LCL: The maps of My Childhood

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The activity for session two of the LCL course is to read the forward to Seymour Papert’s Mindstorms (1980) entitled The Gears of My Childhood and ‘write about an object from your childhood that interested and influenced you‘.

My object is an Atlas. I have been fascinated by maps for as long as I can remember and though I didn’t follow a career path focused on geography, or become an explorer, that early and constant love of maps has provided a framework on which I have hung so much other knowledge in my life.

The atlas was only the centrepiece of an obsession with maps and flags which extended to jigsaws of maps, road atlases, the Ordnance Survey (see the picture of my wall in my old flat above) and the maps form the National Geographic. As a young child (of 7 or 8, see later in the post why I can be sure) I used to take the Atlas, and a table lamp and trace outlines of countries and continents on a glass coffee table we had. I’d then colour in each country with the corresponding flag. Different continents lent themselves to this activity to different degrees: Europe was a bit rubbish, as all the countries were small; Africa much more pleasing with lots of big countries; North America too boring with only 3 countries and South America good, but with the nearly insurmountable problem of fitting the flag of Chile.

This is a nice innocent activity, a good way for a not very artistic child to be creative. But the real value of the activity was that the constant repetition (I must have done each continent dozens of times in my pursuit of perfection) cemented in the positions and names of countries (along with lots of incidental detail) along with their flags. Having this knowledge of maps helped me begin to understand world events – I’ve got a strong memory of following the Angolan Civil War (1975 – so when I was 7 or 8), and recognising the Communist/Marxist imagery (a cog representing workers, the sickle representing the land, etc). These symbols, repeated across Africa in the flags of the other countries such as Mozambique and Zaire, gave me an awareness of the role which armed struggle had played in these countries’ emergence from colonialism (and that while much of the map was pink – British empire – large swathes of Africa had been Portuguese or Spanish. I also saw patterns in the use of Red, Yellow and Green in the swathe of countries further north, and how these were similar to those of many nations in the West Indies and surrounding the Caribbean  and how these in turn gave way to a different palette and set of symbols in the Muslim countries of North Africa and the Middle East.

From the combination of maps and flags I got a framework to hang new knowledge on but also a ‘way in’ to the political and historical changes that had occured not just in Africa but across the whole world – without ever reading a formal textbook or history book.

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Author: Colin Milligan

Learning researcher based at Glasgow Caledonian University, and living in beautiful West Stirlingshire.

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