Childhood Maps, Teaching, and Topophilia

Childhood Maps. Asking students to create maps of their childhood places is nothing new.  I made my first childhood map (I was known as Heidi back then) in “Introduction to Cartography” with Dr. Merrill K. Ridd during my undergraduate studies at University of Utah.  It was a perfect introduction to map-making. Here is the childhood map I created in 1989:

heidi childhood map2

Geographers are usually obsessed with spatial information, and often have an interdisciplinary perspective.  In any introductory geography course, students need to think about how much their experiences are grounded in space and place.  This is the heart of geography!  Humans create mental maps to help us navigate our world, from our evening commute, to locations of water sources.  People connect memories to places they have lived or visited.  Events happen in a place.  Even thinking occurs in a location.  We cannot remove ourselves from our spatial roots.  Humans have and always will be spatially inclined.

Childhood Maps and Teaching I first asked students to make childhood maps in my GEOG 3 “Regional Geography of the World” course at Santa Rosa Junior College (SRJC) in 2003, inspired by an image in Dr. Lydia Pulispher’s textbook World Regional Geography.   In the early editions of this text, Dr. Pulsipher shares a map of her childhood, which is dominated by a large church (her father was a pastor).  I was intrigued by the kind of information I could learn about Dr. Pulsipher through this map – information I wouldn’t find in her curriculum vitae. Asking students to make childhood maps became a way to learn more about my students, and to encourage them to think like geographers.  Since assigning a childhood map exercise at the beginning of every semester at SRJC, I started to assign them in my Hutchins classes (in the Hutchins School of Liberal Studies at Sonoma State University) – first in the lower division class LIBS 102  “In Search of Self” and then in my upper division courses, particularly LIBS 320D “Inner Geographies.”  (to see these maps, go to

Childhood maps don’t have to be fancy.  They don’t have to be “geographically correct”.  I usually tell my students I “don’t give a shit where north is” on these maps.  Childhood maps are graphic representations of the places students call “home.”  In general, elements that are more important to the student tend to be larger.  Things that don’t matter as much, or that the student wants to include without drawing too much attention, are smaller.  Some students use color – some don’t.  Some use rulers to make the lines straight – others freehand.  All I care about when I grade the assignment is that the map shows me that the student spent sufficient time on the assignment, and that the maps include detail of events as well as locations.

Not everyone likes this assignment. Some students at SRJC feel these maps are a waste of time.  Skepticism about this assignment as a valid college-level exercise prompts comments like:  “Why are we making maps like this?” “This is stupid” and “This is more like coloring than college.”  I respond by telling students that they are in a geography class and I’m trying to get them to think like geographers (I don’t tell them – yet – that I also require a cultural geography exercise and a physical geography exercise that requires them to color in maps.  “Coloring” happens in most of my classes.)

The value of using childhood maps in teaching reaches beyond the confines of the discipline of geography.  These maps can be useful in learning communities, in art classes, in writing classes, and as a spatial common language.

1.  Childhood maps tap memory reservoirs.  Most of the students who create these maps say things like:  “wow, this brought up a lot of memories for me.”  “I’d forgotten that  from when I was a kid,” or “this was easy once I got started – I was surprised by how much I remembered.”

Using my map as an example: 1) The “scary bear rug in the basement” reminded me of an encounter with a  storage container (“come here, we have something to show you”) that the older neighborhood kids showed me (the glass eyes and teeth illuminated by flashlight in a dark basement were particularly scary) so they could laugh at my reaction; 2) I realized (years later) that the “scary house” was probably rented by drug dealers based on the frequent stream of short-term visitors at all hours; and 3) the “bush with millions of moths in it” sparked the recollection of an insect hunting expedition with my brother.  During our hunt, he pissed me off, and I pushed him into a bush (I was kind of a bully).  He startled hundreds of moths who had been camouflaged in the bush.  It was like a pink and grey cloud.

One of my favorite student examples is Robin Chase’s house map (it is in the gallery). She added green and blue to her map – green for the carpet in her bedroom, and blue for the carpet in the hall.  When she was little, she often imagined she was a horse.  She would pretend to eat the green grass in her room and drink from the blue water in the hall.  She told me she had forgotten about that until she was drawing the map. This story still makes me smile.

2.  Childhood maps are windows into students’ lives.  One example of this involves a student who came up to me after class and said “I didn’t spend much time at home.  My parents owned a coffee shop.  Can I map that?”  I replied “yes.”  He drew a beautiful map of the coffee shop and the surrounding area.  Some students in military families moved around a lot.  Sometimes they ask me if it matters which home they choose to map.  I tell them any of their past homes is fine.

From childhood maps I learned about the common latrines in the childhood village of a student from Vietnam,  that twins can draw very different maps (the male twin had a map that covered a lot of territory and emphasized the outdoors while his sister’s map was focused on her home and a few nearby houses), and that people who grew up near each other have extremely different views of similar places.  Students’ maps tell me if they grew up in a city or a town, if they had siblings, what activities were important to them, and where some of their life milestones, like a first kiss or smoking their first joint, occurred.

3.  Childhood maps create common ground.  When students discuss their maps in class, the maps create areas of common ground between the students.  Once, as we were preparing for an art show that included maps from SSU and SRJC students, one SSU student looked at a map by an SRJC student, stopped, stared at the map, and said “wait, I know this place.”  They had grown up in the same town – Truckee, CA.  Students also find that they share similar childhood adventures – secret forts, streams, abandoned lots, bike trails, reading corners, bullies, scary houses, and places they were forbidden to go (for me it was a “busy street”).  In LIBS 320D, I have students draw a map of the SSU campus as a starting point for conversation.  (See the second gallery at for examples).

4.  Childhood maps are great prompts for creative writing.  When my LIBS 320D students create their map of the SSU campus, I also require them to write two formal pieces about memories associated with their map.  One way to create better storytelling – complete with more “show” and less “tell” is to do a freewrite using their map as a starting point. My favorite way to do this is to follow the method outlined by Lynda Barry in her marvelous book What it Is.  In this book, she reminds us that the best writing is grounded in images – in the “show” not the “tell”.  To write with sensory detail, we must first put ourselves IN the image.

Using a slight modification of Lynda Barry’s method, I ask students look at their SSU map for a few minutes, and then close their eyes and imagine themselves in the places on the map.  Then they list 10 images or experiences (short phrases only)  based on the map.  Then they choose the image they feel drawn to, and follow Lynda Barry’s free-writing method (which includes kitchen timers, a doodling page, a pen that never stops moving, and cheap lined paper) from there.  I found her method amazingly useful in my own writing.  I was lucky enough to participate in her “Writing the Unthinkable” seminar in San Francisco a few years ago.  At the end of the class, excited by this new way of writing and the impact it could have on my students, I asked her I could use her methods in my classes.  She smiled and said “the world is on fire.  I’m certainly not going to keep you from using water that might help put it out.”

Childhood Maps and Topophilia.    Topophilia, or “love of place” was made famous in geographic circles by Yi-Fu Tuan, though the term originates back to W.H. Auden in 1948.  People become attached to, and often fall “in love” with the places they inhabit. Though I have moved from Utah, I  hope never to remove the red rocks, lupine, and indian paintbrush from my heart. Terry Tempest Williams, in Pieces of White Shell, cautions one of her relatives that though she is eager to leave Utah, she may miss the smell of sage. She finishes this chapter with the words of her relative, spoken from outside of Utah, “please send me some sage.”

Scientists can feel topophilia toward their research sites.  In “The Ecology of Loss,” an article in the 1994 winter issue of Orion Magazine, Phyllis Windle describes how deeply field scientists can become attached to their research sites.  She posits that when sites used for scientific study are damaged or altered, deep grief in the researcher often ensues.    I understand this, as I came to know Georgia peat bogs and outcroppings of  the Claron Formation in Utah in unusual detail through locating, measuring, photographing, surveying, coring, and sampling at these locations – not to mention the hours spent analyzing and presenting the data.  Part of me is afraid to return to these sites.  I’m afraid I might not be able to handle what I might find…

One common idea in modern nature writing is that people fight most fiercely to protect the places they love. To encourage students to protect, remember, and cherish  their important places, we must first help them to remember why they love them.

In LIBS 320D, Inner Geographies, students create three maps of personally important places.  These maps often  include floor plan maps of houses, vacation spots, homes away from home, wild spaces, and other homelands.  In all cases, creating these maps opens the opportunity for students to experience topophilia as they remember the details and memories associated with the places they have come to love.  In our culture, (despite GPS technically telling us our exact location at all times), we often become detached from places we love.  Creating childhood and place maps brings up memories, thoughts, feelings, sounds, smells, and experiences, even if, like the town of Lark, UT, where my mom grew up, the places are not on modern maps.

Try It Out.   Set aside a few minutes in a comfortable place.  Grab a sheet of paper and something to write with.  Close your eyes and focus on your childhood home.  Remember the colors, the textures, the smells, how light played with sunbeams near the windows, which trees you climbed, which places you retreated to for safety, where you went when you left the house, who you played with, what games you played, how your felt in these spaces, and what you did in these spaces.  Really focus on images and feelings.  Then, open your eyes, pick up your pencil, and make your map.  Don’t worry about scale, or straight lines, or if anyone might disagree with your interpretation.  Don’t worry that you can’t draw, or that the map won’t be good enough.  None of that matters.  This is about YOU.  Your opinion, your experiences, your mapmaking is what matters.

Here’s the “official”  assignment.  Feel free to use it as you wish (tips are appreciated).

River’s Childhood Map Assignment

Create a map of a childhood location (one of your homes, neighborhoods, etc.).  You do NOT have to worry about “geographic correctness” – like scale, direction, or anything like that.  Places that seemed big when you were younger can be bigger on your map than they might be in reality.  You can label places with sayings that make sense to you, like “dangerous street” or “my best friend’s house”.  This map assignment is more about getting a feel for a location than being precise about how you depict it.  You can make the map as big as you want, but no smaller than a standard sheet of paper (8 ½ x 11″).  Use color, keys, scale, and other map design elements only if you want to. Be sure to include specific details about your childhood place (WHAT happened, WHERE it happened, and WHY you remember it).

I usually include an example of a childhood map to get them started.

I would love to post your childhood maps as you create them.  Contact me at for details.