The way to teach third-graders about maps is to provide opportunities that make maps less abstract and more concrete. Activities that show students how maps are relevant to their daily lives are useful, as are projects that provide discussion and movement. Map projects are an opportunity to show students how fun studying geography can be.

Topographical Map

A topographical map can be made to help students understand the topography of an area they are studying or even of their own neighborhood. For third-graders, this activity will be most relevant if the map is made using their own city or state. Topographical maps will have more detail when they cover a smaller space. For example, if students are making a topographic map of their own neighborhood, they can include the hill they walk up on the way to school, the creek that runs along it and other small features.

Ellen P. Metzger at San Jose University says that topographic maps fall into three groups--relief, which includes hills and valleys; water features, which are bodies of water; and cultural features such as bridges and roads.

Students create a topographic map by layering clay on a sturdy surface such as thin plywood. The map can be painted after the clay dries. When students are older, they can begin creating topographical maps based on geological survey maps. This activity provides a good background for understanding topography in general.

Road Trip

Planning a road trip is a map activity for groups of three to five third-graders. Before beginning the activity, students are encouraged to think of trips they may have taken in the past, even trips to nearby towns. The difference between towns, states and countries should be reviewed. The road trip activity requires that each group be given a map to work with. For third-graders, a state map will work better than a national map. National maps will require considerably more time, research and writing, which may be overwhelming for student's first road map project.

Students will plan where they will go on their road trip and use the map to tell how many miles it is and how long the trip will take. Students will look at the population of the towns they will be driving through in order to determine if the town is likely to have gas stations and restaurants. Optionally, students can research their final destination and create a travel brochure.

Map Mural

Map murals are fun for third-graders to create. This map activity works best with groups of 10 to 12 students. First, the teacher hangs white butcher paper on the wall. Then an overhead projector projects the map onto the butcher paper. At this point, students use pencils to trace the outline of the map. Stepstools will likely be needed. After the outline has been traced, students can enjoy painting and labeling the map, which will serve as a colorful and educational classroom decoration.

Hurricane Tracking

Hurricane tracker charts can be downloaded from the National Weather Service. Each student should be provided with a tracker chart for this activity. Every day that a hurricane is active in the area being studied, the teacher will read the longitude and latitude coordinates of the hurricane so that students put the point on their map. Students can make predictions about the projected path of the hurricane, as well as its anticipated strength.

Students who live in areas where hurricanes can strike may feel anxiety about this activity. It is best to study hurricanes that are threatening other areas in this case.