What is a Political Map?

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  • 0:02 What Is a Political Map?
  • 0:52 Reading Political Maps
  • 2:39 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Laura Gray

Laura has taught at the secondary and tertiary levels for 20+ years and has a Ph.D. in Instructional Design for Online Learning.

Expert Contributor
Grace Pisano

Grace has a bachelor's degree in history and a master's degree in teaching. She previously taught high school in several states around the country.

This lesson discusses the features of political maps. The term 'political map' is defined, key features of the political map are discussed, and tips are given for reading a political map.

What Is a Political Map?

There are many types of maps: political, physical, topographical, and even your plain old road map. So what makes all of these different from one another? In this video, we will focus on the different features of the political map. In short, a political map is one that shows the political features of a given area. These features can include things like: countries, states, provinces, cities, towns, major highways and byways, and major water structures. Like you might guess, there are lots of different sizes of political maps. Some cover entire continents, some are regional, and still others are of much smaller areas, such as a state or a county. Chances are, you have seen lots of political maps in your lifetime. The key to using these kind of maps is knowing how to read one.

Reading Political Maps

The first thing you need to know about reading a political map is how to orient yourself to what is on the page. Whether you are looking at the map in your hand, in a book, or on the computer, some things about maps will be the same no matter what. One of these is direction. North will always be at the top of the map, south at the bottom, east to your right, and west to your left. Every political map is like this.

Now that you are oriented, what do you see? On a political map, one of the main features is geographical boundaries. For example, let's take a map of Europe. The first thing you might notice is lots of boundaries between countries. The squiggly lines you see represent those boundaries. You might also see some major cities on the map, including each country's capital city, which is usually the city that houses the government of that country. Capital cities are often represented by a star, whereas other cities that might be big enough to include on a map, but aren't the capital, will be marked by a dot or a square. In addition, you may see major waterways, such as big rivers, seas, or oceans, that affect the map's geography. These will usually be indicated in blue.

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Additional Activities

Working with Political Maps

The best way to reinforce learning is by creating. In this activity, students will create a political map of the world that allows them to work with key features of this map type.

  • Materials Needed: Computer or atlas, country list, blank map, coloring materials

Begin by giving each student the supplies listed above. Students will be labeling countries from the country list (use 15-20 countries) and then identifying the country's type of government. Depending on what course you are covering you can either do a world map or a map of a continent (Asia or South America will work best for this activity).

Students should begin by adding the key elements of a political map to their paper. This includes, title, key/legend, compass and scale (if possible). Then, they should label the countries from the country list. Depending on time and map size, you should specify whether students should just include the country name or if they should also identify the capital city.

After doing this, students will identify the type of government in the country. They should determine the government type and then color the country that color. In their key, they should include a portion that describes what government type is represented by a color. For example, they could color America red and have red stand for democracy.

This is a great way to introduce political maps and types of government to students at the beginning of the year or the beginning of a unit.

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