The Pacific Northwest Forum
Volume 1, Number 3, Pages 2-11
Summer, 1976

Turf Maps

By Jeremy Anderson

Jeremy Anderson is a Professor of Geography at Eastern Washington State College. His article shows the value of ''turf maps" in the classroom. In addition, such maps can provide an interesting way of reconstructing one's own past. The Pacific Northwest Forum would be glad to consider such drawings and appropriate annotations for publication in future issues. For information on submitting materials, see the title page.

"Where did you go?" "Out." "What did you do?" "Nothing."

This classic dialogue belies the richness and importance of the interaction between children and their everyday environment. It is now well established that as a result of such interaction children have well-developed mental maps of both their immediate environment as well as other places of significance to which they've been exposed. When asked to do so, most can produce intelligible, interesting and often highly detailed representations of their mental images, or maps of their various worlds or spheres of activity.

I first discovered this when I was conducting a graduate seminar on Geographical Field Methods about eight years ago and as a first assignment asked the students to make a sketch map of their primary "turf" - those areas which they regularly traversed or played in when they were 6-9 years old. The maps proved to be of great value for the development of many geographical concepts as well as a useful tool for getting to know the students better. Since then, the exercise has been adapted to a wide variety of classroom applications ranging from providing the basis for teaching elementary map skills to teaching advanced principles of human geography.

Here are some of the virtues and limitations of this exercise, as well as some of its applications both within the classroom and beyond.

The usual assignment runs approximately as follows: "Make a sketch map of your 'turf' (either as it exists now or as it existed when you were between the ages of __ and __.) By "turf" I mean those areas in which you and your friends regularly play, travel, hang out, etc. You may wish to show places of special importance: barriers, dangerous or disliked areas, often-used paths, specially liked areas, etc. Your map doesn't need to be precise in terms of scale, direction, or size and shape of objects, but should be done as neatly and carefully as time allows. If you use some special symbols, you might include a legend or key. As you are doing it, you might imagine that you are drawing the map to show a far away pen pal who has never seen your area what it is like and what it means to you."

Figure 1. Primary "turf" map made by a first-grader living in a Spokane suburb.

The assignment is subjective, there are no right or wrong answers; I try to avoid giving the students too many directions or specific examples. Students are given a full class period or overnight to complete the assignment. Depending upon the availability of materials and size of class, one may impose some format limitations (i.e., size of paper, recommended use of pencil or color); more will be said of this below.

The virtues of the exercise include its subjectivity - all the maps are equally valid in that they represent an individual's perception of his or her world at a given point in time. The maps are displayed and each individual is given an opportunity to tell the class or at least a small group about his or her particular map. Students with limited writing or verbal ability have more expertise to share when discussing an area with which they are intimately acquainted. The opportunity to share this expertise with peers and teachers helps to build self-esteem by providing a non-standard, non-evaluative mode of expression. The graphic and often pictorial character of such images serves to stimulate student questions and discussion and provides students with an understanding of how an area may be perceived and portrayed differently by other persons.

Where the exercise is to recall a past turf, students who insist that they can't possibly remember much about it discover that each map element added brings back a flood of memories of related events, places and persons. Space or place is a very powerful mnemonic device, and every place on the map is remembered primarily in terms of either significant events or repeated actions which took place there or were in some way related to that place. Students gain an understanding of how the perception of a place or person is influenced by the nature of the personal experience or encounter with that place or person.

Figure 2. Primary "turf" made by an adult Spokane Indian showing the Colville Valley farm which comprised his primary turf. See detailed versions of left and right pages below.

There are, however, some limitations. Some students show feelings of inadequacy that they may have, either about their ability to draw or about the quality or character of their own 'turf.' Others may not fully comprehend what a 'map' is, or how to make one. All need to be reassured that the exercise is subjective and that there are no right or wrong answers. Maps may be simply defined by analogy as 'birds eye views' of an area - a drawing or plan of the area as it might appear to a bird or ballonist flying over it. Note, too, that map-makers generally simplify their task by substituting generalized symbols for detailed depiction - hence the house seen by a bird may look like this:

There may be students who have a strong dislike for the place where they live, for whom recall is painful. Such feelings are valid and should be accepted and dealt with as any other feelings. In such a case a student may wish to draw a map of some real or imaginary place that he or she does like. I would urge teachers to do and share this exercise right along with their students - it's a good learning experience for all and it serves to improve rapport and enhance the teacher's credibility as a human being in the eyes of students. If students appreciate the fact that the teacher had places which he both liked and disliked, and experienced both pain and joy in his own turf, they are likely to share of themselves more freely.

What are some ways of sharing turf maps? When students first make their maps, I tell them to omit their names or any titles which would give away the location of the map. Younger students can make a game of guessing the authors of each map, while older ones may be encouraged to analyze what the map reveals about the place it represents in terms of location, resources, culture, livelihood, etc. In both cases, students are challenged to develop skills of observation.

If student maps are drawn with a good black pencil on white paper, 8.5 x 11 inches, they may be quickly converted to transparencies for projection, using standard 'thermofax' machines and materials. Such transparencies may also be made directly by students using appropriate felt-tip pens on clear sheets of acetate. This serves to teach students about the problems of scale and generalization in map-making and also permits the maps to be enlarged for discussion in front of larger groups or the whole class. Where conversion to transparencies is not possible, posting on bulletin boards or small group sharing may be substituted.

Figure 3. High School "turf" map of farm youth from southern Spokane county.

I encourage students to elaborate upon their maps, telling what portions of their turf are (or were) most important, most used, best liked, forbidden, etc., and why. Each student does this in turn taking five to ten minutes, with questions from others encouraged. This may take several class periods, but it is important that all be heard.

In the case of human geography, subsequent discussion may focus on reasons underlying the differences in size, detail, or character of the individual turfs. The concepts of resource, landscape, landscape modification, diffusion, mobility, social barrier, physical barrier, segregation, isolation, political alliance, space preference, environmental perception, pollution, aversion, and others may be introduced, illustrated, developed and discussed, using both the teacher's and the students' maps. The map transparencies lend themselves particularly well to such activity. Note, too, that many of these concepts are important not only for geography but for social studies in general.

Let's look at a few maps to see what may be learned from them. The first (Figure 1) shows the map of a first-grader. Note that even though the student hasn't labeled his house it is immediately apparent which house is his, and possible, too, to deduce the kinds of environments and activities valued by him. The geometry of houses, fields and streets may be worth discussing with a class as well as the significance of the bus stop. (There are many places in the world where houses and fields are circular in shape and where school buses and automobiles are rare or non-existent. Maps are revealing cultural documents!)

The map on the cover represents a fondly remembered "stump" farm in Northern Spokane County on which a now-grown person was raised. The layout of the farmstead, functions of buildings and land use of the farm are all clearly shown. Such a document provides the basis for a good lesson in the geography and economics of farming. If the student is able to recollect changes which have occurred in the operation during his lifetime or elicit similar sketches from parents, grandparents, friends or relatives, the dimension of historical change adds greatly to the significance of the initial map.

The childhood turf of a Spokane Indian (Figure 2) was located in the Colville Valley and cultural differences as well as those of local climate, soils and topography influenced the layout and use of his family's farmstead and land.

What I call 'primary turfs,' those of children aged 6 to 9 years old, generally range in size from one's yard to perhaps a half-mile square. What accounts for the differences in turf size? Where do one's closest friends live? What are the most popular play places and play activities of a given class? How do these change over time and why? To what extent is the distance one ranges from home influenced by parents, physical barriers or one's own preference? A class may have other equally valid and interesting questions about the turfs which they might like discuss. A good teacher will not force answers that satisfy only his own preconceptions.

Figure 4. High School "turf" map of a young woman from northwest portion of the city of Spokane.

The high school turf of one person may include no more than a block or two, the school and school grounds, for example, or it may cover the better half of a county or two (Figure 3). The latter attests to the mobility of present-day teen-agers, the importance of automobiles and highways, and the distances they may travel in pursuit of entertainment, employment or adventure.

Another student's primary turf covered a few city blocks; her high school turf includes one-third of Spokane (Figure 4). How does this extension of the area with which students interact affect the character and quality of that interaction? To what extent is this turf coextensive with her image or mental map of the city as a whole? Which parts of the turf are best liked? What determines the limits of one's turf at this age?

Older students may readily appreciate the degree to which experience influences one's image of the world around, and that many boundaries are self-imposed or based on ignorance or stereotypes of questionable validity. They may also be able to analyze the degree to which such maps permit one to learn a good deal about the cultural geography and values of one's own society. Place names, and commercial, religious and recreational establishments are often prominent features of such maps.

A turf map of a small town (Figure 5) serves to emphasize the effect which community size and location may have on the range of commercial and industrial activity there.

Figure 5. High School "turf" map of oung person from Omak, Washington.

This brings us to an alternative kind of sketch map exercise, which may be more effective in eliciting reconstructed community maps of the past or freer sharing on the part of adolescents who may be very self-conscious of the limitations of their own behavioral space. Here students in a class are asked to make a sketch map of the entire town, city, township or whatever area one is interested in studying, as it appears in their 'mind's eye.' Here one adds, "I know it is nearly impossible to show all you know on your map, so you should emphasize those aspects of the city or place which are most important to you as an individual." Again, they should be reassured that there are no right or wrong answers, that this is a subjective exercise to learn how a diverse set of individuals perceive and remember a familiar place common to all. (In a variant form, of course, this is a commonly used strategy in inquiry teaching to ascertain the central and peripheral stereotypes, images or idea which a class has about a given subject.)

These sketch maps may then be compared to ascertain which elements of the city or area show up on most maps and those which are peculiar to only one or a few. Thus students are enabled to discern what constitutes the collective or generally held image of the place, as well as develop a better appreciation of its richness in terms of the special meanings it holds or functions it serves for individuals who live, work or play there.


Each of us carries our own world around in our head. If properly motivated we can sketch map images of nearly any portion of this world. They won't all be masterpieces of cartography and they will vary widely in terms of style and content. But they do constitute valid segments of individual realities about which their creators are experts.

Such maps are documents from which we can learn much, not only about ourselves but also about our environment and culture, and our relationship to them and one another. Consulting the experts that reside within each of us via the medium of turf and other kinds of sketch maps may truly open up new worlds to students and teachers alike.