Several years ago my wife and I were vacationing on the beach near the Warren Dunes State Park in Michigan. Next to us was an attorney from Madison, Wisconsin and his family who we befriended and enjoyed their company and conversation. The next thing I know the attorney and his daughter were off walking the beach for two hours collecting rocks and putting them in plastic bags. When they returned to their spot right next to us, they dumped the rocks in the sand and in less than an hour they sifted through the rocks and picked ones that best matched a particular state and they constructed a map of the United States right there in the sand from memory. Wow, was I impressed!
I would guess the daughter was in high school and clearly she and her dad had done this before. My immediate thought was, I can’t do that! I thought I knew the U.S. states pretty well having traveled through every single one of them (the lower 48 not including Alaska and Hawaii), but in spite of that there was no way I could construct a map from memory and be able to identify rocks that could represent each state and put them in the right position. Right then and there I challenged myself that I would learn how to do this and I would construct my own “beach map” out of rocks the next summer, and this is the story of how I did that.
A game/activity idea is born
During the drive home from the beach (which takes about three hours to get to Champaign, IL), my mind was racing with ideas about the beach map. The simple pledge to just learn how to do it grew into an idea to create what I call a “family beach activity game,” call it BeachMap. Once the spark of an idea takes hold, there is nothing more enjoyable than that first period of brainstorming to try to put that idea in motion. My wife and I enjoyed a back-and-forth discussion in the car trying to figure out how we could create a tool/process that would help teach adults and kids how to build a map out of beach rocks and have fun in the process. If you ever get creator’s (writer’s) block, try getting in the car with a collaborator and drive for three hours and the ideas will flow!
Tinkering in the garage
I do all my creating and designing in several places, but when it comes to dealing with something physical I like to go to my garage where I have all my tools and lots of bench space. My first thought was to develop a device which would allow me to “stamp” a map of the United States in the sand which would also show the outline of each individual state. That way you would have a guide for the shape and size of a rock you would need for each state and it would simply be a matter of placing that rock in the right position. You would also have the benefit of making the entire map and each individual state in perfect scale to each other. So for the last three summers I have built three beach maps with rocks and experimented with several different ways to “stamp” the map outline in the sand.
I made my first stamp out of silicone rubber using a 2-component product called OOMO. The rubber stamp looked like a blue doormat. To do this I purchased a box of laser-cut wooden U.S. state pieces from a supplier in Greece I found on Etsy. I laid those pieces out on the table and kept a 1/8-inch gap between the border of each state. Then I poured the silicone rubber mixture over that map to form (cast) the stamp. When the rubber had cured, I peeled it off the table and carefully removed each state piece which revealed the impression of a U.S. map with a tin border around the perimeter of each state.
The stamp worked quite well but it had the disadvantages of: (a) being too heavy, i.e, too costly to ship to a customer; and (b) the thin borders around each state were not durable and wore away in spots. My first beach map using the “doormat” stamp was a total success (people loved it!) but I didn’t think it was a feasible approach if I were going to make this a game product which could be economically shipped to customers.
For the second map, I built it simply used the “puzzle pieces” of each state and assembled them on the beach to create a map impression in the sand. Then I was able to remove each wooden piece and use each piece as a guide when walking down the beach to find a good rock to match that state. I didn’t like this technique as much as having a stamp which could be used to quickly make a perfect impression of a map of the United States in the sand, as many times as I wanted; however, the individual state pieces are very light and economical to ship.
For the third prototype, I constructed a stamp by gluing the state pieces on a piece of plywood in reverse (mirror) image so that when the stamp was turned over and pressed into the sand it would make a perfect impression of the United States map. This clearly would be too big and bulky to ship as a game product, but this gave me a durable stamp for experimentation and many trial runs on the beach.
I think I’ve figured out how to make a very lightweight, flexible, and economical stamp, but I’ll save that information for a follow-on post.
It’s all about the rocks
The basic idea of the game/activity is to walk along the beach and find one rock that is the approximate size and shape for each particular state. You will discover, however, that this is basically impossible to do for the states California, Texas, and Florida, so you may need to use two or more rocks to configure those states. This is not a game of perfect so you have to embrace the imperfections. If you find a rock that is shaped exactly like a state and is the right size, pat yourself on the back because that’s pretty rare. As Tim Gunn of Project Runway says, “Make it work!”
Another objective is to make the overall map and each individual state to scale, whatever that overall scale will be. That’s why the stamp approach is so helpful. The range of size of rocks you can reasonably find on any given beach will dictate the size of the map you can build. The beach where we go to in Michigan has rocks anywhere from a tiny pebble up to about 4 inches in height x width. That’s why I usually need two rocks for Alaska, California and Florida, and 3-5 rocks for Texas (wouldn’t you know it, my home state!)
Walking along the beach and trying to find rocks that match the approximate size and shape of a state is what the game is all about. It sounds so simple (and to some, maybe even boring) but this is a great visuospatial activity for kids and adults alike and when done with someone else, it is really more fun and satisfying than you might think. You’ve just got to give it a try and in the process of having fun, you will learn your states!
One approach is to set out with a puzzle piece for say, Illinois, and try to find that rock. That’s a very focused way to do this but it’s a bit of a needle-in-a-haystack approach and I have discovered that it’s not the best technique. What my wife and I do is walk along the beach and pick up a bunch of rocks that at the time look like they might be good matches for one state or another. Then we come back with a big bag of rocks and dump them out on the beach and do the matching at that time. As you start to populate your map with rocks (states), you will have inevitable gaps and then you can go back out down the beach to specifically look for those rocks to close the gaps. Trust me, after you do this a few times, it’s surprising how good you get at it.
I’ve been enjoying experimenting with this activity for three summers now and here’s what I’ve learned:
Kids and adults really enjoy the activity and are impressed with the finished product. I made a point of building these beach maps right along the stairway which leads down to our beach so people would pass the map on the way down and on the way up from the beach. I would take pictures and post them on our beach club’s Facebook page to alert people and let them comment. People really seemed to like it and that’s satisfaction enough for me!
You can appreciate and enjoy the infinitely fascinating variety of rocks and their origin, shape, color, and texture. All you rock lovers know what I mean!
It is a rich visuospatial game/activity and creative process and in this age of digital everything, we need more hands-on activities that connect hands, eyes, and brain….. a poor man’s Luminosity!
Nothing is more stress relieving and relaxing than meandering down the beach looking for rocks and letting your mind wander. It’s a vacation within a vacation.
Challenge yourself and give it a try
As of yet, I have no commercial game/activity product to sell, but I continue to enjoy the experimentation, prototyping, and general tinkering toward that goal.
I hope I’ve given you enough information and reason to give it a try, and if you do, let me know how it goes!
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