Dig the Past: Teaching Kids Why Mapping Matters (Guest post by Anneliese Bruegel)

(This post was written by Anneliese Bruegel, a graduate student in the Department of Anthropology and Dig the Past facilitator).

Dig the Past, a newly minted program at the MSU Museum one weekend a month designed and run by the MSU Campus Archaeology Program, has proven itself, during its pilot semester, as an effective means of teaching young children what archaeologists do in real life (HINT: It’s not digging up fossils!) and the practical methods that include how to dig and analyze artifacts.

After the successful pilot run of Dig the Past, new activities were designed to teach children other methods commonly used by archaeologists, and the new activity for the 2014 year was a mapping activity, designed to teach children the importance of spatial recognition of patterns in the archaeological record. Mapping in the field is often done in difficult environmental conditions and requires advanced spatial comprehension and above all precision. It is essentially a field method that requires patience, attention to detail, and determination.

The activity was set up as two separate squares on roll-out craft paper, each measuring 3 ft. x 3 ft. Each of these two squares, which represented a single excavation unit, was then divided again into a grid with string, totaling nine grid squares. Then throughout each square “artifacts” were scattered in deliberate patterns so that we could engage the children in a discussion about conclusions they could draw about the past based on what they saw in the artifact distribution. For example beads were distributed both randomly and some in a circle to represent in situ jewelry vs. broken beads, and keys were placed close to locks.

Model Mapping Unit
Model Mapping Unit

There were several notable patterns discovered between the ages of the children and the concepts they were able to grasp and engage in a clear discussion about. Older children, 9-12 years, were able to get the most out of the activity and based on surveys enjoyed it the most. These older children, by the end of the activity, were able to understand, not only the practical method of how to map a site, buy why it matters. Including how to interpret and make conclusions about artifact distribution, not only two dimensionally like the activity, but also three dimensionally to represent changing patterns in artifact distribution over time.

Mapping in action
Mapping in action

Younger children, widely ranging from 4-8 years, exhibited a narrower field of comprehension regarding the guiding principles the activity was designed to teach. However, almost all of then were able to understand the basic goals of the activity such as how to look for patterns in the artifact distribution. Interestingly, this younger group was much more comfortable engaging in a discussion about the mapping activity then actually practicing it, they preferred to discuss what they saw and try to guess or make interpretations about what the artifact distribution meant than to actually draw or map it.

One consistent difficulty that children from all age groups had with the mapping activity was spatial recognition of the artifacts distributed in the “unit” and accurately relating that spatial relationship onto a drawn map. Most of the younger children drew a picture of the artifacts from each grid square into the same corresponding grid square on their map, but with absolutely no relationship to the actual real space in the grid square where the artifact was located. It is unclear if this spatial recognition is a skill that develops later or if there is a relationship to the way they drew the artifacts and how they engage in drawing activities in school. Additionally, all artifacts were drawn at the same scale, with little discernment between larger and smaller artifacts. The older children, again, were able to more fully engage with the spatial relationships and recognition, which likely indicated that there is a developmental element to this part of the activity.

In conclusion, the Dig the Past Mapping Activity was highly successful, and while not as popular as the actual digging activity, almost all children seemed to enjoy participating in the activity. Also, when the children were involved in this activity their parents often accompanied them, and also engaged in the activity and asking their own questions.

1 thought on “Dig the Past: Teaching Kids Why Mapping Matters (Guest post by Anneliese Bruegel)”

  • Congratulations a successful project “Dig the Past Mapping Activity”. More project and more creative people like you 🙂 What a lovely idea to teach and improve kids patience, attention to detail, and determination. Active kids-happy kids. All the best with your future projects.

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