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Playground Maps Are an Endless Source of Fun ---
And Learning!


Ed Bonne, "The Playground Map Guy," offers a collection of student-centered activities for making playground maps come to life. NOTE: If your school doesn't have a playground map, you might want to read Every School Should Have a Playground Map!

"Since I began painting playground maps of the United States, many teachers have remarked about how much 'incidental' learning takes place during recess and other informal breaks," says Ed Bonne, known to school principals across the United States as "The Playground Map Guy."

"Students often quiz each other or set up games on the map," Bonne says. "Some students even use the maps as play settings for toy cars and other things."

"However, and most importantly," Bonne adds, "the map is an ideal tool for planned activities that extend classroom curriculum."

Whenever Bonne paints a playground map at a school, he always leaves behind a booklet chock-full of activities. Those activities come from many sources, but most of them were suggested by teachers in Bonne's school district. Many of the activities that follow were presented and evaluated at the Michigan Geographic Alliance's 1990 Summer Institute and at the National Geographic 1991 Instructional Leadership Institute.

"These activities are offered only as suggestions, as starting points," Bonne adds. "Creative teachers are always improving on these ideas and creating new ways to squeeze out value from their playground maps."


A few notes before beginning:

  • Ed Bonne recommends using tempera paints for most activities. (If your map's surface is fairly smooth, you could use chalk to illustrate different places, but ...) Tempera paints come in a variety of bright colors, and they are easily washable. A hose (or rain or snow) usually cleans off the map.
  • Bonne suggests that for most activities, it is probably a good idea to assign students to a particular place or location rather than to allow volunteering. That reduces duplication and ensures a more even distribution of the students around the map when they are actually working.
  • To ensure accuracy, before students paint on the playground map it might be a good idea to review on desk maps or in atlases the exact locations they plan to paint on the playground map.
  • The list below first presents a handful of suggestions for long-term projects involving a playground map, followed by a bunch of "quick" activities that might be used as part of a lesson or unit.


Location activities. Invite students to paint in the proper location on the map the names of major cities, prominent natural features, and national parks. (Suggested lists of natural features and national parks appear below.)

Take a Tour of the U.S.A. Students often learn more about general locations by studying a single place intensely. Provide students with a list of possible "places to study." Let each student choose the place he or she would like to study, research that place, and think about how to build a diorama or a model from papier-mache, clay, cardboard, or another semi-durable material to represent that place on the playground map. Allow two to four weeks for the students to research and construct their models with parent supervision. A model on a 1-foot-square board is suggested. When all the models have been gathered, have students place them on the correct spots on the U.S. playground map. The opportunities for discussion of the various locations are boundless. When all students have become familiar with the locations, you could invite parents or other students to take a tour of the United States led by these special "tour guides." See below for a state-by-state list of some possible tour locations.

The U.S. Is a Stage. This project provides an opportunity for each student to research and develop an appreciation for a single state. In addition to conducting research, the student has a chance to write a play or revue about the United States. Each student chooses a character to research. The student then writes a script for their characters for a "show" about the United States. The map becomes the stage for their presentation. You might involve the art teacher, who could work with each student to draw a mural backdrop for the presentation, or the music teacher, who could teach students regional songs that would become part of this "extravaganza." See below for a state-by-state list of possible characters.


Eat Your Way Across the U.S.A. Part of the elementary health curriculum is an extensive study of the five basic food groups. Students in a school could host a "tasting" party of foods from across the United States. Place sample foods on trays on upturned milk crates in the actual location where the food is produced.

America the Bountiful. Invite students to research the major crops grown and products produced in each state. They can draw pictures of those crops and products for display on the playground map.

Story Setting. When you read stories or historical accounts, use the map as your "reading room." Sit in the state where the story takes place. As the story unfolds, talk about why the place/location might be important to the story.

U.S. History. If it can be done on a desk map, why not the same activity on the playground map? Locations of Native American tribes, expansion of U.S. borders, and routes of the explorers are all historical themes that could be represented on the map by paintings, models, or posters.

Scale of Miles. If you've painted your map using a base-10 measurement (1 inch = 10 miles), the math practice in measuring from place to place is really quite simple.

Gym Games. Devise state-to-state relay races for your playground map, or set up portable basketball hoops at various distances for free-throw practice.

Summer Vacation. In addition to that "What I Did on My Summer Vacation" essay, students might chalk out the route that their summer vacation took them on.

U.S. at Night. If you have an evening activity at school, schedule time for the students to go out on the map with flashlights. Place the lights (facing up) at major metropolitan areas. The map will look like the United States as the astronauts see it at night.

Super Bowl or World Series. Place balls for a particular sport on the locations of the major league franchises. This is a great activity to generate discussion about major metropolitan areas.

Ed Bonne has one last suggestion: USE YOUR IMAGINATION! IT'S A BIG MAP -- IT CAN USE BIG IDEAS!!

About Ed Bonne

Ed Bonne currently teaches at Lakeview High School in St. Clair Shores (Michigan). Prior to moving to the high school, Bonne taught second grade for more than a dozen years; and before that he was a high school history and geography teacher for 14 years. Bonne is active in the Michigan Geographic Alliance.


Some Suggestions for "Natural Features" Activity
These are only suggestions; feel free to change the list.

Alabama Mobile Bay Kentucky Cumberland Gap North Dakota Red River Valley
Alaska Yukon River Louisiana The Delta Ohio Ohio River
Arizona Petrified Forest Maine Sunrise Oklahoma Red River
Arkansas Ozark Mts. Maryland Chesapeake Bay Oregon Mt. Hood
California Death Valley Massachusetts Cape Cod Pennsylvania Allegheny Mts.
Colorado Rocky Mts. Michigan Great Lakes Rhode Island Narragansett Bay
Connecticut Long Island Sd. Minnesota forests South Carolina Piedmont
Delaware Delaware Bay Mississippi Mississippi River South Dakota Badlands
District of Columbia Potomac River Missouri Missouri River Tennessee Tennessee Valley
Florida L. Okeechobee Montana High Plains Texas Guadalupe Mts.
Georgia Okefenokee Swamp Nebraska Chimney Rock Utah Dinosaur Valley
Hawaii Pearl Harbor Nevada desert Vermont Green Mts.
Idaho Hells Canyon New Hampshire White Mts. Virginia Hampton Roads
Illinois Illinois River New Jersey Delaware River Washington Mt. St. Helens
Indiana Brown County New Mexico White Sands West Virginia mountains
Iowa prairie New York Niagara Falls Wisconsin Wisconsin Dells
Kansas prairie North Carolina Cape Hatteras Wyoming Devils Tower

Suggestions for "National Parks" Activity
Some states have more than one national park within their borders; only one is listed. Source: World Almanac

Alabama   Kentucky Mammoth Cave North Dakota Theo. Roosevelt
Alaska Denali Louisiana   Ohio  
Arizona Grand Canyon Maine Acadia Oklahoma  
Arkansas Hot Springs Maryland   Oregon Crater Lake
California Sequoia Massachusetts   Pennsylvania  
Colorado Rocky Mts. Michigan Isle Royale Rhode Island  
Connecticut   Minnesota Voyageurs South Carolina  
Delaware   Mississippi   South Dakota Badlands
District of Columbia   Missouri   Tennessee Great Smoky Mts.
Florida Everglades Montana Glacier Texas Big Bend
Georgia   Nebraska   Utah Zion
Hawaii Hawaii Volcanoes Nevada Great Basin Vermont  
Idaho Yellowstone New Hampshire   Virginia Shenandoah
Illinois   New Jersey   Washington Mount Rainier
Indiana   New Mexico Carlsbad Cavrns. West Virginia  
Iowa   New York   Wisconsin
Kansas   North Carolina   Wyoming Grand Teton

Tour Locations for "Take a Tour of the U.S.A." Activity
These are only suggestions; feel free to change the list.

Alabama plantation Kentucky Churchill Downs North Dakota wheat farm
Alaska Mt. McKinley Louisiana oil refinery Ohio Cedar Point
Arizona Grand Canyon Maine sawmill Oklahoma Indian village
Arkansas Ozark Mts. Maryland Fort McHenry Oregon Mt. Hood
California Golden Gate Br. Massachusetts Old No. Church Pennsylvania steel mill
Colorado Mesa Verde Michigan Mackinaw Br. Rhode Island Newport
Connecticut Mystic Seaport Minnesota ice rink South Carolina Fort Sumter
Delaware chemical plant Mississippi plantation South Dakota Mt. Rushmore
District of Columbia White House Missouri Gateway Arch Tennessee Smoky Mts.
Florida Everglades Montana Custer battlefield Texas Alamo
Georgia Stone Mountain Nebraska Chimney Rock Utah Canyonlands
Hawaii Pearl Harbor Nevada casino Vermont covered bridge
Idaho Snake R. Can. New Hampshire Mt. Washington Virginia Mount Vernon
Illinois Chicago New Jersey boardwalk Washington Mt. Rainier
Indiana 500 Speedway New Mexico Taos Pueblo West Virginia coal mine
Iowa corn farm New York Niagara Falls Wisconsin dairy farm
Kansas grain elevator North Carolina Kitty Hawk Wyoming Old Faithful

Characters for "The U.S. Is a Stage" Activity
These are only suggestions; feel free to change the list.

Alternate suggestion: You might have students research and act as a famous person in history -- past or present -- from each state.

Alabama pirate Kentucky Daniel Boone North Dakota cavalry soldier
Alaska Native Alaskan Louisiana clown Ohio football player
Arizona prospector Maine whaler Oklahoma "Okie"
Arkansas "mountain man" Maryland jockey Oregon marathon runner
California movie star Massachusetts witch Pennsylvania steelworker
Colorado skier Michigan hunter Rhode Island sailor
Connecticut businessman Minnesota Laura Ingalls South Carolina Confederate soldier
Delaware chemist Mississippi southern belle South Dakota Indian
District of Columbia senator Missouri Huck Finn Tennessee Davy Crockett
Florida astronaut Montana Sacajawea Texas rancher
Georgia Scarlett O'Hara Nebraska cornhusker Utah dinosaur
Hawaii hula dancer Nevada gambler Vermont Colonial soldier
Idaho fly fisherman New Hampshire professor Virginia nurse
Illinois butcher New Jersey gardener Washington pilot
Indiana basketball player New Mexico caballero West Virginia coal miner
Iowa farmer New York baseball player Wisconsin dairy farmer
Kansas Dorothy North Carolina golfer Wyoming cowboy

Article by Gary Hopkins
Education World®
Copyright © 2004 Education World

Updated 06/30/2004