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Using globes, atlases and world maps

“Maps can exert a significant influence on children’s thinking about the world as a whole. They offer a powerful picture of spatial relationships between countries and land masses.”

Patrick Wiegand, 2006

Topics on this page:

  • Teaching locational knowledge
  • Learning with globes, atlases and world maps
  • Activities about using atlases
  • ‘Zooming in’ on the world
  • Map projections
  • Reading

Students find maps fascinating and they can be used in any geography lesson whatever the theme or topic. You should routinely use globes, atlases and world maps with your classes to help them develop their world place knowledge. Always bear this in mind when you plan lessons.

Today, atlases and world maps are not just available as paper-based resources. There are also web-based and electronic atlases that have a place to play in today’s classrooms. For a wider perspective on how maps can be used to restructure the knowledge and awareness both of policy makers and society as a whole, read Solarz (2015).

Teaching locational knowledge

The Geography National Curriculum for key stage 3 requires that students ‘extend their locational knowledge and deepen their spatial awareness of the world’s countries using maps of the world’.

Students need to develop a ‘mental map’ of where places are so they have a personal framework for storing information about places. They do this by building up their locational knowledge over time. 

This means that a geography teacher should always expect students to check the locations of places using atlases or globes when they learn about new places or are discussing events in the news about different countries or cities.

Teachers should ensure that all students are proficient in using the content and index pages in atlases to find where places are.

Reading for locational knowledge

  • Freeman, D. and Morgan, A. (2017) ‘Place and locational knowledge’ in Jones, M. (ed) The Handbook of Secondary Geography. Sheffield: Geographical Association, p. 127.
  • Peppin, K. (2016) ‘Which country has the longest coastline?’, Teaching Geography, Summer. This outlines a teaching activity developed by a PGCE student for an introductory lesson on coasts to help students extend their locational knowledge and develop their map skills.
  • Spencer, H. (2016) ‘Line of the year’, Teaching Geography, Summer. This gives an example of a task to encourage students to apply their learning of longitude and latitude to an independent enquiry.

Learning with globes, atlases and world maps

Every geography classroom should have a globe. Its advantage over an atlas in that it reinforces the relationships between places on the earth. A classroom should also have a large world map – ideally one that can be drawn on with marker pens, so that it can be used to locate places that students are learning about.

Remember that atlases are not just for locating places. They contain many useful thematic maps to use in lessons. While atlases are an essential reference tool in geography, students frequently have misconceptions about what atlas maps show. Listen to students as they use atlases and check how they interpret symbols and representations – their misunderstandings may surprise you – students can have a weird logic!

Patrick Wiegand (2007) has undertaken extensive research into students’ understanding of atlas maps. In an informative paper about Maps and atlases he discusses some of the difficulties that students might face in interpreting maps. You should consider this carefully when you are using atlases in your teaching.

Try some of the School-based activities with atlases (download here). These include:

  • Reviewing the atlases in your school
  • Observing teachers using atlases and discussing how they use them
  • Exploring students’ understanding of atlas maps
  • Using atlases for starter activities.

‘Zooming in’ on the world

While atlases are valuable resources, they do not make it easy for students to move from place to place in the world and understand the locational relationships between places on different maps at different scales. 

Google Earth allows students to zoom in and out and see these relationships more readily. It also gives you the facility to add and remove layers of information and you can explore the aerial images of landscapes as well as the Streetview.

Reading about globes, atlases and world maps

  • Allaway, R., Hong, C. and Jin, D. (2006) ‘Using Google Earth’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
  • Hudd, N. (2006) ‘Who will win the 2006 World Cup?’, Teaching Geography, Summer. Good application for any topical international sporting event.
  • Rayner, D. (2017) ‘Resources’ in Jones, M. (ed) The Handbook of Secondary Geography. Sheffield: Geographical Association, pp. 156-7, 160.
  • Solarz, M.W. (2015) ‘The end of geography and the power of maps’, Geography, Autumn.
  • Wiegand, P. (2008) Think Piece – Maps and atlases, Geographical Association on-line.

Map projections

Students should develop a critical understanding of maps as representations of the world, so teachers need to understand different map projections and to confidently use these different projections (e.g. Mercator, equal area, Pacific-centred) to help students understand flat-maps as distortions of the globe. They need to be aware that some world maps, e.g. Mercator, are not drawn to scale. Mercator maps are used widely, so students should examine them critically and why that projection was devised.

When you are using world maps with students, take care in the choice of map projection that you use. Peter Vujakovic advises that ‘we must alert our students to the biases, deliberate or not, that poor choice of projection can convey – we need to teach them to understand how maps work.’ Refer to his article that encourages critical thinking about the maps we expose students to, or ask them to use in their own work.

The readings below set out the different projections that are used with students and the main things that you should consider. In addition, new forms of maps can be created using digital data such as Worldmapper (see Graphicacy and spatial thinking).


  • Hawley, D. (2019) ‘Celebrating Mercator’, GA Magazine, Summer, No 42 p. 22.
  • Vujakovic, P. (2019) ‘World maps in a time of crisis’, Teaching Geography, Autumn. The relative merits and problems of different map projections.
  • Wiegand, P. (2006) Learning and Teaching with Maps. London: Routledge.
  • Wright, D. (2003) ‘Questioning world maps’, Teaching Geography, October. About map projections.
  • Wright, D. (2000) Theory into Practice: Maps with latitudeSheffield: Geographical Association.