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Passports and Portals

Updated: Feb 7, 2020

We're great fans of combining Observation with other skills, whether it's Memory, Thinking or simply letting loose your creative imagination. We're very conscious, though, that some individuals will prefer facts to fiction. In this blog we'll look at the way similar stimuli can be used in very different ways, depending on whether you (and/or your children) are the former or the latter.

In the resources section of our website, you will find a print-and-go activity sheet that has a précis of all the activities mentioned in this blog, in case you want an aide-mémoire to take with you on your walk. The blog gives more detail about how each of the activities can be used or varied to suit individual tastes.

Here in Hertfordshire, flint abounds. On any walk in this neck of the woods, you will find them in all sorts of shapes, sizes and colours. That gives us a rich starting point, but you could just as easily use a flaw in the tarmac, a shadow on the ground or the shape of a leaf.


This geographical activity links what you can observe in the world around you and relates it to your general knowledge of counties, countries and continents. You could equally do islands or archipelagos. What do their outlines look like? If you already know a lot about this, the focus will be on finding objects that resemble the countries you recognise.

Remembering shapes is a particular skill. One way to do it is to link the new shape with something it reminds you of. For instance, remembering the shape of Italy, by thinking of its famous 'boot'. Don't worry if there isn't a ready-made association for a country's outline - you can come up with your own link instead. In fact, you're probably more likely to remember it if it is your own image rather than a cliché. Nor do you need to worry what your drawing or mental image is like - nobody else is going to see it - it's just there as a hook on which you can hang your memory.

country outlines with matching doodled shapes
I think of Belgium as a dimetrodon walking up a hill or Cyprus as a swordfish.

Ideally, to strengthen the connection further, and, thus, make it easier to remember, you can then link your image to something you already associate with that country - so the dimetrodon could be trudging up the hill to get some Belgian beer (or chocolate!); the swordfish could have the Cyprus flag wrapped round its 'sword' or you could make it swim round Aphrodite on a clam shell.

Alternatively, if you don't know much about a particular country/outline yet, then do a quick search online using 'country silhouettes' and you'll find images you can use to create a 'spotter sheet'. That way you're learning new information as well as practising your Observation skills. You could give each player a separate outline (or set of outlines) to try to find. Get them to draw or imagine a 'hook shape' for each different outline on their list and create an active image by linking that 'shape' with something they already associate with that place. If they have visited it on holiday, for instance, they could use a memory of their time there, use food or drink they associate with the place or some item of general knowledge they are already aware of.

Linking new information (in this case, shapes) with existing knowledge increases the likelihood that the information will be remembered. Bringing the shape to mind before looking for it is called 'priming'. 'Priming' is a key skill in Observation and Reading Effectively. If you know what you are looking for (in this case, what a particular outline looks like), you are more likely to spot it.

You do have to be 'reasonable' - what you find will be reminiscent of an outline rather than an exact copy. It's up to you and the other participants how close you need to be to score a point.

shaped objects and country outlines
Can you find a shape - it doesn't have to be a stone - that reminds you of a country?

Seeing pictures in country outlines isn't new, as you can see in this iconic map by Fred W Rose in 1899. Use of the image is courtesy of Cornell University – PJ Mode Collection of Persuasive Cartography

You're not likely to find an object that is exactly like a country outline. What you are trying to do is find one that is reminiscent of one. It's a starting point, not an end. Once you have noticed something that reminds you of a country, can you be more specific? What is it about it that makes you think that way? Some countries have well-known associations already e.g. the 'boot' of Italy we've already mentioned or France's 'Hexagon'.

Alternatively, find an interesting object (a stone, a stump or a leaf, for instance) and create a story around it.

What type of land is it (does the shape suggest a particular topography, for instance)? Who would live there? What would you call it? This activity can be done as you go along, to liven up a walk, or used as the basis of creative activities at home. Take a photo of what you've found (or take home the objet trouvé, if that is appropriate) and write a story inspired by this mythical place. Alternatively, if the child prefers (or needs to practise) factual writing, then they could use the object to inspire a travelogue or non-consecutive report about the imaginary location.

Flag Day

Alternatively, instead of looking for the shape of a country's outline, why not concentrate on its flag? In most cases, that will mean looking for particular colours that would be present in a chosen flag. That could be a question of looking for certain colours in turn or trying to find them in close proximity. They could be in the natural world or the man-made one. For instance, the red, white and green of Italy.

Start with flags you already know, then try adding new ones. Again, 'priming' is a key element here - if you know what you are looking for, you are more likely to find it. This is a game that can be quite relaxed - or up the ante and make it competitive by adding bonus points for a 'first to find' or 'most found'. Once you've played it with 'known' flags, then give them some new flags to try to 'spot'.


For children who prefer the creative rather than factual elements, it's easy to find things which could be a doorway to another world.

What would that world be like? Who would live there?

Alternatively, you could look for a keyhole or doorbell. What would the key look like? Who would use it?

If you enter that other world, what would you find? What would you do next?

The group can take it in turns to add more information about the imaginary land, or to develop the story. Alternatively, individuals can come up with their own places from the same source item. How do the places compare?

For those who struggle with boundless creativity, give them a framework to work from first - the answers will still be fictional, but they might find it easier to answer straightforward questions such as:

  • size - how big is this place? Try linking it to known places (e.g. is it the size of the UK or of Greater London)

  • topography - note how the land changes - is it all fairly flat, or are there hills/mountains etc.?

  • water present - are there any rivers, lakes or seas?

  • climate - is this new land hot or cold, temperate or extreme?

  • habitat(s) - such as grassland, heath, farmland, mountains, shore

  • inhabitants - this could be animals as well as people

As with previous activities, this could be done as you go along to add to the enjoyment of the walk, or used to inspire creative activities at home. You could just as easily get them to paint their new world as write creatively about it.

A Place for Space

Unless you are serious Sci-Fi fans, 'Beam Me Up, Scotty' might not mean much to you (it was a phrase used in Star Trek when they were using a transporter beam), but there are plenty of science fiction or space possibilities using the world around you as a starting point.

Could this piece of flint actually be a star chart, or image of a distant galaxy?

If you see sunbeams through the trees, or a patch of light on the ground, for instance, you could use it as a 'space portal'. It's very similar to the Portals activities above, but with a science-fiction twist, rather than fantasy.

scrap of light on a shadowy path
If you stood on the 'transporter beam' where would you end up?

Alternatively, if you prefer a more factual approach, look for stones or material in the world around you that are reminiscent of what you can remember about the planets. Think about what you know already, and can remember, and use it to 'prime' your observation.

Could this be part of Saturn?

It won't look exactly the same, unless you are very lucky, but you should try to find objects that are close enough that other people will recognise the same thing.

broken flint and pebbles on a path
Does this flint look like the surface of Venus? Do the round pebbles resemble other planets?

Could you find pebbles or stones (an even easier task if you are at the beach rather than the woods) that look like all the planets? Or ones of the right relative size if you lay them out as a series?

stones in a path
Here's an interesting 'planet' and its two moons.

If you're the creative sort, perhaps you could find a stone (or stones) to represent a new planet in a galaxy far, far away. What is it called? What are the conditions there? Are there any life forms on it? If so, what are they like?

The above activities are just a starting point, that you can expand and develop to suit your own child(ren) and their particular likes or aptitudes. The key things are to link what they already know/remember to observation in the world around them, or to go in the other direction and use what they observe as a springboard to new knowledge acquisition or creativity. No matter what kind of surroundings you have - suburban garden, cityscape, rural idyll or beach - there will be things to observe that can be used to help your child think and remember.

Do let us know if you try any of these activities - we'd love to hear about all those brave new worlds out there!

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