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  • Writer's pictureDaniel

#GPS = “Gonna Point You Somewhere”—Rethinking GPS for Your Kids

The Global Positioning System (GPS) is a modern marvel. The science and engineering behind it are mindboggling. Its low cost to consumers is a tribute to manufacturing miracles. GPS has saved countless lives and countless lost motorists. The great navigational issues of the world have been solved, down to the millimeter.

But it may not be the best thing for our kids.

These Kiddos are growing their brains.

When our girls where little, we eschewed the Internet for the World Book Encyclopedia. Why? We wanted them to understand an organizing principle of information; we did not want them to think of information as something that simply miraculously appeared at the click of a mouse.

Similarly, we taught them the “common-sense test” when it came to the use of calculators or any kind of algorithm-created results on a website. Before accepting the answer uncritically, we urged them to always take a moment and ask themselves if the answer made sense. For example, a word problem. If a calculator produced an answer of “125,” the common-sense test would ask, “Does it make common sense that there would be 125 gallons of lemonade at Little Lucy’s Lemonade Stand?” Nope! The right answer was 1.25.

GPS bypasses these fundamental life skills.


"The fear of using a GPS exclusively is a loss of cultural and geographic literacy. The more humans use GPS, the more cut off from the real world they might become."


When kids rely on GPS, they essentially turn parts of their brains off. The pretty maps, the soothing voice, the authority kids have in technology from playing games on smartphones and tablets from the earliest ages combine to produce a faith in GPS that is reasonably warranted, but at a cost.

Children (and adults) offload spatial thinking, critical thinking, and basic awareness of and delight in their environment to a system of satellites, clocks, and computers. This has profound results for the development of their brains and perceptions of the world.

In using a GPS maps, kids turn off certain maps in their minds. All of us create “mental maps” to organize information. Mental maps are not just maps of the world, but maps of information and how all of it is related. For example, a mental map might make the connections among George Washington, presidents, the American Revolution, Mount Vernon, Valley Forge, history, politics, and culture. The more mental maps we create, the better we are at it. Our brains get better, just as exercising makes our bodies better.


“Reading maps and developing navigational skills can affect the brain in beneficial ways. In fact, using orientation and navigational skills often can actually cause the hippocampus and the brain to grow, forming more neural pathways as the number of mental maps increase.”


My point is not to hide GPS from kids. My point is that using physical maps first will strengthen their ability to make mental maps. This will help their brains grow (literally!), and not just in terms of cartography. It will help them learn in all areas they study. According to the National Research Council, “Spatial thinking must be recognized as a fundamental part of K–12 education and as an integrator and a facilitator for problem solving across the curriculum.”

In the meantime, know having your kids using paper maps (along with their keys, scales, and compass roses—and actual compasses) will help them develop mental mapping skills that will serve them throughout their studies and into their adult lives.

The science behind this simple idea is complex. If you’d like to read about it in more detail, please see the resources below.


"The use of map reading and navigating skills to explore the spatial environment can benefit the brain and cause certain areas to grow while the use of modern technology for navigation seems to only hinder the brain." 



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