Map Features

Contributor: Nichole Brooker. Lesson ID: 12924

Have you heard the word, "cartography"? No, it doesn't mean taking pictures of automobiles! It is the art of making maps, which you need when traveling to another part of your city, state, or country!


World, World

learning style
personality style
Grade Level
Intermediate (3-5)
Lesson Type
Quick Query

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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This used to be on paper;
Now you get it on your phone.
It can help you find a route,
So you don't get lost and groan.

  • What am I?

Did you guess a map?

Maps have been in existence for over 4,000 years. Cartography is the science and art of making maps. The earliest known maps were drawn on clay tablets in Babylonia, starting about 2300 B.C. Maps have been a means of communication from generation to generation.

  • Have you ever heard the term, cardinal directions?

Cardinal directions are the four main directions on a compass. They are North (N), South (S), East (E), and West (W). Think of them as the numbers on a clock. North would be 12, South would be 6, East would be the number 3, and west would be the number 9.

These are extremely important for mapmaking, understanding how to get from Point A to Point B, and for all directional information. Without the four basic directions, it would be very difficult to know which direction you should go to travel from Colorado to Texas.

Traveling would be very difficult without using north, south, east, and west!

Maps have evolved a lot over the years since they began. The icons on a basic map from 1,000 B.C. will have a compass rose and maybe a key, but as maps gradually developed over time, those icons have changed, too. A compass has always been round and they look very similar to how they looked 3,000 years ago. For example, here is a compass from thousands of years ago:


This is a picture of a compass from 2017:


As you can see, they both have the same basic function and work with the magnetic poles of the Earth, but the newer version is just more modern-looking. Check out How a COMPASS works!, from Wow, I Never Knew That!:

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  • Does this video help you understand a little better what a compass is and how it works?
  • Did you know the Earth has a magnetic pull?

Our world is an amazing place and how it all works together is quite astounding!

On maps, there isn't an actual compass that moves as you move the map, but there is a graphic called a compass rose that has the directions indicated so that when you read the map, you know what direction it is facing. Here is an example of a compass rose:

compass rose

As previously stated, maps have evolved a lot over the many years since they were invented. They started with very few features and now, depending on the kind of map you are using, there are many different attributes associated with maps.

For example, in a physical map, there are three-dimensional bumps that represent mountains and foothills, and different colors to represent different land and water features.

Here is an example of a physical map of the United States.

  • Do you see how the brown areas in the west and along the east help to represent mountains?
  • Have you ever seen or touched one of these maps?

physical map of the USA

When automobiles were invented in the late 1800s, road maps became the most popular, and most-used maps. These maps help travelers get from Point A to Point B. This map is often folded in a particular way, often confusing the user and making it difficult to refold it back to its original state. Road maps have been replaced by smart phones with GPS capability that give directions in minutes.

Maps have many different features to help the reader understand the direction of the map, the scale of the map, and what different icons mean on a map. There is usually a key on a map that will explain the icons. Here is an example of a map key, or legend:

map legend

As you can see, this is a map legend that is associated with a map with all of those pictures. This explains what each of the icons, or pictures, stands for, and how to understand where everything is on the map. It also gives examples of different roads types, like highways, major roads, toll roads, and boundaries. This can be a very essential part of a map if you are in need of a hotel, restaurant, or hospital.

Maps are not made to scale. This means that an inch of road on a map is not an inch of road that you would drive. Therefore, a map needs a scale that explains the relationship between the distance on the map and the actual distance in real life. Here is an example of a map with a scale:

map scale

In this particular map, two inches would equal 1600 miles. This can give you a rough estimate of the distance between two places. A map scale is very important to get an idea of how far it is to get from one point to another.

Having the ability and knowledge to read a map is an important skill because there may come a time when technology will not be available and a paper map could be the only method you would have to find your way around. Maps have a long history and have helped millions of people navigate their way to new places.

In the Got It? section, you will get the opportunity to explore a map and the symbols you may find on a map.

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