Well, since it was one of the highest rated proposed questions, hasn't been asked yet, and I would love to know the answer, I thought I'd ask it.

How do I explain what GIS is for the 11 year old kid?

  • I tell you what you shouldn't do and that is show them the object model diagram for ArcObjects! You can watch the colour literally drain from their faces when you wave that at them :)
    – Hornbydd
    Commented Sep 26, 2013 at 14:18

16 Answers 16


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Using Snow's Cholera map story. When John Snow mapped the Cholera outbreak in London, he noticed that most cholera cases appeared near certain water pumps. After these pumps were closed or cleared, the cholera outbreak stopped. This is how Mommy's/Daddy's work can help save the world!

In general, I always like to explain using images and vivid examples. A theoretical explanation is boring for an adult, not to mention a 11-years-old- child.

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Kids often learn well through experiences, so I'd take them geocaching, and show them how the coordinates helped us find the cache. Afterward, I'd display the track in Google Earth or QGIS, and show them maps overlaid with our trail. Finally, we could calculate how high we climbed to reach the cache using a DEM, or display other data like rainfall to understand differences in plants growing along the hike.

  • +1 Excellent idea, if you have the time.
    – Adam Matan
    Commented Aug 11, 2010 at 6:22
  • Yes, my 9 year old son, and 11 year old nephew both love geocaching, so when I try to talk about GIS, they just look at me like "Well duh."
    – mezmo
    Commented Mar 7, 2011 at 17:16

Well I just talked about it with my 11-year old and he understood but was unimpressed.

Me: "Imagine you have a map of our city and you want to colour it by income"

Him: "But isn't that money? How does that become colour"

Me: "Perhaps I decide that high income is green and low income is red and incomes in between are colours in between green and red"

Him: "And you can use other colours if you want..."

Me: "Exactly. The map has extra information attached that we don't see. I use that information to decide what colour to make things or how big to make them and much more.

Him: "Oh. Can I go back to my book now?"

  • The part of this answer that intrigues me the most is that he wanted to go back to a book
    – Midavalo
    Commented Sep 25, 2016 at 17:46

11 years old might be a little young for Grand Theft Auto, but you could sit down with them, and show them this map, and explain > "I do this, but in the real world."


This kind of depends on how much time you have. I think one of the best ways to explain this to anyone is create some layers on overhead projector slides .. alternatively on powerpoint of similar electronic slides system.

The base slide could be square blocks on a grid/semi-grid. On top of this you can then place the 'road' layer. Next you could place the houses layer, trees layer, etc ..now you have a map of your neighborhood.

The next step is to place a square grid over the top of all these layers with numbers running up both sides. The numbers don't have to be real geographic coordinates.

Now you can begin to explain how GIS is a way of looking at information. We have all these sets of information that on their own don't really tell us much. That by knowing where to place the information on the 'grid' we are able to combine the information to give us the big picture(demonstrate how a layer which is not placed in the correct position breaks the picture).

So you are explaining that GIS is the way we get all these layers of information and combine them to reveal the big picture.


I find people learn best from examples they care about. So if he likes skateboarding, maybe explain how GIS could be used to determine the best place to open a skate park: near neighborhoods with lots of kids, but in an industrial area with large empty buildings for space.


I kind of assume here that you're talking to a group of children around the same age:

Explaining it to 15 and 16 year olds started with John Snow and Cholera (summary article on the Lancet) to keep them interested, before the standard "science of spatial relationships" bit. Couldn't tell you if that would work with 11 yr olds though...

Certainly Tobler's "Everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things" might help. You could do an exercise on what suburbs the kids live in - those closer to where you are are more likely to live in the same suburb, those from further away not so much.

Finally you could talk about scale of boundaries - country vs property say.


I use this explanation of GIS when I explain what I do to Adults as well as Children. I find it easier to explain using examples, but you often run the risk of getting oftrack and end up discussing the example itself, instead of the thing that you were illustrating, using the example as an metaphor.

Most of the Questions in life have some connection to Location. Questions like how do I get from this place to another? Or Who owns this land and just how much land do they own? Where else do they own this land? Till very recently, it was very difficult for computers to answer these questions, because firstly the information was not readily available, and when it was available, it was not present at one place. Even if it was present in the way we wanted, we often did not have fast enough computers which could answer solves these problems in a quick enough time span.

Let us come to an example. Suppose I want to build a mall in the city. I will first have to find out which land is available. If I find a suitable location, I might have to contact the people who own the area around that plot and inform them that construction activity will take place on this plot.

This kind of process is very easy for a person to imagine on a small scale, but gets very unmanageable on a large scale. GIS is a way at looking at these kinds of problems and solving them in the most efficient manner.


GIS (Geographic Information Systems) means maps on computers. Computerized maps are particularly useful because they can be searched and mashed up with other maps and data.

  • 2
    This is what I used to say when people asked me what I did for a living. But lately, I've been more explicit about the database component.
    – L_Holcombe
    Commented Jan 7, 2013 at 5:34

A few years ago my oldest son was in 1st grade and they were learning about maps one week. I printed out a few things I had done like a fire escape map, a map to get folks from the airport to our office, and a aerial shot of their school. They loved it all and totally got into it. The one they could relate to the most was the fire escape plan map, as their classroom door had one on it. I told them to always look on the back of hotel room doors for those maps as well. My point: Relate it back to maps, relationships between locations, and how what we "do" helps you solve problems and they get it.


With my kids, I tell them that it is about maps, places, and information about those places. My kids are under 6, so this works for the most part.

Probably getting really cool samples from http://flowingdata.com/2010/06/07/san-francisco-crime-mapped-as-elevation/ will really drive the point. Plus, since most of the examples are beautifully designed, so you will win more cool points from it.

This one is really cool: http://flowingdata.com/2010/06/07/san-francisco-crime-mapped-as-elevation/

This is a more standard map, but with a powerful story in it: http://flowingdata.com/2009/11/04/unemployment-2004-to-present-the-country-is-bleeding/


These videos might do the work, I wish my boss could check them out http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eAFG6aQTwPk old but still valid


Well, I would do it like this..

First comes the terms Geography and Information. Expected is that 11 years is enough to have a "basic" understanding of these terms.

Next simply show him a tourist map and point out how this map (a system) helps you glean information about the geography. How the museum is next to the park or how the super market can be reached using 1st street and also the 4th street.

You can also go on to pointing out how this park or museum resembles a square/polygon and roads are lines and how knowledge about the roads length can help estimate the travel time along it.

As an exercise you can encourage the child to sketch a map of the house or neighborhood and task him with accurate labeling etc.



National Geographic have a good collection of learning tools that captives children and with interactive GIS games, this helps them understand geography and the environmental impacts humans have on our planet


Explaining to a child: GIS is maps(G-eo) and data/information (I-nfo) and computer (S-ystem) to bring them together and make sense of our world in a visual form.

Cartography.. Carto (to Draw) Graphy (the Earth)


Perhaps a not for an 11-year-old, but I'm partial to the Geospatial Revolution videos, which I was originally introduced to by my geography instructor. Be advised that some contain mildly disturbing images of warfare; you may want to preview before showing them to young children, although they're no worse than what is common on the news.


Its very good question and one can explain with the example..So I have explained one of school going friend.

Its like the Burger or Veg Sand-which contains various layers and one can remove layer at any time..like finger-chip its similar the network..similar fashion I was able to explain point layer and polygon layer with the example then he told me that he understands the concept : )

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