan Jagger
University of Toronto

This article was reprinted from Pathways – The Ontario Journal of Outdoor Education, Volume 26, Issue 3

C (Dakota)ommunity mapping brings together local people as they celebrate local geography, ecosystems, and stories of place through created representations of their communities (Lydon, 2003; Perkins, 2007). Mapmaking itself is a way of making sense of the world and of our place within it, and community mapping can help us to come to know our local environments. The process of mapmaking is key in community mapping; indeed, much of the value in community mapping is not so much in the product but rather in the collaborative sharing and discovering of place that leads to the map’s creation (Parker, 2006). I wondered about the pedagogical possibilities for community mapping in the K–12 curriculum and began a study that examined how participation in such a project could influence grade four students’ environmental knowledge, attitudes and actions (see Jagger, 2009 and Jagger, 2014 for a discussion of the research).

I worked collaboratively with Ms C.1, a grade four teacher, to plan and teach a three-month long, cross-curricular community mapping project of Sandy Beach Provincial Park. We focused on four themes in our project: local history, natural history, First Nations history, and personal connections to the park. Our mapwork drew from multiple field trips to the park, a visit to the local cemetery, and class visits from the museum manager and school First Nations liaison person. The following is an overview of some of our project’s mapping activities.

Introducing Mapmaking and Sandy Beach
We began our project with a small group brainstorming web of the question, “What can maps tell us?” To extend thinking, we shared a range of maps—from traditional topographic maps to handmade written and photographic representations of place—and asked students to then revisit their webs to make additions. The students were drawn to familiar political and road maps; some students did not identify the alternative maps as maps at all. One student, Charles, confided in me that maps were not made by people and that “you can’t make maps.”

Following this initial look at maps, we had our first visit to Sandy Beach. This visit was intended as an opportunity for students to familiarize themselves with the park and, given that it was the beginning of September, a chance for the class to build a sense of community. Students used digital cameras to take photographs and several parent volunteers accompanied us, allowing for small group, free-choice park explorations.

Back at school, students made their first maps of places very familiar to them—their bedrooms and the school playground. Bedroom maps were done by students at home and in a form of their choice. Most students created bird’s eye view maps of their rooms; some made their drawings to scale and in perspective. In small groups, students created a section map of the school playground (the playground was divided into nine sections to be mapped in a three-by-three grid; when completed the maps were put together to create a complete playground map). To guide their mapwork, students were asked to explore the sounds, textures, colours, shapes and sizes in the playground, and they spent time outside listening, touching and seeing the complexity of the playground space. The completed maps took on a variety of forms (e.g., side view, bird’s eye view) and included a range of techniques (e.g., grass pieces glued onto map, crayon rubbings to show texture).

Connecting with Local and First Nations Histories
Ms C. and I wanted to actively bring the community—its people and places—into our mapping project. To do this, we complemented our experiences at Sandy Beach with visits from both the local museum manager (Mr. B.) and the school district First Nations liaison person (Ms E.), and with a class field trip to the local cemetery.

Mr. B. arrived from the museum with (quite literally) a treasure chest full of artifacts from Sandy Beach to share with the students. Some pieces were the very tools used by the Barry family—the family who used to live and farm on the land that would become the park. The students quickly made connections between what they discovered at the park and the stories told by Mr. B. Guided by careful observations, the students made pastel sketches of chosen artefacts.

As it was important to us to recognize the traditional uses of the land in our mapping work, we invited the school district’s First Nations liaison person, Ms E., to be part of our project. Ms E. visited the class twice, and during her visits she taught the students about the traditional uses of Western Red Cedar in both practice and ceremony. In her workshops, Ms E. showed examples of woven cedar baskets and jewellery, and taught students to weave cedar mats of their own. Her underlying message to the students about cedar, and all natural elements used by First Nations people, was of respect and the importance of giving back to the land when we take from it.

The local cemetery was a short walk from the school and afforded us with a further trip back into local history. Here, the stories of the Barry family came to life as many of the family members were buried there. The students searched the cemetery for all of the members of the Barry family and used crayons and paper to make tombstone rubbings.

Exploring the Natural History of Sandy Beach
We took our second trip to the park about one month into the project. This visit was an exploration of the natural history of the park including the diversity of life and the park’s ecosystems. To guide their experiences, we asked students to keep three words in mind: unusual, interesting and change. Again, students used digital cameras to capture their explorations and parent volunteers accompanied small groups in three activities: a low tide beach walk, a scavenger hunt, and a sound and colour walk.

Ms C. led the students on the low tide beach walk. We planned our visit to coincide with low tide so the students could compare and contrast the high and low tidal zones and the transition between zones. Ms C.’s experience as a park naturalist at Sandy Beach guided the students’ explorations as she helped students to identify species, ecosystems and interactions. Students also used small magnifying glasses to examine details and intricacies of the features of the beach. Below, Quinn uses a magnifying glass to examine tiny molluscs attached to a rock (see Figure 1).

I created a map for a parent-led scavenger hunt that guided groups along a planned route through several different ecosystems—meadow, marsh, forest and beach. Students were asked to be mindful of their changing surroundings and reminded of the trip’s guiding words. Student observations were documented in their photographs and field notes. These photographs were put together in a class album of the visit, and back at school the groups came together again to write descriptive captions of the pictures from their walks.

To increase students’ awareness of the living things around them, I led groups on a sound and colour walk during which participants were asked to slow down and stop to listen and look. We listened quietly to the sounds surrounding us: the chirping of crickets, the laughing of ravens, the crashing of waves, the crunching of gravel. Before the start of the project, I collected paint chip cards from the local home improvement store and on our walk, we matched the cards to colours noticed along our walk. We renamed those colour samples to reflect the shades and hues of Sandy Beach (e.g., Douglas Fir Cone Brown, Rosebud Red, Arbutus Peeling Bark). The renamed paint chips were included in the class album of trips to Sandy Beach and in a mosaic frame for our emergent bulletin board map. The photographs, stories and observations from our visits to Sandy Beach were used to create an emergent bulletin board map (Sobel, 1998). I started the map with a very basic outline of the park—the shoreline, access road, parking areas and campground—and over several days, small groups of students added to the map. Some students drew in trails we walked along.

Others contributed written descriptions of features of the park they remembered. Still others added photographs that shared what we had experienced at the park. As we created the map, students looked through the album of photographs taken on our visits, shared their experiences with me, and added captions to the pictures.

Celebrating Personal Connections to Place
It was very clear to Ms C. and me that the students had developed deep personal connections to Sandy Beach. Students eagerly shared with us stories of special times at the park—recollections of weddings, first visits to the beach, earlier field trips and explorations with family and friends. It was important to us to really honour these affective understandings of place and so we focused our last visit to Sandy Beach on students’ cherished places there. As with other visits, students were in small groups, but on this visit students led the exploration of the park. The groups visited students’ cherished places and were told by the students what made that place so special to them. Many of these places were related to play—the driftwood pile that made a great fort, the tree that was like a swing, the tidal pools that were fun to explore. Students’ special places also
included spaces for quiet reflection and enjoying the beauty of the park—“the Dinosaur tree in the very quiet woods,” the beach with its beautiful shells, the amphitheatre “because I feel free there.” Students mapped their cherished places by creating clay sculptures and writing short descriptions of those places.

Mapping It All Together
Students shared their cherished places, along with their knowledge of the park’s natural, First Nations, and local histories in their If you came to Sandy Beach, I would show you… class book. We used Sheryl McFarlane’s Jessie’s Islandas a model for this mapwork, a book in which McFarlane shares the story of Jessie who writes a letter to her cousin describing all of the wonders he would see if he visited her home. With Jessie’s Islandas a guide, the students wrote letters to family members and friends who had never been to Sandy Beach. Letters included descriptions of plants, animals and ecosystems that could be seen at the park. Students recalled the stories of the Barry family’s first years on the farm and wrote about how First Nations peoples traditionally lived on the land. The letters also shared students’ own memories of cherished places and experiences at Sandy Beach. Over the course of the project, teachers and parents shared with me special memories that they had of Sandy Beach so we invited the school community to write letters as well.

Our class book beautifully brought together all of the experiences of the mapping project and allowed students (and some teachers and parents) to reflect on the experience of being and learning in place. Other books that celebrate place and could be used in mapping projects include Harrington and Stevenson’s (2005) Islands in the Salish Sea, Kronick’s (2013) How Victoria Has Changed, and Moak’s (1984) A Big City Alphabet.

Community Mapping as a Pedagogical Tool
Community mapping can be a wonderful way to infuse place-based environmental education across the curriculum. Our project was truly cross-curricular as we drew science, social studies, language arts, fine arts and citizenship together in our studies. This type of project can be easily adapted to the exploration of any local environment; the possibilities are endless. Mapping a local natural space helped the students to realize and respect the biological wealth and diversity that lived quite literally in their own backyards. Stephen Jay Gould wrote, “we cannot win this battle to save species and environments without forging an emotional bond between ourselves and nature as well—for we will not fight to save what we do not love” (as cited in Orr 2004, p. 43). Community mapping projects can help foster this critical bonding in students.

This project was partially funded by the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council, Canada’s Pacific CRYSTAL (Centres for Research into Youth, Science Teaching and Learning) for Scientific and Technological Literacy.

1 To protect the identity of participants, the names of all people and places have been changed.


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Jagger, S. (2014). “This is more like home:” Knowing nature through community mapping. Canadian Journal of Environmental Education, 18.

Kronick, I. (2013). How Victoria has changedRaleigh, NC: Lulu Publications.

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McFarlane, S. (1992). Jessie’s island. Victoria, BC: Orca Book Publishers.

Moak, A. (1984). A big city alphabet. Toronto, ON: Tundra Books.

Orr, D. (2004). Earth in mind
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Sobel, D. (1998). Mapmaking with children: Sense of place education for the elementary years. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Susan Jagger, Department of Curriculum, Teaching, and Learning, OISE/University of Toronto;