Have you ever tried to sketch a map of your neighborhood? If you did, what would you include? What would your students include? What do you consider the center of your neighborhood? What bounds it?

David Sobel, in Mapmaking with Children: Sense of Place Education for the Elementary Years, discusses a developmental approach to children’s understandings of maps and geography. He argues that if children begin with what is closest to them, mapping their own world first, they will then better understand more distant maps of time and place.

Before introducing historic maps, consider having your students begin with what they know. Have them draw their own neighborhoods and narrate their own stories of place.

Beers Atlas maps are very detailed maps of New England counties and towns from the late nineteenth century. These maps include the names and locations of residents and businesses as well as the locations of schools, churches, and cemeteries. In addition to maps, the county atlases provide statistical information, engravings of important businesses, town histories, and biographies of prominent citizens. Many of these atlases can be found in local libraries and historical societies; they are rare and should be treated with care. Some can be found online at: HistoricMapworks where you can also layer historic maps on top of modern versions. You can purchase Beers maps at www.old-maps.com.

Print out a map of your town or, better yet, go to your local library and make a clean photocopy from the actual atlas if they have it. Then enlarge the map and cut it apart along the school district lines to make a puzzle. Hand each small group of students a puzzle piece using the following procedure.

Hand out Beers Puzzle Pieces


  • Look in silence
  • Find geographical features 1 by 1.
  • Color river and water features blue; mountains green and make a key
  • What cultural features can we find? Color schools red; churches yellow; railroads orange. Add to the key.


  • What is at the center of the puzzle piece? Anything there? Lead them toward seeing that the centers of the neighborhoods usually have a school or church. Why is that?
  • Choose a name/home. Trace a route to school.  Would a child need to go over/through major geographical features to get to school?


  • Put puzzle pieces together. What town is it?  Where is the school today? Where do students live? How would you trace route to school today?
  • Look at businesses. What businesses are in this town? What sort of trading would be going on? Where’s the general store?
  • How have neighborhoods changed?
  • How does geography relate to settlement?