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Zoomazium to You: Mapping with nature

Posted by Janel Kempf, Early Childhood

Photo by ardito ryan Harrisna on Unsplash

When you’ve been in one place for a while, like we all have been as we stay home and stay healthy, it’s fun to start looking closely at things you may never have noticed. And now that you’ve found some new treasures in your neighborhood, why not make a nature map?

Animals all over the world need to know where things are. Sometimes they need to know where to go to get a basic need met, like food, water, or shelter. Other times, they need to know where another animal’s territory begins, so they know where not to go! Different animals have different ways of marking the places and things they need to remember. And, yes, some of those ways involve pee and poop—but not all of them!

Ring-tailed lemurs at Woodland Park Zoo. Photo: Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo

Ring-tailed lemur males, like the zoo’s five boys, have a spur on each wrist next to a scent gland. To mark the edges of a troop’s territory, males scrape marks into the bark of trees, which they fill with scent. (Incidentally, they also use those spurs to comb scent into their tails, which they wave at other males when they’re in conflict—scientists call these “stink fights!”)

There are lots of eastern gray squirrels that live at the zoo! Photo: Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo

Other animals use methods other than scent. All those eastern gray squirrels you see all over zoo grounds are a great example. Squirrels of many different species worldwide store food for the lean months over the winter, a behavior called caching. And instead of storing all their food in one place, squirrels store just a few nuts or seeds at a time in hundreds of different spots. It’s great for making sure another animal doesn’t find and eat all their food—but it leaves the squirrel with an awful lot to remember. How do they do it? They use landmarks—a squirrel might make sure to hide every tiny cache one foot to the left of a tree, or on the north side of a rock.

People use landmarks, like stacked rocks, to mark places too! Photo by Emily Malcolmson on Unsplash

And it’s not just squirrels—people use landmarks to find treasures, too! The indigenous peoples of Canada’s Nunavut territory have used a stack of rocks in a particular formation called an inuksuk to mark important places since ancient times. Inuksuit (that’s the plural) are so important to their culture, there’s even one on the Nunavut flag! Other cultures use stacked rocks to mark places, too. In Mongolia, you might find a brightly decorated type called an ovoo, and the islands of and around Britain and Ireland are covered with cairns marking all kinds of ancient and modern sites. You can also build a landmark to add to your neighborhood map!

Kids can have a blast drawing their own maps! Photo by Kristin Brown on Unsplash

What you need: Paper and crayons, markers, or colored pencils for your map; natural items like rocks, wood pieces, pinecones, or other stackable objects for your landmark

Time: As much as you have!

Age Range: Ages 3 to 8 years

School Connections: Mapmaking supports early literacy and numeracy; landmark building supports engineering practices

Show your early learner a map of someplace they’re familiar with—it could be something big, like the city you live in, or as small as a map of their school. Suggest making a map of your neighborhood, the zoo, or even just your home.

Take a walk together through your chosen place, making a list as you go of the things your youngster wants to put on their map. Point out, and add to the list, a few other items near those things for orientation--is the yard with the pretty flowers located on a corner, or two houses away from the bus stop? If your child is very young, consider starting with just a few places to add to the map at first. You can always add more later!

A nature walk with kids can help them find a place they might want to map! Pho
to by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

On paper, let your child draw the way they walked to the place they want to map. Was the way straight? Or curved? Suggest drawing a picture on the map to represent their landmark.

And be sure to mark home on the map! To add to the fun, you can build a marker, like an inukshuk, ovoo, or cairn in your yard or by your door, then make that your home’s symbol. You can build with rocks, which are the most traditional material, but you certainly don’t have to. A marker could be made of sticks, pine cones, or other natural materials for outdoors. If your child wants to make a marker indoors, you can bring nature items inside, or use blocks or other toys.

Extension for ages 6-24 months: Landmark building is the most accessible part of this activity for babies and toddlers. On a walk or in your yard, collect nature items with your child. Help stack them, and experiment together about how to keep it standing. Remember that toddlers love to knock towers down as much as they like to build them! If they are having a hard time leaving the landmark intact, build one yourself for them to find later.

Extension for ages 2.5-5: Maps can be very simple. Just your child’s drawing of their room with a line leading to their drawing of the dinner table is a great start! Consider counting the number of steps from one place to another, and marking it on the map. And remember, maps can be made of materials other than paper, like play dough!

Extension for ages 6-8: Older early learners might think about who might use the map, and what might be helpful to that person. Would it be a map for Grandma when she can visit again? Or so other kids in the neighborhood can find things? Would it be helpful to mark different places in the neighborhood so other people can orient themselves?

For the previous week's Zoomazium To You activities as well as animal-inspired activity kits and coloring pages, visit to invite the zoo to your home.