Teaching GIS to Kids to Help Them Learn Spatial Skills

Caitlin Dempsey


Have you ever wanted your child to understand what it is you do all day long? It’s difficult enough to explain to an adult layperson what the field of Geographic Information Systems is; knowing where to start explaining GIS to kids can be even harder. That said, GIS is a fascinating field that can be both educational and enjoyable for kids.

So, how can GIS be introduced to children in a way that is engaging and easy to understand? Listed here are a few tips and resources to point you in the right direction to teaching your kids about GIS and mapping.

Start with the basics to teach GIS to kids

Most kids are familiar with maps. They’ve seen them in school, on road trips, or even in apps or video games. Use available online tools to show how GIS takes maps to a whole new level. You can explain to your child how GIS allows us to add layers of information to maps, turning them into dynamic tools for exploration.

For example, you can teach your child about GIS using this example: Imagine you have a map of your neighborhood. With GIS, you can add layers to show things like the locations of parks, schools, and your favorite ice cream shop. You can also overlay data on the map, such as the average temperature in different areas or the population of your city. This makes maps come to life and provides a deeper understanding of the world around us.

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What are the benefits of teaching children about GIS?

Introducing GIS to children can have numerous benefits:

  1. Spatial Thinking: GIS encourages kids to think spatially, which is a valuable skill in many fields, including science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).
  2. Problem-Solving: It promotes problem-solving skills as kids analyze data and make decisions based on geographic information.
  3. Environmental Awareness: GIS can help children develop a better understanding of the environment and the impact of human activities on the planet.
  4. Curiosity and Exploration: GIS fosters curiosity as kids explore the world around them in a new and interactive way.
  5. Career Opportunities: Early exposure to GIS can open doors to future career opportunities in fields like geography, geology, urban planning, and more.
A kid sitting at an orange table with a joystick looking at a colorful map.for an article about teaching GIS to kids.
Teaching GIS to kids helps them learn spatial thinking skills. Photo: Caitlin Dempsey, modified with Adobe generative fill.

Some examples of using GIS to teach children spatial thinking

Here are some fun and simple ideas for how to teach children more about the world of GIS.

  1. Treasure Hunt: Create a treasure map with hidden clues and use GIS to track the progress. Kids can use GPS coordinates to find each clue, eventually leading them to the hidden treasure.
  2. Map Mashup: Let your child experiment with creating their own maps by combining different layers of information. They can make maps showing their favorite places to play, the best spots for picnics, or even where they’ve spotted interesting wildlife.
  3. Weather Watch: Use GIS to explore weather patterns. Kids can track storms, observe temperature changes, and learn how weather affects different regions.
  4. Explore Wildlife: Discover the habitats of various animals using GIS. Your child can investigate where different species live, helping them understand the importance of conservation.
  5. Time Travel: Take a journey through history by overlaying historical maps onto current ones. Kids can see how their city has changed over the years and learn about the past.

Online resources for teaching kids about GIS

If you don’t want to come up with your own teaching tool, there are some online and in person options that you can use to teach your kid about GIS.

This ArcGIS Story Maps, GIS for Kids, features a selection of ideas for teaching geography and GIS concepts to children from kindergarten to fourth grade levels. There are both hands on ideas such as the classic example of drawing a map on an orange or tangerine and then spreading out the peel to see how different map projections distort geography. There are also ideas for using online mapping to explore areas with your child.

Bootcamp GIS offers a “Kids Map The Earth” structured paid course that is designed to teach 1st – 8th graders GIS concepts over an 8-12 week period.

This article was originally written on August 15, 2010 and has since been updated.

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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.