by Ellen Meade
Mental mapping is the imagined “map” we create in our minds. It is the way we mentally organize spatial information, such as locations and characteristics of specific people, places, and environments. They are a combination of objective information and subjective observations that allow people to make connections regarding the world we live in. The idea may sound complicated, but it is something most of us have experienced.
Think back to when you were a child and the neighborhood you lived in. Most of us have memories of “the scary house at the top of the hill,” or “the house where the nice lady lives that bakes cookies every Sunday,” or where you can find the best tree to climb. Those types of memories are essential to mental mapping. It is how we, as children, learn to process our environment and find our place in this world. However, our nonstop lifestyle combined with modern parenting practices has severely wounded this natural developmental process.
Kids today view their environment through the backseat of a car. Instead of riding their bikes to the park or walking to school, they are chauffeured by a parent. They are not allowed to freely explore the world around them; they are not allowed to play unsupervised in their community; they are not allowed to form attachments to their neighborhood. Just recently, several news stories have come out about parents running into legal trouble for allowing their children to play unsupervised. One parent described the horrific experience of having her two children detained in police custody for several hours because she allowed them to go to the park by themselves (ages 11 and 9).
For educational purposes, mental mapping is a necessary step for children in their progression to geographic learning and thinking. Students build upon these mental maps as they experience new places and learn new information about areas. And new information comes in constantly these days – from the news (an earthquake in Japan), to social media (a friend on SnapChat who lives in London), to school (a unit on the Middle East and oil). All of this information is internalized and organized, creating increasingly-complex mental maps about the world.
These internalized representations of our world are key to allowing kids to recall their previous experience and applying it to new learning. For example, when kids are asked to examine a map representing the pattern of world population, they use their mental mapping skills to identify key land features and available renewable resources to explain the relationship. Mental maps help us all to interpret the world that surrounds us. From the shortest way to the grocery store during rush hour, and which subway to take home from work, to the areas impacted by the Pacific Ring of Fire and where the mythological Atlantis could be hidden – our mental maps are only as detailed as the information we receive.
For kids today who are chauffeured in the backseat of a car and sheltered indoors all day long, they are being deprived of an essential foundational skill that infinite generations of human beings have relied upon for basic survival. In addition to becoming increasingly obese and disconnected from their own communities, these “modern” parenting techniques are setting kids up to fail at becoming independent, capable, contributing members of society. In exchange for the nonstop, 24/7 lifestyle we live today, we have opted for virtual connectivity over actual connections to our real-life communities. Our kids are protected from everything, including their own freedom.