Reading an Atlas: Lesson for Kids

Instructor: Lindsey Spencer

Lindsey has taught regular and special educations students in grades 1-8 since 2009 and has a master's degree in special education.

Atlases are useful books that can tell you a lot about the world, a country, or a specific location. The trick is you need to know how they work. In this lesson, learn how to use an atlas.

What Is an Atlas?

An atlas is a book of maps. People have been making maps for thousands of years, but those maps were not put into books until the 1500s. Today, they can even be found online. Atlases often have extra information about the map you're looking at. For example, if you're looking at an atlas of stars and planets, there may be information about the different constellations (groups of stars).

What Can an Atlas Show Us?

An atlas can show anything. Most maps in atlases show countries, roads, or physical features like rivers and mountains. There are some atlases that have maps of food in different countries or maps of where different animals live. If you can turn it into a map, you can put it in an atlas.

Reading an Atlas

Like other non-fiction books, atlases have a table of contents in the front of the book and an index at the end of the book. The index, which is in alphabetical order, helps you find the page for specific information.

The most important part of an atlas is the map key. The map key, which is also called the map legend, is a little box on each map that explains different symbols or colors so you can understand the map.


map key

Imagine that you need to do a project on the Andes Mountains in Peru. You already know that the triangle symbol represents mountains on the map keys in your atlas. What is the first thing you should do? You should go to the table of contents to get the page number for the map of Peru. After you look at the map of Peru, you notice that the Andes Mountains go into other countries. What do you do now? You use the index to look up Andes Mountains to see what other countries the Andes Mountains are in, like Chile and Bolivia.

Types of Atlases

The most common type of atlas is a road atlas, which shows the roads of your state or country. Before there were cell phones and GPS, people would use road atlases to plan long trips. Many people still have road atlases that they use if they run out of data or if there is an emergency.

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