Understanding Maps as Symbols: The Development of Map Concepts in Children

Lynn S. Liben, Roger M. Downs

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

154 Scopus citations


We expect that many readers encountered this article with the beliefs that maps are highly specialized devices primarily used for wayfinding; that they represent the spatial world in a single, correct form; that they are readily transparent; and that their sole contribution to psychology is their role in externalizing environmental cognition. By discussing the myriad functions and forms of maps, by highlighting their symbolic nature, and by considering some of the misconceptions about maps, we have attempted to demonstrate the value of maps for addressing a wide range of developmental questions. Our review of past research literature suggests that research conducted within individual disciplines has both strengths and limitations. Work in the psychological tradition is characterized by attention to important subject characteristics and to carefully described and implemented research designs, procedures, coding, and analyses. At the same time, this work reveals, at best, highly restricted views about maps, and at worst, fundamental misconceptions about maps. Work in the geographic and environmental traditions, in contrast, samples a broader range of map forms and functions, but it suffers from inattention to procedural details that makes the conclusions less compelling than they might otherwise be. A conventional wisdom is emerging from the work in both traditions: That children's map understanding occurs extremely early and extremely easily. The limitations of both research traditions, however, suggest the need for caution in accepting this view. Developmental and cartographic theories provide a compelling reason to reexamine the early and easy view and suggest the need for alternative conceptual and empirical approaches. We have argued that future work should integrate the traditions of psychology and geography. Illustrative data from an interdisciplinary program of research were presented. We described work demonstrating the gradual and difficult process of mastering the representational and geometric correspondences that link the map to its referent in the world. Our data suggest that there are significant achievements in map conceptualization (the understanding of the concept of a map), map identification (understanding the formal components of a map), and map utilization (the ability to use maps). Our data support the view that maps are not transparent and that children's abilities to understand, use, and create maps are linked to their developing representational and spatial skills. In concluding, we should acknowledge that we have deliberately pushed interpretations about understanding maps as symbolic representations to the extreme. The reason for this strategy is simple: We believe that work on maps-both in the public schools and in academia-is assumed to be an expendable and irrelevant luxury. In large measure, this condition stems from the erroneous belief that maps are transparent miniaturizations of the world, and from the correlative failure to appreciate the symbolic nature and power of maps. To the extent that educators and researchers come to share our view, perhaps future generations of children can be spared from equating maps with locations of state capitals, and perhaps future cohorts of psychologists can be dissuaded from reflexively skipping an article with the word map in its title.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)145-201
Number of pages57
JournalAdvances in Child Development and Behavior
Issue numberC
StatePublished - Jan 1 1989

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Pediatrics, Perinatology, and Child Health
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


Dive into the research topics of 'Understanding Maps as Symbols: The Development of Map Concepts in Children'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this