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How to Teach Children How to Use a Compass

Updated April 17, 2017

Learning to read a compass can be a fun and exciting experience for children. The compass, a navigational tool used to find direction, is a simple object that even young children can become proficient at using. A variety of real-life exercises that involve map-reading and problem-solving skills can help children develop an understanding of how the compass can be a useful everyday tool. By incorporating movement and games into the practice, children will quickly gain enthusiasm for their new skills.

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  1. Begin by teaching children the four basic directions: north, east, south and west. An easy way to help children remember these is to use mnemonic device, such as "Never Eat Shredded Wheat" or "Never Eat Soggy Waffles." Show children how each letter in the phrase stands for a direction (the "n" in "never" represents "north"), and teach them that the order of the directions in the mnemonic device is the same as the rotation of a clock's hands.

  2. Show children a basic map, and Introduce the compass rose (a one-dimensional representation of a compass typically featured in the corner of a map). The compass rose marks both the four directions and the four intermediary directions (northeast, southeast, southwest and northwest). Provide opportunities to practice reading intermediary directions on the map.

  3. Show children a compass and explain that it will always point to the north. Allow children to practice turning their bodies in different directions and moving the compass to various locations, noting which direction the compass points each time.

  4. Practice finding directions other than north. South is the easiest to find, since it's simply the opposite of north. If you want to go south, you just go the opposite of the way the compass is pointing. To find east, go to the right of the direction the compass points. To find west, go to the left of the compass arrow. You can play a "Which Way?" game in which you have children take three steps in one particular direction, then three steps in another direction, and so on, ending in a special predetermined location.

  5. Once children are proficient at reading basic maps and using a simple compass, they can combine the two skills and begin using the compass to get from one location to another. This can be done by creating imaginary treasure hunts or embarking on trips to "mystery destinations" in the car, or through other fun practice games.

  6. Tip

    One authentic way to practice compass-reading skills is in the car. Have children determine the direction the vehicle is heading at each turn, and also in the context of the trip as a whole. For example, you might ask, "If we have to drive east to get to the school, which way will we drive to get home?" With large groups of children, you may put students in pairs or triads and have them share a compass, completing activities together while you facilitate discussion.

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Things You'll Need

  • Basic map with a compass rose (drawing of a compass)
  • Functional compass

About the Author

Angela Powell Watson has written for dozens of print and online resources, and recently published her first book. Watson holds a Bachelor's degree in Early Childhood Education and Art from Hood College, a Master's degree in Curriculum and Instruction from Western Maryland College and National Board Certification as an Early Childhood Generalist.

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