Core units: Years 5-6 — Key understandings

Illustration 2: Globes, maps, atlases, electronic maps


This illustration provides a set of material about understanding the globe of the world and atlas maps. It includes the use of electronic atlases as well as book atlases. It also includes the use of Google Maps and similar electronic map resources.

Learning goals

The focus of this illustration is on the use of globes and maps in various forms. It encourages you to use these frequently in geography and it suggests many techniques of using them. 

Geographical understanding and context

Maps, globes and atlases are fundamental tools of geography. Understanding them and their effective use helps the subject 'come alive'.

Teaching approaches

1. Using the globe of the world
By Years 5 and 6 students should have seen and used the globe of the world a number of times. During Years 5 and 6 they build on this experience and learn the following features of the globe:

  • equator and lines of latitude
  • hemispheres
  • north and south poles and lines of longitude
  • the position of the prime meridian and the International Date Line - this will include a simple understanding of why one line was chosen as the starting point for world time, and how the line exactly on the other side of the world (180 degrees) therefore separates one day from another - a brief telling of the conclusion to Around the world in 80 days illustrates this
  • the reason for the International Date Line bending on the globe so as not to split nations and island groups into different days
  • all continents and oceans, and their relation to the equator
  • the direction of spin of the earth from west to east, which can be linked with sunrise and sunset as well as time
  • the idea of time zones, such as the three time zones in Australia.

Some activities which can enrich students' understanding of the globe and maps are listed below.

  • Drawing on an orange. Draw the generalised outline of the continents onto the skin of a large orange. Cut the orange into four pieces with cuts from the North Pole to the South Pole. Peel off the skin and press it onto a flat surface to show the difficulty of changing a curved earth into a flat map.
  • Using a globe inside. Place toothpicks on the globe using Blu Tack, to represent people standing at various points. The base of the toothpick must always point to the centre of the earth because of the nature of gravity. This is a graphic illustration of the curvature of the earth and the artificiality of our perspective of a flat horizon.
  • Using a globe outside. Take the globe of the world into the schoolyard on a sunny day. Orient the globe to the sun by turning it so that your current location is on the top of the globe. Keeping it there, turn the globe so that the North Pole is pointing north. You now have a miniature model of the earth in its correct position relative to the sun at that moment. The parts of the earth where it is currently day time are in the sun. The parts where it is now night are in shade. Further experiments can be done by putting toothpicks on places and seeing the differences in shadows. If possible take the globe out into the sun at various times of the day and observe the differences in places having day and night, sunrise and sunset.

Photographs of globe-based activities (PDF) show activities that can be undertaken using a globe of the world.

2. Using an atlas
Primary level atlases should be readily available to students in the classroom, not only for reference or for particular lessons, but also for browsing.

Some activities which can be done at any time during upper primary levels are listed below.

  • Developing familiarity. Familiarise students with the layout of the atlas and encourage them to browse through the continental grouping of maps and place index.
  • Understanding differences. Refer to different types of maps in your discussions with students. Talk about physical, political and thematic maps so that students know the difference.
  • Reinforcing previous understandings. Reinforce the skills students developed in earlier years, including the use of grids for locating places and use of the legend.

3. Using electronic atlases

Many students will have access to electronic atlases on laptops, iPads, or desk computers. Encourage students to use these, and to browse them to become familiar with their features.

Most electronic atlases begin with a whole earth image and progress by clicks to continents and countries. Similar to book atlases, some have detailed maps, and others are simpler. Because they allow the user to zoom into a map, they convey a clear idea of scale differences. 

Some electronic atlases also contain a lot of non-map information about each nation. This can usually be switched on or off.

The best learning involves the use of both electronic and book atlases because they complement each other.

Some suggested electronic atlases for students to look for and browse are Barefoot Atlas, World Map (for iPad), or Oxford Atlas app.

Google Maps, Google Earth and other electronic map sources are very useful. They use up-to-date aerial photography to view a place as a map, photograph or hybrid of both. The scale of the map and the borders can be adjusted. Hybrid maps superimpose street names and town names on the aerial landscape. Many places of the earth can now be viewed in 3D, giving an impression of the relief of the land and the height of the buildings.

The best place for students to begin is with their own house and familiar surroundings. They can look at it as a map and then change to an aerial photograph and then to a hybrid photograph/map.
The scale of the maps can be changed easily. This gives a graphic view of scale, context, detail and generalisations.

The best method to become familiar with interpreting the hybrid map or photograph is to start with the area students live in and know best. Houses, trees, swimming pools, play equipment, sheds, lawns, shopping centres, car parks, and multi-storey buildings can all be recognised as students become familiar with how they look from above.

The next step is to look at places further away. Choose another country and try to find examples of different kinds of landscape. Do this by zooming in and then travelling across the hybrid map.
Google Earth maps are similar to other GIS (Geographic Information Systems) maps, in that they have 'layers' which you can include or exclude on the map. The names of the layers (such as borders, rivers, roads, names) are shown in a key on the side of the map. Try switching these off and on for different versions of your map.

What you need

Atlases for primary school children.
Globe of the world.
Access to the Internet.
Access to Google Maps and Google Earth.
Toothpicks, ribbons or string, Blu Tak or other materials to assist with globe activities.


Photographs of globe-based activities (PDF) shows how to use a globe and other materials to depict:

  • location of the prime meridian 
  • location of the International Date Line
  • location of your town or city in relation to day or night
  • length of shadows
  • day and night
  • different places in relation to the sun.

Frank. M. (2009). Geography mysteries - warm up with Garfield. Nashville: Incentive Publications. This book has 88 fun activities based on Garfield the cartoon cat. It also includes answers and a chart of geography skills and concepts sharpened by doing the activities.
Gardner, J & Mills J. (2010). The everything kid's geography book. Colchester: Adams Media. This book contains plenty of ideas relating to map and globe use. Its theme is exploring the world.
Johnson, S. (2004). Daily Geography Practice Grade 4. Monterey: Evan Moor.
Johnson, S. (2004). Daily Geography Practice Grade 5. Monterey: Evan Moor.
Johnson, S. (2004). Daily Geography Practice Grade 6+. Monterey: Evan Moor.
Each of the three books above (Johnston, 2004) is 144 pages, and contains instantly useable exercises, together with overhead transparencies. They are American, and while the use of some of the maps may be limited, there are plenty of generic exercises and map activities that can be very useful. They are available through
Wright, D. (2000). Maps with latitude. Sheffield: Geographical Association. An excellent book in the series Theory into Practice explaining the background to the use of the globe.