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    Home Education

    Geography, Google, and You: a Primer on Making Blank Maps

    July 27, 2016 by Lynn Hunt

    When I was a child, I was given a map of the world to hang in my bedroom. It was a rather large map, showing all the countries in different colors, along with their capitols and other major cities marked. I’m not sure what my parents hoped would come of this gift, but I’m sure they did not imagine its ultimate application.

    I ended up hanging it at the back of my closet.

    Now this might seem a strange place to hang a map (and indeed it was). After all, one cannot study a map that is hidden by a rack of shirts and pants. Nevertheless, it was a perfectly logical place to hang the map, according to my twelve-year-old mind. After all, our family owned a dartboard.

    I’m sure you can see where this is going.

    It took my mother some time to realize what I had been doing to the wall at the back of the closet. But she inevitably discovered the hundreds of tiny holes in the map which perfectly corresponded to hundreds of tiny holes in the wall. Being a good Christian lady, her tongue was kept in check that day. I have not yet dared to ask what passed through her mind, though, as I’m sure it involved many strongly worded reprimands.

    In this tutorial, you'll learn everything you need to know about using Google Maps to create blank maps. It's a map hack to end all map hacks!

    As educators, the lesson to be learned here is not that children and maps do not mix (although some supervision might be in order). Rather, the lesson is all about a child’s imagination. You see, my twelve-year-old self was not interested in reviewing names of countries and their capitals. This young boy was instead raining down missile strikes on our mortal enemies (this young boy was also thankful that the U.S.S.R. was large enough for an unskilled dart-thrower to hit the target more often than not). There are many places where Charlotte Mason stresses the importance of imagination during the study of geography. For instance, in Volume 1 she says:

    Most of us have spent hours over the drudgery of memorizing geography lessons, but how much do we remember? We only remember the pleasant descriptions we heard from friends who visited Europe, or some things from The Voyages of Captain Cook, or some other adventure. And that’s how children should learn geography. To be educational, the child’s mind must be filled with ideas.

    The way to harness a child’s imagination during the study of geography was laid out in five simple steps in a Parent’s Review article (this article was written in response to a question about giving boys things to do with their hands). Here are the relevant portions:

    1. Sell for waste paper all the Geographies you and your pupils may chance to have. (Wow! Tell us how you really feel, Dr. Quick.)
    2. Aim at establishing points of interest for yourself, and then see if you cannot get others to share your interest.
    3. Connect everything with persons
    4. Let your pupils … make a sketch map in which his course is marked.
    5. Carefully avoid all ‘useful information;’ just give your pupils what you have found interesting, and what they find interesting.

    Much has already been said about this method, but today I will be focusing on something called a “sketch-map”. Think of the sketch-map as a geography diary. It’s a place for students to record their curiosities and observations about a place as they hear descriptions about it. Often it involves tracing the protagonist’s journey. This is best accomplished using a blank (unlabeled) map. From what I’ve read, older students were required to draw their own blank maps. If that sounds a bit intimidating (or if you have younger students), you might want to give them a starter map.

    While there are many great resources for blank maps available on the internet, the best one I’m aware of is Google Maps. Google has provided a way to make blank maps of any place on the entire planet. You can customize the location; you can zoom in or out; you can get your map in landscape or a portrait orientation; you can include or exclude borders for countries and provinces; you can customize to your heart’s content.

    You just have to ask them nicely.

    Since Charlotte Mason seemed to be enamored with the writings of Captain Cook, let’s use his book in conjunction with this tutorial. In The Voyages of Captain James Cook Volume 1, he describes his visit to New Zealand. Also included is a great map of the country.

    In this tutorial, you'll learn everything you need to know about using Google Maps to create blank maps. It's a map hack to end all map hacks!

    Find the Latitude and Longitude

    Ideally, each student would get a blank version of this map to inscribe points of interest upon. In order to re-create this map (sans labels), the first thing we need to find is the latitude and longitude of the map’s center. A quick look reveals that the center is somewhere near the northern tip of the southern island. Using a browser, navigate to Google Maps. Find New Zealand on the map, and click on this location. You’ll see a little box appear at the bottom of the screen that shows the exact coordinates of that spot.

    In this tutorial, you'll learn everything you need to know about using Google Maps to create blank maps. It's a map hack to end all map hacks!

    How to Speak Robot

    Now for the hard part. We’re going to ask Google to draw us a blank map using the latitude and longitude we just found. Unfortunately, Google doesn’t speak English — so we’re going to need to learn its language. Let me show you an example of a well-formed sentence in robot:,0&zoom=1&size=640x640&scale=2&maptype=terrain&style=feature:all|element:all|visibility:off&style=feature:water|element:geometry|visibility:on&|element:geometry|visibility:on&style=feature:administrative.province|element:geometry|visibility:on&style=feature:landscape|element:geometry|color:0xffffff|visibility:on

    And now, the translation:

    • (Excuse me, sir Google,)
    • /maps/api/staticmap? (may I please have one of your blank maps?)
    • center=0,0 (The map I’m interested in is centered at the intersection of the equator and the prime meridian,)
    • &zoom=1 (and should be drawn from the perspective of someone very, very high (like an astronaut on the International Space Station),)
    • &size=640×640 (and I would like this map to be square,)
    • &scale=2 (and I would like to print this map, so please give it a resolution higher than my twenty-year-old digital camera was capable of,)
    • &maptype=terrain (and I love mountains, so please show where the elevation changes are,)
    • &style=feature:all|element:all|visibility:off (and leave off everything else that is normally included on a map)
    • &style=feature:water|element:geometry|visibility:on (except for water — it’s nice to see the oceans, lakes, and rivers)
    • &|element:geometry|visibility:on (and except for borders — it’s nice to see where one country stops and another begins)
    • &style=feature:administrative.province|element:geometry|visibility:on (and also except for provinces or states — it’s nice to see those too, but I only want you to show them to me when I get a little closer to the ground.)
    • &style=feature:landscape|element:geometry|color:0xffffff|visibility:on (Oh, and by the way that horrible checkered pattern hasn’t been in style for ages, so just replace it with a classic white please.)

    Two things about robot language are quite clear: robots really, really (REALLY) love run-on sentences; also, robots hate spaces for some reason. But if you can overcome these oddities, you’ll find it’s pretty easy to get Google to give you the blank map you want. Copy the robot sentence into your browser address bar and press enter (WAIT — open a new tab first, or you’ll lose your place). You should be given a map that looks like this:

    In this tutorial, you'll learn everything you need to know about using Google Maps to create blank maps. It's a map hack to end all map hacks!

    How to Customize Your Map

    While this is a lovely map, we’re currently more interested in New Zealand. So let’s make a few changes. First, find the place where we said “center=0,0”, and change it to “center=-41.0,172.6” (the coordinates we found earlier, rounded to the nearest tenth). You can make the change right in the address bar. Secondly, find the place where we said “&zoom=1”. We don’t know yet which zoom level will give us the best perspective, so let’s try a few. Here is what zoom levels of 3, 4, 5, and 6 look like:

    In this tutorial, you'll learn everything you need to know about using Google Maps to create blank maps. It's a map hack to end all map hacks!

    Clearly zoom level five is the closest we can get without leaving out parts of the country. So replace “&zoom=1” with “&zoom=5”.

    The final change we want to make is to crop out all that extra water around the edge. This will help to make the blank map look almost identical to the one in The Voyages of Captain James Cook. Originally, we asked for a square map (&size=640×640). What we really specified was the dimensions of the map — one that was 640 pixels wide by 640 pixels high. Fortunately, you don’t need to know how big a pixel is to fix the way the map looks. Just be aware that Google won’t give you a map larger than 640 by 640, so start with this size and remove what you don’t need. Our map at zoom level 5 is about 25% water, 50% land, and another 25% water from side to side. Let’s cut out the two sides by asking for a width that is half of the original size (remember, our map is centered, so any reduction in width is going to come equally from both sides). Going vertically, it looks like the land takes up around 75% of the map, with the other 25% being the water on the top and bottom. So we will ask for a map that is 25% smaller in height.

    In this tutorial, you'll learn everything you need to know about using Google Maps to create blank maps. It's a map hack to end all map hacks!

    Find and replace the original size “&size=640×640” with the reduced dimensions “&size=320×480”. Press enter to get your very own, fully customized, CM approved (I assume) blank map!

    In this tutorial, you'll learn everything you need to know about using Google Maps to create blank maps. It's a map hack to end all map hacks!

    Now it’s your turn! Play around with center, zoom, and size to get blank maps for any and every occasion (even for throwing darts at).

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  • Reply Samara Root May 14, 2019 at 8:48 pm

    Brandy and Lynn,
    These don’t seem to be working anymore. I get an API error every time I try the above maps or the maps Lynn put on the AO forum. Can you help me? I LOVED the Marco Polo map you made, Lynn, and linked on the AO forum (as well as Tree in the Trail and Paddle). But no matter what I try, I can’t get past the API error. Is it possible you have stored those maps on your computer and could e-mail them to me? Please?

    • Reply Lynn Hunt May 18, 2019 at 8:31 am


      Unfortunately, Google has disabled this feature unless it is submitted with an ‘API key’. I’m looking into this, and will try to get you up and running again soon.

      • Reply Haley October 26, 2019 at 8:14 am

        Lynn, do you have any updates? I just came to try to make a map and I also got an API error. Making blank maps from your tutorial was my favorite homeschool hack, and I always found them so useful. I hope that there is a way to continue to make the maps ?.

        • Reply Lynn Hunt November 8, 2019 at 10:02 am

          Haley, I have not given up finding a solution yet. I’ve spent a little time looking to see if this sort of map-making could be done using a different service (open maps, for instance). The other option would be to walk people through the process of applying for an API key from Google.

          • Sally Oster February 22, 2020 at 12:59 am

            Hi, my husband got me an API key, but even with that it’s still not working. Boo hoo. Maybe this just won’t be an option anymore.

          • Brandy Vencel February 22, 2020 at 7:58 am

            Sad! 🙁

          • Lynette March 11, 2020 at 3:43 pm


  • Reply Christa July 20, 2017 at 3:13 pm

    Hi! I have used this tutorial before with great success. This time around I am having problems. Both these instructions and the links to Lynn’s post in the AO forum bring up maps with a weird checker board pattern that don’t print correctly. I asked my husband to try on his work computer and it was the same problem. I’m wondering if something has changed recently. Is there any way to ask Lynn if he could map whisper it and see what’s up?

    • Reply Lynn Hunt July 21, 2017 at 11:14 pm

      There is a way to get around this. Hopefully the post will be updated soon!

      • Reply Brandy Vencel July 23, 2017 at 3:12 pm

        I *think* I just fixed it with the corrections you emailed me, Lynn. You can let me know if it looks right to you or not. 🙂

        • Reply Claire August 20, 2017 at 8:32 pm

          I just used it to make a map and it all worked beautifully. Thanks Lynn and Brandy!

  • Reply Laurie April 3, 2017 at 10:39 am

    I have loved this tutorial and been using it a great deal this year. I wondered if there is any way to change it so that here in the states it will include the boundaries between cities/counties?

  • Reply Susan in St. Louis August 17, 2016 at 5:25 am

    I just did it! I used your instructions to create a blank map to track Marco Polo’s journey. Yay! Thank you! 🙂

  • Reply Tammy Glaser August 15, 2016 at 10:35 am

    I love this post! I can see how it is going to help me take many a student on some wondrous journeys.

  • Reply Lorraine July 30, 2016 at 1:37 pm

    Hi, Brandy! Thanks for hosting the Map Whisperer! — This is all fabulous info. I don’t always click on your updates, but I am so glad that I clicked on this one…. thanks!

  • Reply Rachel July 30, 2016 at 10:46 am

    Any idea how to not print the water? I’d like to save the ink 🙂

    • Reply Lynn Hunt July 30, 2016 at 5:12 pm

      Yes and no. You can turn off the water by removing this part of the URL:


      Unfortunately, Google does not draw a border where land and water meet. So the map ends up looking rather strange.

  • Reply Amber Vanderpol July 29, 2016 at 1:41 pm

    Fantastic tutorial, thanks!!

  • Reply Melanie July 29, 2016 at 8:54 am

    Thank you for walking me through this! I would never have figured this out on my own:(. I need to dedicate some time to learning more about programming and computers in general!

  • Reply Leanne July 28, 2016 at 6:57 pm

    Where in NZ do you live. We are in Auckland.

  • Reply Meghan July 28, 2016 at 5:31 pm

    Well that’s awesome! Thank you!

  • Reply Tricia July 28, 2016 at 9:33 am

    I can’t seem to get them in into any other shape than square even though I put in rectangle pixel dimensions the api defaults them to the smallest square dimension. IE: “2480×3508”
    defaults to “2480×2480” etc.

    • Reply Lynn Hunt July 28, 2016 at 9:53 am

      I think Google does not allow size requests larger than 640 by 640. So I suspect it is ignoring your dimensions and giving you the default size. Try 452×640 instead of 2480×3508.

  • Reply Tricia July 28, 2016 at 7:26 am

    OY! I tried to dive into the api to find this, but I am lost. Is it possible to include standard lat/long lines on the final map?

  • Reply Erin July 28, 2016 at 4:19 am

    Would also highly recommend Mega maps, blank maps there but also our children love printing out their Mega Maps (blowing the maps up 9 sheets or so) and tracing them. then filling in detail, have learnt so much that way

    • Reply Lynn Hunt July 28, 2016 at 8:53 am

      Erin, that is a really neat option for large wall maps!

  • Reply Mama Rachael July 27, 2016 at 2:19 pm

    This makes me wish we were studying something that needed a map! Little Man is about ready for kindergarten… might do something with North American though!

    • Reply Bev July 30, 2016 at 1:58 pm

      You could do your home state or home city, just to learn a little about your community.

  • Reply Kathy Wickward July 27, 2016 at 1:52 pm

    Tres, tres cool. I didn’t realize you could talk to Google Maps.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel July 27, 2016 at 2:08 pm

      We can now call Mr. Hunt “The Map Whisperer.” 😉

      • Reply Lynn Hunt July 27, 2016 at 2:53 pm

        Well, 99% of my ‘whispering’ consists of me saying: “why in the world is this not working?!!!”

  • Reply Leanne July 27, 2016 at 12:23 pm

    So exciting to see my country on your posts (which I love and devour every time I receive one)! Helpful too. I didn’t know you could do this with Google – yay, gone are the days of cutting and pasting, twinkling (whitening) and enlarging and fiddling around for 1/2 hour or so to produce a less than satisfactory blank map to use.

    • Reply Lynn Hunt July 27, 2016 at 2:57 pm

      It’s funny, I haven’t actually read “The Voyages of Captain Cook”, but writing this post has incited my curiousity about New Zealand. I’d love to visit someday.

      • Reply Mumto7kids July 28, 2016 at 2:36 pm

        Great tutorial. From someone that lives in NZ it was perfect, and you should definitely visit. It is a beautiful country 🙂

      • Reply Leanne July 28, 2016 at 6:55 pm

        If you ever make it to NZ you must visit the South Island – all NZ is beautiful but the SI is spectacular. Email me and you can stay and I’ll tell you the best places to visit.

  • Reply Lacey July 27, 2016 at 12:16 pm

    Best.tutorial.ever! Thanks so much. I’m truly looking forward to using this!!


  • Reply Sarah Clements July 27, 2016 at 12:00 pm

    Thank you so much for putting this into English! I read how to do this a few weeks ago and could not make it work but your instructions worked marvelously.

    • Reply Lynn Hunt July 27, 2016 at 3:00 pm

      It seems like a number of people were asking for a tutorial about this, so I’m glad to hear this post cleared up the confusion (a bit).

  • Reply Toni July 27, 2016 at 7:41 am

    Wow! Thank you!

  • Reply Catie July 27, 2016 at 6:11 am

    Oh my word! This is amazing! How on {Google}Earth did you figure this out!? 😉 No matter! Thanks for sharing! 😀

    • Reply Catie July 27, 2016 at 8:51 am

      Hmmm…when I type the code into my address bar I get this: “The Google Maps API server rejected your request. Invalid request. Invalid ‘size’ parameter.” Help! 🙂

      • Reply Brandy Vencel July 27, 2016 at 9:15 am

        Catie, I think that was a weird formatting error. I tried to fix it, and it’s working for me now. Does it work for you?

        • Reply Lynn Hunt July 27, 2016 at 9:24 am

          Brandy, the “x” in size=640×640 is not quite right. It looks like a multiplication character instead of the letter x.

          • Catie July 27, 2016 at 9:49 am

            That did the trick! 🙂 Thanks, guys! (this is so awesome!)

        • Reply Ashley July 27, 2016 at 9:51 am

          I get the same response. “invalid size parameter”.

          • Brandy Vencel July 27, 2016 at 10:12 am

            It’s fixed! Gretchen had to do it for me because I ended up out of my depth on this one. 🙂 But it’s working now! If it’s not working for you, try refreshing the page. 🙂

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