History and geography: The art of finding your way

History and geography both involve finding paths: between places, generations, ideas... Which is lucky, because finding paths – helped, in some cases, by maps – is a brilliant way of having fun
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The Independent Online

1 Finding your way

Understanding and interpreting maps is an important aspect of Key Stage Three geography – the National Curriculum specifies that pupils should easily be able to find their way around an atlas and a globe, and should be familiar with 1:25,000 scale Ordnance Survey maps. These are widely available from book shops and tourist offices, and are sold as "Outdoor Leisure Maps" which cover the whole of Great Britain, and contain a lot of local detail and information.

The following activity can help your child get a good working knowledge of these maps. First, find the map for an area in which you'd like to walk. This can be your own area, if that is most suitable. Together, using the detailed key at the bottom of the map, plot a short walk using public rights of way. Once you've chosen a route you can look at the map and see what features there are on your route.

If the walk is hilly, you could ask your child what it means when the faint orange lines (contour lines) are close together. This is a good introduction to how hills are represented on maps. You could also discuss the differences between a road marked in pink and one marked in yellow. On top of this you should give your child a list of abbreviations for them to decode along the walk, for example, "PO" for Post Office, "Pol Sta" for a police station and "Sch" for a school. Just choose relevant landmarks along the way.

2 Guess who's coming to dinner?

This is a fun, low-key game you can play with your child anywhere – even stuck in a traffic jam or while cooking dinner. Think of a figure from history, perhaps with half an eye on what your child has been studying at school. Then you can either offer snippets of information about them, using your own knowledge or whatever you can glean from a history book or encyclopedia, and see how long it takes your child to identify the character you're referring to. Alternatively, you can set a limited number of questions – usually 20 – that your child can ask in order to try to guess the person that you have in mind.

3 Keeping it in the family

Genealogy has never been so popular. While you can now buy various software packages for your home computer to help you plot your family tree and many sources of data are available on the internet, it is simple enough to construct your own family tree on paper.

Start with all the family members your child knows in person – you can help by filling in any of the gaps. Next, encourage your child to interview as many of their relatives as possible about their lives, perhaps using a tape recorder because keeping accurate notes can be difficult. Now ask them to write a few sentences about each person, putting down what interests them about their relative – although Uncle Eric may have been a MP, what might interest your child more was his passion for collecting model cars.

While rather time-consuming, this exercise can be a great deal of fun, and introduces the idea that history is subjective and depends largely on personal perspective and interests.

4 The place where you live

A useful longer project is to challenge your child to find out as much as possible about the place you live. This might include discovering who lived there before you did, when the building was constructed, or what it was originally used for. They could even try to find out how the land was used before your home was built.

A good starting point for them is to ask neighbours who have lived there some time about your home. Did they know the previous occupants or remember anything else about the property? In the days before supermarkets and large retailers, there were many more local shops. Perhaps you are now living in one of those and your neighbours remember this.

If where you live is more modern, there is still plenty that your child can find out. Your local library should have copies of maps of your area dating back many years, which should give some indication of what the land was used for.

If you own your own property, your title deeds may well have some fascinating information, such as how much the property was bought and sold for, or what alterations may have been made. If you have a mortgage, these deeds are usually held by your lender, who will probably be happy to let you have a copy for a small fee – otherwise you'll have to dig them out of whichever drawer you left them in.