Because of airplanes and satellites, we can see the detailed geography of the world from a “birds-eye-view” perspective. Like puzzle pieces, each continent, country and state fits together in it’s right place. Borders and coasts are exactly replicated in lines and dots on the printed page or images on the screen. From this vantage point it’s easy to see how to get from one spot on the globe to another and with technology like Google Maps and GPS in-car navigation, you can have the directions laid out turn by turn and even dictated to you in a comforting English accent (or French or American, or whatever else suits your fancy...) while you drive.
Now imagine navigating through the water in a kayak in the dark without any of these tools. How would you find your way? Perhaps you would use a three dimensional tactile map like the Inuit people did. Maps like this one (a beautiful carving of the shores of Greenland) aided their travels. Made from wood, the contours of a coastline were replicated in the points and angles of the sides of the carving while the slope of the landscape was revealed within the relief. While tracing the object with their hands, they would travel from point to point. This perspective and relationship to geography is pretty amazing, and something that we don’t often think of when using maps on a daily basis... that before we could simply pull up a picture of a map, we had to travel... we had to understand the landscape through our feet, our eyes and our hands.
Although wood carving is usually not the most suitable activity for younger children, carving soap (easily done with a butter knife, and even sometimes with a plastic utensil) can be a great alternative. By making their own tactile maps after the Inuit versions, kids can have a physical record of their daily explorations.
Whether of the edge of a field at the park, or the contours of a lake, making these maps can be a great opportunity to practice translating shapes and contours into physical objects, while learning a little about another culture in the process.
After you're done you can use the soap maps for bathtime fun. Just don't forget to bring along a little kayak too.