Giant map directs kids to higher learning

by Jim Boyle


Jessica Reckard walks but a few feet each morning to turn on the water for a shower. To grab a drink of water in the kitchen would only add seconds to her trip.

Millions of people in Africa walk miles and miles to fetch their water.

This and other stark differences between life in Elk River and just about any village in Africa are clearer to the 14-year-old Elk River girl and her classmates at VandenBerge Middle School thanks to National Geographic.

National Geographic, with the help of the Minnesota Alliance for Geographic Education, dropped off a giant map of Africa last week for a couple of days at VandenBerge Middle School. Students learned all about Africa as well as about America and themselves from studying it.
National Geographic, with the help of the Minnesota Alliance for Geographic Education, dropped off a giant map of Africa last week for a couple of days at VandenBerge Middle School. Students learned all about Africa as well as about America and themselves from studying it.

As part of National Geographic’s Giant Traveling Maps program, organized by National Geographic Live, VandenBerge social studies students spent parts of two days last week in awe of the faraway continent,  pouring over its rivers, deserts, rainforests and populations of varying densities while navigating a giant 26-foot by 35-foot map of Africa.

The map is designed as a geo-game board to introduce students to the power of maps and the diverse geography of Africa.  The map’s brightly colored, smooth vinyl surface accurately illustrates Africa’s oceans, seas, rivers, mountains, countries and capitals. The lessons offered students more than a glimpse into geography, which happens to be one of social studies teacher Cindy Sykes’ favorite subject.

“I once had a professor say that geography is the mother of all history,” Sykes said. “Where you live and its landscape defines how you live, whether you are protected from invaders, natural disasters or if you’re sitting on a natural disaster.”

Sykes’ students seem to grasp this better than ever before. That includes eighth-grade student Chris Udall, whose father hails from Nigeria, a country of 134 million people compared to the paltry 6 million people who live in Minnesota.

Udalla has visited three of the continent’s 50-some countries — making his first trek there as a third-grader and his second as a fifth-grader.

He has spent the last seven years of his life in Elk River. His first seven were in Blaine. He says like likes the feel of community in Elk River and adds he will likely go back  to Africa again someday. He desires to visit other countries there, too, that he has not previously visited.

“Life is a lot harder in Africa,” he said.

Designed for grades K–eight, the map comes with a trunk full of accessories, including interactive activities, props and photo cards that teach students about the physical characteristics of the continent as well as its history, wildlife and varied cultures.

Working in teams, students marked the equator with ropes to learn about climate and latitude. A relay race helped others learn all the countries; scavenger hunts and safaris introduce them to the continent’s famed wildlife and varied environments.

“Children have a whole new perspective on Africa after they’ve walked on this map,” said Dan Beaupre, director of education partnerships for National Geographic Live. “The hands- and feet-on experience brings the geography of Africa to life in a meaningful way and helps the students understand the connections between people and places.”

Dakota Bowers thought the map was cool and very educational. He paid particularly close attention to the border of the Sudan. He had an uncle stationed near there in Africa, and he someday plans to join the military in part to “travel the world.”

He was amazed at the closeness of the warring nations and marveled at how their proximity to one another must heighten the tension Africans living there must feel.

Dylan Kline would like someday to travel to South Africa to see first-hand the different lifestyles of people who live in places that are “not to so nice”
situated near places that are “incredibly nice.” The region’s history of racism is actually a draw for the youth.

Sykes’ students seem to have a desire to be of help to their peers around the world.

Reckard envisions entering a medical profession and someday working with the sick or injured on a missions-type experience.

Kaitlyn Radke said for her, the map only intensifies her interest in the world and her desire to travel it.

Aside from Udalla,  the farthest Bowers, Kline, Radke and Reckard had travelled was Florida or southern California.

“It was nice to study Africa,” Udalla said. “We’re always learning about what happens in America. It’s fun to learn about other places.”

The National Geographic map was first featured as a standard pull-out map in the September 2005 issue of National Geographic magazine, a special issue devoted entirely to Africa. National Geographic’s map division enlarged the map — the biggest map ever created by the society — for educational tours through National Geographic Live.

Since the introduction of the original Africa map in 2006, the program has expanded to include maps of Asia, North America, South America and the Pacific Ocean.

Each map measures 26 by 35 feet and is loaned to schools and other hosts with an assortment of activities. In the 2011–2012 school year it is estimated more than 450,000 students will interact with one of these maps.

Sykes’ students are now reading a book called “A Long Walk to Water” by Linda Sue Park. It’s about the Sudan and the challenges its people face.

Students like Reckard already know how different and hard those challenges can be.

National Geographic offers up giant maps

National Geographic Giant Traveling Maps also showcases My Wonderful World, a multiyear National Geographic-led campaign to improve geographic literacy and to help students become more informed global citizens. The campaign ( is designed to improve the geographic literacy of young people ages 8–17 by motivating parents and educators to make geography more available and accessible in school, at home and in the community.

To learn more about the Giant Traveling Map project, for borrowing information or to download map activities, visit

The National Geographic Society is one of the world’s largest nonprofit scientific and educational organizations. Founded in 1888 to “increase and diffuse geographic knowledge,” the society’s mission is to inspire people to care about the planet. It reaches more than 400 million people worldwide each month through its official journal, National Geographic, and other magazines; National Geographic Channel; television documentaries; music; radio; films; books; DVDs; maps; exhibitions; live events; school publishing programs; interactive media; and merchandise.

National Geographic has funded more than 9,600 scientific research, conservation and exploration projects and supports an education program promoting geographic literacy. For more information, visit