Contours, keys and symbols

Learn how to use contours, keys and symbols to improve map-reading skills.

This lesson includes:

  • one video demonstrating how to use contours, keys and symbols

  • one video recap on maps and map reading

  • two activities to build on the knowledge


Sue Venir is celebrating her friend's birthday with a camping trip.

Her friend has given her a map so she can find her way to the campsite.

Watch this short film to find out how she uses contours, keys and symbols to read the map.

Map reading

To be able to understand maps, it is important to have map-reading skills.

Maps are usually too small to contain lots of writing so instead there are symbols which show important landmarks, places and areas.

There is usually a key at the side of the map which explains what these symbols mean.

Symbols and contours

Symbols are generally the same on most types of map.

For example, buildings or tourist attractions are shown with blue symbols.

Different types of roads are shown in different colours - blue for a motorway, red for a main road and yellow or orange for narrower roads.

Dotted green lines are usually used to show footpaths.

Some maps, especially ones that people use to find their way around the countryside, contain brown contour lines.

These are lines that show high and low areas of land.

The contour lines join up areas of the same height, and when they are close together it means the hill or mountain is steep.

When they are far apart it means the land is gently sloping, or undulating.

This is useful to know when planning a route, to see whether it is going to be a hike up a steep mountainside or a walk on flat ground.

Watch the short film below for a recap on maps and how and why we use them.

Find out about compass points and grid references for orientation, common symbols, and different kinds of maps such as paper maps and digital maps.


There are lots of fun ways to practise map-reading skills.

Here are a few you could try.

Activity 1


How much have you learnt about contours, keys and symbols? Have a go at this five question multiple choice quiz to find out.

Activity 2

Make your own contour island

For this activity you will need an adult to help prepare the island. You will also need scissors, glue, coloured pencils or paint and card (cereal box).

This resource is from Twinkl

Download and print out the activity sheet below and follow the instructions.

Contour island activity sheet

There's more to learn

Have a look at these other resources around the BBC and the web.

Bitesize Daily lessons
KS2 Geography
The Playlist
7 - 11 Geography
Christopher Columbus
Primary games