Navigation is Still an Important Skill for Children

Written by Norah

Early childhood educator and resource developer.

May 18, 2021

This article is for parents of young children.

In the old days, and even in the not-so-long-ago days, we used maps, verbal directions, or journey markers to find out way around. Now nearly everyone has an electronic device to tell them how to get from one location to another with no need to memorise a path or journey markers. However, I think it is still a useful skill and that noticing landmarks along the way can make a journey more interesting and memorable. It’s also useful when in an area with no network service or a device that has no power.

Young children may not have access to electronic navigational devices, but they are usually accompanied by adults who act as their personal navigators. This is necessary, of course, for their safety. However, it is important to encourage even young children to be observant of their surroundings as there will come a time when they need to navigate independently, be it in the grounds of a new school, from home to a friend’s house, around the shopping mall, to catch a bus or, eventually, drive a car. Not only will they need to recognise markers on these routes, but they will need strategies to implement if lost or separated.

When children take note of seasonal and other changes, both temporary and permanent, in addition to permanent features, of their environment, they are building essential knowledge; knowledge that can be developing long before they need to find their way alone. Consequently, if the ability to find one’s way around has already been learned through demonstrations and discussions or by deciding which route will be taken for a journey, when the need arises, independent navigation will be far less daunting for the child, and much less worrisome for the parents,

The best way parents can help children develop confidence in navigating their own neighbourhood is by pointing out landmarks and discussing the routes they are following, whether travelling on foot, on bicycles or in the car. It is good to sometimes give children the responsibility for remembering where the car was parked, where the shopping mall was entered or how to find the way back to a particular store.

There are many opportunities, whether in the car or on foot, to take note of landmarks; for example:

  • The numbers on houses,
  • The types of fences
  • How many streets to cross
  • Large trees
  • The entry to the shopping centre
  • The row and number of the carpark space
  • Bridges crossed.

A delightful picture book that can be used to discuss the importance of knowing one’s way around and of staying safe is the beautiful Pat Hutchins’ book Rosie’s Walk which tells the story of a hen who goes for a walk around the farmyard and gets back home safely in time for dinner. The story also introduces many positional words.

Positional terms are useful for describing the location of neighbourhood landmarks in relation to each other and use of them helps to develop spatial awareness along with language; for example:

past the shop

across the bridge

over the road

through the park

in the middle

beside the lake

along the road

next to the bakery

around the corner

behind the fence

near the post office

as well as left and right.

You could use the book Rosie’s Walk as a springboard for encouraging children to draw a map of their house, their yard, their neighbourhood, the journey to Grandma’s house. They could then use the positional words to get from one place to another.

Together, you could draw a mud map of the neighbourhood and discuss the placement of landmarks and different paths that could be taken to get to and from them. Such discussions encourage divergent thinking.

It can be helpful for children to think of these maps as being from a birds’eye view, or from a plane. It is not such a stretch then when they are introduced to more formal maps such as Google Maps and street directories on which they can learn to point out or mark places they have visited.

The Hokey Pokey is a fun game that can be played to teach left and right. If you don’t remember the song there are many videos on YouTube to watch. My only caution is that watching someone facing you and using the correct side can confuse children as they will need to use the visually opposite side to be correct. Having been a teacher of young children for many years, I became confused about left and right because I had to use the opposite side to mirror them when teaching left and right. In this video, the demonstrator mirrors the side for the children to copy.

Navigation need not be difficult if children are introduced to it in purposeful and fun ways from a young age. Why not give your children a little more responsibility for showing the way?

Until next time,


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  1. Ann Edall-Robson

    Thank you for this topic selection. You have described how I navigate and how I instruct others to get from point A to B. I feel that there is no amount of modern technology that will replace the need for recognizable visualization. Allowing my thought process to resonate with tangible items and landmarks has never gotten me lost.

    • Norah

      I so agree with your comment, Ann. We do need to be self-sufficient. Technology supports, but can’t replace, that.

  2. Rebecca Glaessner Author

    The kiddos and I love discussing road names and familiar landmarks on all our trips. Often we drive with the radio off so we can chat and enjoy the journey together. Some fantastic tips Norah! I’ll have to challenge them the next time we go shopping, they’ll love figuring it out on their own, such an empowering task.

    • Norah

      I knew there were many like you, Rebecca, who wouldn’t need reminders. Isn’t if fun to have your children captive in the car for conversation? I’m sure they don’t need to be held captive to converse, but sometimes I feel it enables difficult conversations to arise in a less-threatening manner.

      • Rebecca Glaessner Author

        So true Norah! Also, being autistic and having ADHD means I don’t have to make eye contact AND I can “fidget”/keep my body occupied while conversing with them too. It helps immensely with focus. I love car rides. And you’re right, I’m sure there are many others who do too, though it’s equally valid not to enjoy car rides as well. However your regular tips and reminders are invaluable for helping us stay present and positive about learning.

      • Norah

        Thank you, Rebecca. I’m pleased you find my tips helpful. Parenting is probably (almost without doubt) the most important job in the world. Generally there is very little training for it and we learn it on the job, so to speak, with little support. There may be rough guides but each individual really needs their own manual and they don’t exist. If I can help support parents in this most important role, then I’m happy. 🙂

  3. Miriam Hurdle

    This is an informative and important post, Norah! Even I need to do that in order not to get lost! 🙂 🙂

    • Norah

      We all do, Miriam. I always check my surroundings.

      • Miriam Hurdle

        very good, Norah. I don’t pay attention when I’m not driving, but I should.

      • Norah

        I know what you mean, Miriam. It’s important to pay attention when driving but easy to let our minds wander in the passenger’s seat. Trouble is, if we then have to drive the same route on our own, we may not be so confident with it.

      • Miriam Hurdle

        Exactly, Norah! I usually use Google map when driving in the new route. Before Google phone, I used GPS. I’m direction challenged!

      • Norah

        I think I’d still prefer to use a printed street directory but I don’t think they do them any more. The road systems keep changing with new roads being built.

  4. Ritu

    Valuable advice here, Norah!

    • Norah

      Thank you, Ritu.

  5. Jim Borden

    I agree that there is value in teaching children how to navigate, even if they have a GPS device. I remember my son asked me a few years ago how we used to get places without Google Maps… 🙂

    • Norah

      Life before Google – did it really exist?

      • Jim Borden

        good question. it’s getting harder and harder to remember what those days before Google were like!

      • Norah

        It sure is. And before mobile phones. How on Earth did we ever make arrangements with friends?!

      • Jim Borden

        making arrangements with friends will be something new once we are out of this pandemic!

      • Norah

        It will. I hope we remember how to do it. 🙂

      • Jim Borden


  6. Anne Goodwin's next novel is out May 29th

    I’m not a parent of young children but I am interested in navigation, so really enjoyed your post. I remember the book I loved as a child – I think there was a series about Milly Molly Mandy – that had a map of the village where she lived with important landmarks as endpapers. I think it would be fun for children to draw something similar for their own areas and the places that are important to them. And then maybe another from the point of view of a dog!

    • Norah

      Those maps in books are great, aren’t they? They help us track the story developments. I love your suggestion of drawing maps from a dog’s view, but am also surprised that it is you suggesting it. 🙂

  7. ellenbest24

    I shall share this with my daughter-in-law, as we only know what we know. If she learns of an idea that is fresh to her she is very good at teaching it to her children so I think she will appreciate it. Thank you Norah. For young mums who maybe had an over coddled upbringing this could be just the sort of article that could open their minds to other possibilities. I taught mine to go outside look out the window to ascertain the need of a coat a cardigan or a swim suit. I found only one of mine chose trunks a tee-shirt and wellies for his morning at nursery school, he did not do it twice, and yes I put a jogging suit in his rucksack for in case. ????????

    • Norah

      Thank you, Ellen. I’m pleased you consider the article helpful to parents.
      It’s amazing what we can learn by looking out the window, isn’t it? So many resort to finding out the weather on their phones. I love the story of your boy’s selection of clothes for nursery school. I’m assuming he didn’t do it again because he realised the set chosen was inappropriate for the weather and not because someone had told him or, worse, made fun of him.

      • ellenbest24

        Apparently half an hour in he said Mummy make me warm ???? at which point he was offered the joggers and sweatshirt. ????

      • Norah

        Clever boy. Cleverer mum. ????

  8. Simon

    Not just kids, I’m learning from here too, it’s very hard for me to remember geographic locations and always get help of Google maps. and sometimes, Google map is useless.

    • Norah

      That’s true, Simon – not just kids. And I agree with you about Google maps. Sometimes they don’t know as well as I do where I want to go or how to get there. ????

      • Simon

        So true! ???????? Gmap have a long way to go ????

      • Norah


  9. Jules

    I just had an incident where this came into play. I had to take my grandson to his home before taking him onto school. I took the route I knew from his home to his school, but he wondered why I didn’t turn the way his parents always did when taking him to school. I told him that another time he would have to show me. 😀

    I also remember both of the grands playing games with familiar signs on common routes. Like recognizing alphabet letters as well as learning to read 😀

    • Norah

      I knew you’d see the truth in my words, Jules. It will be interesting to seehow your GS goes at directing you to school. It is a good activity for them.
      The games you describe are great for learning to read. Environmental print is some of the first reading material for young children. They soon learn to recognise their favourite fast food chain. 🙂

      • Jules

        Interesting to note my grands were over yesterday. The younger one had homework with map symbol information. 😀 There were even two ‘Brain Quest’ ideas for extra credit- Make you own symbols for what you would find in a library and a fun land theme park. 🙂

      • Norah

        We’re right on target. 🙂

  10. Leah Abbey

    Thank you for this article–it came just at the right time for us! I’ve noticed my almost-4-year-old has been much more observant about where we are going when driving around town. He recognizes landmarks on the way to familiar destinations and always asks “are we on the freeway?” (We live in Southern California, there are lots of freeways.) When walking, I’ll try to point out numbers but now I will start to look for other items to point out to help him create a map in his head. As someone who is a bit directionally challenged myself, I think this is a very important skill to learn from a young age! I will look for that chicken book at the library–and then walk there with him to pick it up!

    • Norah

      Thank you, Leah. I’m pleased you found the article helpful. Your son is doing really well. He has a good mum to encourage him. What a great activity to walk with your son to the library to pick up the book. I’m sure you’ll both observe many landmarks along the way. Enjoy!

  11. robbiesinspiration

    This is an interesting post, Norah. I must admit that I am terrible at navigating and have panic attacks if I get lost as it is very difficult for me to orientate myself when I’m in an unfamiliar place. I am quite reliant on the electronic navigation and I wish I wasn’t.

    • Norah

      Thank you, Robbie. I’m pleased you enjoyed the post. Thank you also for sharing your experiences. I’m pleased you find electronic navigation useful. I do too, though it has let me down a few times. However, that may have been a user issue.

  12. D. Avery @shiftnshake

    I love navigation and geography and the language of them. It was a great topic to integrate math and science and social studies when I taught elementary students. I agree, these remain important skills for all, for many reasons.

    • Norah

      It is fun, isn’t it, as well as important. We do need to be able to find our way around.

  13. Charli Mills

    Navigation can be a vital element when writing fiction, too. I had to keep several maps at my desk to figure out where I was taking my characters. Great ideas for kids!

    • Norah

      That’s so true, Charli. You’d need to know where they were at each step.

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