Materials: Compasses (1 per child). Pencils and paper, envelopes for games.
Children can learn the basics of maps and the four cardinal directions by learning how a compass works. Once they are comfortable with the basics, they can begin to learn how to take a bearing and navigate across terrain with a compass. The focus is on compass basics, including the parts of a compass, how to take a bearing and basic navigation skills.
The world is a big place; it’s even bigger when you’re younger and smaller. Learning how to get from one place to another using a compass will help your child feel more confident about being outdoors. Understanding a compass will instill a good sense of direction, a useful ability for more grown-up skills like driving.
A map is a bird’s-eye view of the world and navigators use the four cardinal directions (N,S,E,W) to read the map and find their way.
Earth has a magnetic North Pole, which is always in the up position on a map, and the needle of a compass always points toward the north.
The Four Directions
There are four cardinal directions on a compass, just like on a map: north, south, east and west. When looking at a compass, north is traditionally at the top and south is at the bottom, with east on the right and west on the left. In between the major directions on a compass are minor directions, such as northeast or southwest.
The Earth, like a bar magnet, has magnetic poles. “Like” magnetic poles repel each other, while opposite poles attract each other. The needle on a compass is also a magnet. The magnetic compass needle lines up in the opposite direction to the Earth’s magnetic poles. On compass needles, the red end always points to Earth’s north magnetic pole.
Let kids practice with a compass by asking them to determine which way is north by looking at the compass.
Make sure they can identify the various parts of the compass, including the magnetic needle, orienting arrow, direction of travel arrow, rotating housing and base plate.
Parts of the Compass
There are two arrows on orienteering compasses. One, the orienting arrow, is inside the compass bubble. The second arrow is outside the compass bubble and is the direction of travel arrow. The exterior ring of the compass, called the housing, turns. When you turn the housing, it also turns the base of the compass inside the bubble, moving the orienteering arrow. Around the outside of the housing, the directions are marked. There may be numbers from 0 to 360. This is how many degrees there are in a full circle. The ring with directions and degrees is called a compass rose and as part of the housing.
Finding a Direction
Finding north is easy. You hold the compass level, so that the needle moves freely, and watch which direction the needle points to. This is north. To find which direction you are facing, stand with the direction-of-travel arrow pointing away from you and turn the housing ring until the orienting arrow lines up with the red end of the compass needle. The direction-of-travel arrow now aligns with N,S,E or W (or points between) to show the direction you are facing.
Set a Bearing
Bearing- a person’s way of standing or moving.
Set a bearing to determine which direction the children need to walk to reach a location, even if the terrain dips.
Show them how to hold the compass in front of them, completely flat, with the direction of travel arrow pointing in the direction they want to go.
Demonstrate how to rotate the housing dial so the orienting arrow matches the direction of the north-pointing magnetic needle. As long as you keep the north needle in the lines, you will be heading in the right direction.
They can use this bearing to determine which way to go to reach their destination, as well as which direction they should travel to get back to their starting point.
Challenge them to stand at a given location, choose a destination and take a bearing. Then have them trade spots with a partner and try to figure out the other person’s destination based on that bearing number.
Also, teach them how to take a bearing by lining up their compass with a map and play a similar game involving a map of an outdoor area.
Once the children seem comfortable with taking a bearing, challenge them to take a three-leg compass walk.
- Instruct them to mark off their starting points and set their compasses to 360 degrees, which is north.
- They should then sight a landmark due north and walk 100 paces.
- Next, they set their compasses to 120 degrees and walk another 100 paces; then, they set their compasses to 240 degrees and walk another 100 paces.
- This should take them in a full triangle and they should end up very close to their starting point if they have completed the activity correctly.
- This activity helps children practice sighting a landmark with their compasses.
- The compass user gets a card with the first compass direction and an estimate of how far they should go in that direction on a card.
- Place a card at the first site, giving further directions on how to find the next clue.
- Give them three sealed envelopes with hints inside in case they get lost.
For kids that are just beginning to learn their cardinal directions, this game will help to familiarize them. For this activity, you’ll need a basketball, a court on which to play, and a way to mark spots on the court (e.g. cones, sidewalk chalk).
You’ll need to mark 8 spots on the court — one for each of the cardinal and ordinal directions — with North underneath the basket and South at the middle point of the 3-point-line’s arc. Make sure you don’t label which point is which, since the goal of the activity for the kids to determine that.
Before you get started, split the group into two teams. The teams will alternate turns shooting the ball until all team members have gone the agreed upon number of times (you’ll want to scale the number of turns the size of your group, and the amount of time you have available.)
Here’s how you play: at the beginning of each turn, you will call one of the 8 cardinal or ordinal directions. The team member whose turn it is must immediately go to the corresponding point, and take a shot. If a team member goes to the incorrect point, they may not shoot. If the team member goes to the correct point, they will be awarded 2 points, and will be allowed to shoot. If the team member makes a basket, they will be awarded 1 additional point.
After all team members have taken the agreed upon number of turns, tally the score for each team. The team with the most points wins.
This compass game can be tailored to kids with various levels of compass familiarity. For this game you’ll need a compass, place marker, and direction sheet for each participating team.
Divide your group into teams of about 3 each.
Now, when creating your directions sheet, the key is to make sure they will lead your teams back to the point where they started. This is how you’ll know whether they followed the directions correctly.
Like we mentioned earlier, you can cater your direction sheet to the level of your kids by using only cardinal directions for beginners, cardinal and ordinal directions for intermediate difficulty, and bearings for more advanced children.
A beginner’s direction sheet might look something like this:
1. Take 5 steps South.
2. Take 10 steps East.
3. Take 20 steps North.
4. Take 15 steps West.
5. Take 15 steps South.
6. Take 5 steps East.
…while an advanced direction sheet might look something like this:
1. Take a bearing of 180 degrees, then take 20 steps in that direction.
2. Take a bearing of 45 degrees, then take 28 steps in that direction.
3. Take a bearing of 315 degrees, then take 28 steps in that direction.
4. Take a bearing of 225 degrees, then take 28 steps in that direction.
5. Take a bearing of 90 degrees, then take 28 steps in that direction.
THE TRAIL SWAP GAME
This game lets kids create their own navigation courses, then execute the courses their peers have created. You’ll need 2 place markers small enough not to be seen from a distance (Golf tees are great.), as well as a compass, pen, and paper for each team.
- Divide the group into teams of 3, then spread the teams out.
- Have each team put down one of its markers at the start of their course, then create a 5-part set of instructions which they will follow, and place the second marker where the directions lead.
- Have the teams swap instructions and follow each others’ course.
- The game is over when all teams have completed all courses.
- A fun twist on the Trail Swap Game is to play it at night or in a dark gymnasium with flashlights.