How To: Mapping

Mapping is a simple and wonderfully versatile technique that you can use with your colleagues and kids for brainstorming, organizing thoughts and generating ideas. They can be used to define a curriculum, plan a project, select a theme, develop a simple story or to add energy and enthusiasm to a repetition-based exercise such as pattern writing.

Whether you’re doing a project with the whole class, breaking up into teams or working on individual projects, mapping should be a part of almost every group activity—and you should do lots of group activities. The reason is practical as well as philosophical. If you allow group members to suggest their own ideas and make their own decisions (within the parameters of your educational goals, of course), they will be much more engaged, positive and enthusiastic than if you make all the decisions yourself and simply distribute assignments. What’s more, two minds are always more creative than one, and 10 minds are even more so. Youth will come up with a lot of great ideas that would never occur to you, so use that fact in every way that you can.

The Mapping Concept

The particular mapping technique described in this section is based on asking a series of questions that elicit thoughts from the group. The illustration below shows a sample template.


The process creates a bull’s eye-type map in stages. In the center, you start by identifying your project; then, in each concentric area, you record the group’s answers to the questions. By the time you finish with the final area, you have a map that tells a number of stories and will help you make a decision about your ultimate goal. That, of course, is the most important key to making the map work: spending a lot of time in advance thinking about the goal and the questions you’re going to ask.

Mapping Materials

  • A large pad of white paper at least 2’x3′ (preferable) or an erasable whiteboard or blackboard.
  • At least four different colors of markers or chalk, as suitable for your display board.
  • Depending on your project, you may also want sheets of paper, preferably large ones like flip chart paper, for each group member or team so they can work on their own maps.

A Mapping Example

Suppose that you’ve already decided to take two field trips during the upcoming term—but you haven’t decided where to go. You gather your colleagues together and use a mapping project to make the decision. Before you begin, you need to know the following:

  • The topic to be mapped (in this case, field trips).
  • The goal of the process (in this case, “to decide where to go on two trips”). Note that the goal may not always be the same as the topic. For example, perhaps you’re doing a planning session with your colleagues and only want to come up with a handful of possibilities, which you’ll then take to the kids for a final decision.
  • The questions you intend to ask.
  • Any essential background that will affect the questions you ask or the guidance you give before starting the process (e.g., maybe the term is dedicated entirely to learning about music).

Step 1: Identify the Project or Purpose

As group leader, you’ll facilitate the process. Take a marker and write “Field Trips” in the center of the whiteboard. Now circle it, as shown in the illustration below. The center of the map always contains the name of the project or purpose to help keep the group focused.


Step 2: Gather Initial Ideas

Take a different color marker. Now, ask the group your first question and provide any necessary background, but keep both very simple. If you have to ask a complicated question or give a lot of instructions, you’re doing too much at one time and should break it down into more steps or multiple maps.

If you have a lot of leeway with your curriculum, you might ask, “Where can we go?” as shown in the illustration below. If you had already decided that the term was to be focused on music, you might ask, “Where can we go to learn about music?” or “Where can we go to hear music?” or even “Where can we go to hear live music?” Remember, you’ve got to spend time before the session considering your goals and questions because you are looking for focused creativity and input.


As group members shout out their ideas, write them on the board around the outside of the bull’s eye. Try not to range too far across the page, because you have at least one more ring to add. Move fast and keep talking to maintain everyone’s energy level and enthusiasm. Keep enough control so that you can hear what everyone says, but don’t stifle the group’s excitement. That’s another reason to ask focused questions—you want to write just a word or two for each answer, not long phrases.

Use your instincts to determine how long to let this round continue. If suggestions are starting to slow down or the page is filling up, move on to the next step. Just be careful not to dampen the enthusiasm if things are really clicking. Remember, one goal of this kind of activity is to inspire collaboration, teamwork and camaraderie. If that’s happening, keep writing: It’s worth it. Once you decide to end this round, let the group know—perhaps even warn them—by saying, “We’ll take just a couple more…” Look over what you’ve written, and be encouraging.

Step 3: Refine or Advance the Ideas

Draw a ring around what you’ve written, and ask your second question. This question can go in many different directions, depending on your goals. As shown in the following illustration, you might ask, “What can we do there?”


Other questions might be, “What can we learn there?” or “What projects can we do when we return?” A poor question would be simply “Why?” because that’s too open-ended and doesn’t get people to focus on a goal. In our music-based example, we might have asked, “What kind of music will we hear there?” or “What kind of projects could we do after the trip?”

This time you’ll look for suggestions tied to the ideas in the map’s center. Start by modeling this difference. Direct the question first to one of the inner ideas by asking, “What would we do at the museum?” With a different color marker (different colors help add a unifying visual dimension), write the suggestions outside the new, larger ring. Try to keep them in the general vicinity of the ideas to which they relate. If you’re working on a well-focused concept, however, you’ll find that many of the suggestions in this ring will apply to more than one idea in the middle ring. If so, that’s great, and it shows one of the advantages of nonlinear graphic organizers over traditional outlining. Again, maintain an encouraging tone, and let the group range freely from one of the inner-ring ideas to another. It helps if you can be somewhat orderly by dealing with each inner-ring idea one at a time, but ideas will come when they come, so be flexible. Again, use your instincts to determine when to end this round.

Step 4: Mapping Results

Notice anything about what we have in our map? If we follow different paths, connecting the ideas from the bull’s eye to the outer ring, we can create logical sentences that tell a story:

  • On our field trip, we could go to the museum to learn about paintings.
  • On our field trip, we could go to the museum to learn about colors.
  • On our field trip, we could go to the library to learn about colors.
  • On our field trip, we could go to the library to learn about books.
  • On our field trip, we could go to the library to hear a story.
  • On our field trip, we could go to the zoo to hear a story.
  • On our field trip, we could go to the zoo to feed the animals.

Let’s return to our goal. Which field trip do we want to take and why? We could almost decide now, or we might revisit each of the ideas in more depth. If we wanted to, we could create follow-up maps dedicated to each place and ask additional questions to continue to refine the topic. If, for example, we were trying to plan an entire project for which the field trip was just one activity, we might go on to a new map to plan something like, “How can we tell people what we saw at the zoo?”

You can see that mapping has many possibilities.