kindergarten student exploring a tactile store map with an O&M

Map Concept: To Turn or Not To Turn

Should my student turn the map as he/she travels?

Over the years, there have been many conversations about how to orient a map during orientation and mobility lessons. Should north always be “up”, at the top of the map (map is fixed) or does your student turn the map as he “travels” the route. Does it even matter?

In a recent discussion with an app developer, the developer said that a number of O&Ms requested a map game that included north being in various locations (rotating north) so that the student has to keep track of where north is as he changes directions. This brought up more discussions about the differences between current map technologies.

Technology Impact

Let’s take a look at two types of map technologies: GPS and non-visual digital maps.

Note: The GPS and non-visual digital maps are both tools in the toolbox and are designed for different reasons! Both can be used and they can be used to complement each other.


GPS type apps, with their turn-by-turn directions, have a map that turns as the traveler turns; the traveler is always moving forward (up). Everything is in relationship to you, the traveler; the upcoming turn is either right or left of your position. The traveler does not need to keep track of north or keep track of where he is in the city or state. He is given specific turn information as he approaches each decision-making intersection. The traveler can hear information about the next turn and with some GPS programs, the traveler can review the entire route (turns and distances between turns). The viewpoint is as if the “camera” is looking over your shoulder and the camera turns as you turn.

Pro: No thinking require! Everything is in relationship of your position and you are given specific prompts as you approach the decision-making intersection.

Con: Many GPS users simply follow the turn-by-turn directions without keeping track of where they are in relationship to the city, state or other critical landmarks. If the GPS is wrong or stops, the traveler is lost. The GPS traveler often relies heavily on the GPS and does not build strong mental maps. The GPS traveler typically does not pay attention to streets and landmarks that he comes across in his travels; therefore, he is not able to determine shortcuts, make detours or develop spatial relationships in order to determine additional routes to different destinations in the area. The traveler is only given information about the specific route and cannot explore nearby landmarks or streets.

Non-Visual Digital Maps

Non-visual digital maps are maps that maintain north at the top of the screen and the user is always facing north. These maps are used to develop knowledge about the environment, to understand spatial relationships between items on the map, and to build strong mental maps; these maps are not intended to be turn-by-turn directions. Users can interact with the map, explore different areas, zoom in or out, can change their location and can jump their focus to specific data points. Cardinal directions or clock-face terms are used to clarify spatial relationships. Users can hear the specific distance to the desired data points and a tone indicates if the data point is near, halfway or far away. The viewpoint is “top down” as if the camera is overhead looking down on the map with the user in the center of the map.

O&Ms can create customized non-visual digital maps for students, containing only the desired data points. Additional information – information other than the street name or building name – can be included in these custom maps.

Pro: Users can actively explore the map as he desires and can interact directly with various data points. The user can learn additional information about the data points and spatial relationships between any of the data points, from any perspective. Users are more apt to develop a solid mental map of the entire area which enables the user to learn routes, determine shortcuts, and know more about the area.

Con: Turn-by-turn directions are not provided; however, users may use the information gleaned from the map to develop routes.

Impact on O&M Skills

Travelers – both adult drivers with vision and O&M students – tend to be rote route travelers when relying solely on GPS turn-by-turn directions. When consistently traveling with turn-by-turn instructions, the traveler can disengage or “turn off” his brain, as the GPS will prompt the next turn. O&M students who are taught specific turn-by-turn routes can travel these routes independently, but require that someone teach each and every new route. These students often have not learned the skills to determine their routes in new environments or even different routes in familiar environments. O&M students who learn the various “orientation” concepts and logical thinking processes can figure out new routes independently. Independent travelers start with a small area and build out from there by applying the O&M skills learned previously. (See Concept Development: Own Your Real Estate post.)

Teaching Map Skills to O&M Students

When teaching map skills to young O&M students (preschoolers through early elementary students), I tend to create my indoor tactile maps from the perspective of the door that the student enters the room or building. If it is a classroom map, the hallway door (main entrance to the classroom) is the bottom edge of the map and that hallway door wall is Wall #1.  If it is a map of a business, such as Wal-mart, the front door is the bottom edge of the map and that front door wall is Wall #1. The map is always held the same way, no matter which way the student is moving. The student learns to name the four walls (walls 1-4 for rectangular rooms/buildings) and at least one item/characteristic on each wall. When the student is physically in the room, the student is asked to point to the various things in the room. Example: With your back to the door, point to the teacher’s desk, circle area, reading center, cubbies, etc. Then the student turns and points to these things again. (Put your right shoulder to the door, now point to . . .) Next, move to another area, such as the teacher’s desk. Now point to door, etc. (See Concept Development: Putting ORIENTATION back into O&M post.) Students are taught to identify (point to) then move to various areas within the classroom. Students are not given turn-by-turn directions on how to get to these areas. Most importantly, students are not using the terms right/left/ahead/behind to name where things are in the classroom. The directional term is dependent on which direction the student is currently facing, while pointing to a specific item works no matter which direction a student is currently facing. Students are asked to verbally describe the room; what is located on each wall in sequence around the room. Verbally retelling the room layout demonstrates if the student has a mental map of the layout. A tactile map – especially a map with moveable items – is beneficial in initially teaching the student how to develop a mental map.

These activities mirror the concept of keeping the map in a fixed location. At this stage, the map does not necessarily have north at the top; the initial goal is to teach the student to use the top-down perspective of entering the room and building the mental map from that perspective. This concept grows from a small classroom – where the student uses subtle sounds to help identify the hallway door and other areas, to larger environments, such as the map of Wal-mart. The Wal-mart map is also from the top down perspective of where the student enters the building and not from north at the top of the map. When building a mental map of a big box store, the student associates the four walls and one or two departments or characteristics on each wall; ideally, items that have an auditory component or smell, making them easy to identify from a distance. The student will point to the front of the store (Wall #1) by listening for the beeping cash registers or the “woosh” of the electronic doors. Again, when traveling in the store, if the student refers back to the map, he does not turn the map. Instead of using right and left directions, the student should think of turning towards the cash registers to go to the front of the store or put his back to the cash register to go to the back of the store.

As the student develops the “top down” method (camera is above looking down on the entire area) with a mental map of the area, the student can transfer this skill to tactile maps that have north at the top. These maps tend to be of larger areas, such as a neighborhood street map, downtown map or college campus map. The map is fixed (meaning the student does not turn the map as he moves). I often teach “boundaries” as the student learns the area. With the classroom map, the boundaries are the four walls. Just like a student knows that if he goes out of the classroom door he is outside of the classroom, there should be boundaries for maps of bigger areas and for mental maps. With street maps, typically the main boundary roads of the area (such as a busy city road or highway) but may have geographic boundaries, such as a river, woods, park, etc. There are typically four boundaries (forming a rectangle); however, sometimes there are three boundaries (triangular shape) with one road being a diagonal road. The boundaries help the student organize the area and to know when he is about to move outside his “known” area. Again, boundaries should be taught early: the boundary of his backyard, the school playground, his immediate neighborhood. College campus boundaries would be the main road/boundary on the four edges of campus. The boundaries of a North Carolina map would include the three borders, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia, along with the Atlantic Ocean. 

Rotating the Map

So, back to the question about whether student should rotate their tactile map. . . 

There are some students who prefer to rotate their map, so that turns are right or left from the perspective of the direction they are currently traveling.  When analyzing student and adult travelers (both people with visual impairments and people with sight!) there are some folks who are just “orientation challenged”. Turning the map makes sense for these travelers and it is initially easier for many students. There are times that this might be appropriate. I do caution the reason why an O&M student prefers to rotate his map as he travels. Does the student have those foundational orientation skills? Does he have a mental map of the area? Often, that person has gaps with his orientation skills. Is it possible to go back and fill in those gaps? My goal, as always, is to provide O&M instruction in such a way that encourages students to have the tools necessary to be fearless, independent travelers in unfamiliar environments. Keeping the map fixed along with teaching the foundational orientation concepts builds fearless, independent travelers!

What are YOUR thoughts about turning maps? Are there additional things to consider?



By Diane Brauner


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