Maps and Plans

Please note: this guide was written before the 2014 National Curriculum and some of the advice may no longer be relevant.

This is where history makes full use of geography, for all past events occur in place, as well as in time. Maps, like timelines, are essential reference points for all history units – they help children to develop an awareness of place. We want to help children to understand the physical world in which past people lived, as well as their beliefs, attitudes and experiences.

Maps and plans are especially important for visual learners, as they provide a spatial and visual way of investigating historical questions and recording findings. Maps and plans are a splendid resource for teaching about change and origins, about distance and journeys, about the spaces in which people lived.

Use good atlases that show not only countries, but also physical features. For journeys or voyages into Terra Incognita, we want children to use the maps - or travelling instructions - that people at the time would have used, so that they are working with the world as people knew or imagined it then. Useful resources here are Michael Grant's atlases of the ancient and classical worlds.

Understanding distance and journeys: physical maps

To understand journeys we need maps showing contours, rivers, mountains, heights - and we also need to understand climate. If we are to appreciate the trials of soldiers marching with, say, Alexander the Great, it is vital to know where the deserts and mountains are and how long it might be until the army reaches the next source of fresh food and water. Copying the relevant map onto an OHT or projecting it onto an interactive whiteboard allows everyone to follow the journey and discuss time and conditions at each stage. A mileometer is useful in such journey plottings, as is knowledge of the average speeds of: a person walking; a horse walking, trotting or cantering; a coach pulled by four horses; a sailing ship. These bring home to children just how long it took our ancestors to travel to their destinations. For voyages, maps showing prevailing winds and currents help us understand why Columbus sailed at a particular latitude, or why Drake was becalmed in the tropics.

Investigating spaces: plans

Plans help us to understand the layout of houses, monasteries, castles, churches, fields, estates, archaeological digs. When we do archaeological simulations in the classroom, we chart on a plan the progress of the dig and the finds uncovered. Using the plans of homes and other buildings, children can place cut-outs of the contents in the appropriate places on the plan. They can also people the rooms and chart the inhabitants' movements as they go about their daily lives, then conduct guided tours of the building or site.

Children making maps

As well as using plans, children can also create them, that is from pictures or written descriptions.

Exploring change over time and place name origins: local maps

Local record offices will have detailed Ordnance Survey maps for your area, going back over 150 years. You can usually obtain copies for a small fee. Alternatively, use the internet. If, for example, you type: "victorian+ordnance+survey+maps" into Google or a similar search engine, you will bring up pages of links to historical maps. Just five maps of your area spread over 100 years will make the basis of some excellent work. The children can spot when buildings disappear, or change their use or name, and when new buildings appear.

Similarly, place name investigations give us valuable insights into the nature and pattern of settlement by the Roman, Saxon, Viking and Norman invaders of Britain. Investigating the origins of place names on our modern maps is both fun and enlightening (see, for example, Vikings settle down).

Short lesson exemplar

See also the 'Using maps and place names' exemplar from Roman Britain.

Notes on this website on Cross-curricular learning

Links to lessons using maps and plans:

Short lessons


The following lessons on this site use maps and plans:

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