Get Your Bearings – Activities

Focus: Many aspects of the physical world provide important cues for us and other animals as we move from place to place. We’ll see how animals use the position of the sun, features of the landscape, and the Earth’s magnetic field for orientation and navigation. These features, together with compass, maps, and other tools, can help us find our way.

Objective: To begin to explore and ask questions about navigation.

Ask children to close their eyes and to point to things as you say them. You might ask them to point at the swingset, slide, sandbox, front entry to the school, etc. How do they know where things are?

Objective: To see how our mental map enables us to visualize familiar places.

Ask the children to imagine that they are standing in a familiar place. Have them close their eyes and imagine being in the doorway to their kitchen. Ask them to point to the stove, refrigerator, table, sink, microwave, place where the cereal is kept, clock, etc. Now have them imagine being in the entrance to the school. Have them point to the main office, gym, cafeteria, library, playground, their classroom, music room, etc. Can they see a picture in their mind when they imagine being in this place? What are some other places they know so well that they can “see” a picture or mental map of them in their mind’s eye? What sense do people use most to form a mental map (smell, taste, touch, or sight)?

Optional: Ask the children to imagine walking into the kitchen to eat breakfast. Have them point out the different directions they would go in order to prepare and eat a bowl of cereal. For example, “go to the cupboard and take out the box of cereal and then place it on the table. Now go to a cabinet to get a bowl, and get a spoon out too. Put them on the table. Now go to the refrigerator and get out the milk. Carry it to the table and pour it on your cereal. Put the milk back in the refrigerator. Get a sponge from the sink to wipe up the milk you spilled. Put the sponge back in the sink and don’t forget to rinse it out. Now go back and eat your cereal. Rinse your bowl and spoon in the sink and put them in the dishwasher, get the box of cereal from the table and put it back into the cabinet. Wait! Don’t forget to go and brush your teeth! Now you can go outside to play!”

Objective: To gather evidence about our ability to learn and remember landmarks to form a mental map.

How do landmarks help us form a mental map of a place? Have children work in teams of two to four, younger children working with an adult. One team member gets a chance to set out six small items on a simple map (Map Template) while the other team members look away or cover their eyes. Now the child shows the map briefly to the others on the team, giving ten to fifteen seconds for them to memorize the map before covering it with a piece of paper, box or basin. The other children now try to recreate the arrangement from memory, using a duplicate map and similar objects placed in the same six positions. Afterward compare the two maps. Repeat until everyone has had a turn setting up the map. What were some strategies that made it easier to remember the positions? Did children form a picture of the map in their mind’s eye?

*Optional: for younger children it may be easier to arrange six items in a small, half-dozen egg carton instead of on the map.

Materials: for each team: two copies of the Map Template; duplicate set of six small objects such as a penny, eraser, seed pod, small toy, acorn, pebble, cone, etc., paper, box or basin to cover map; optional: for younger children, half-dozen egg cartons or egg cartons cut in half.

Objective: to learn about some of the different cues that animals use to orient and navigate as they move from place to place.

Perform the puppet show, or have a group of children perform it for the class. Afterward, ask questions to review the key details and vocabulary in the story. What cues from the environment does each animal use for navigating?

  1. Red-eyed Vireo (Sun, stars, sound of waves, magnetic sense.)
  2. Digger Wasp (Landmarks – mental map.)
  3. Salmon (Magnetic sense, smell.)

Why is it important to animals to be able to find their way? (Finding food, water, shelter, escape routes, nest and young; migrating to and from winter homes.)

Materials: puppets, script, props.

Objective: To learn the cardinal directions and understand how standard units are helpful for creating and using maps.

Hold up a map of a familiar place, asking the children to tell you which way is “right side up.” Demonstrate how “right” and “left” are only helpful if you know the way someone is facing. Cardinal directions are based on the Earth’s magnetic field and so are always the same. Holding up the compass rose illustration, introduce the four cardinal directions. It may help children to remember them with one of these sayings: Never Eat Shredded Wheat, or Never Eat Slimy Worms. Show the children how they can use their bodies to figure out the directions, provided they know the location of any one direction. When facing north with hands out to the side, your right hand points to the east, your back is to the south, and your left hand points to the west. Now, with the children’s help, figure out which way the playground is oriented. Ask children to point to where they think the sun rises. Use chalk or a gym cone to mark East on the playground. Then have the children help you identify and mark South, West, and North. You may need to check this with a compass.

For older children, introduce the intermediate directions, NE, SE, SW, NW. Point to where northeast would be located, and then ask the group to point to the northwest, southeast, and southwest.  How is it helpful to know the compass directions? (Essential for using maps or following directions.)

Materials: Map of a familiar place, compass, gym cones marked East, South, West, North or sidewalk chalk.

Objective: To review the four cardinal directions in a game.

Have everyone stand up. Explain that they need to follow your commands carefully. If you say “Simon Says” before a command, then they need to do as you direct. If you omit “Simon Says,” then they should stand still. Use commands like these to review the cardinal directions:

Clap to the North

Snap fingers to the East

Nod to the West

Bow to the East

Tap your toe to the South

Tap your heel to the North

Wave at the South

Stamp to the West

Jump to the South

Face North, jump in the air, yell “bananas!”

Face East, close your eyes, turn a complete circle.

For older children, hop to the northwest, take a step to the southeast, etc.

Stop after you see someone make an error, but then let everyone participate again to get as much practice as possible. Or ask which direction they would travel to get to the swingset, slide, sandbox, basketball court, front entry of the school. For older children, an extension could be to play I Spy. The leader names an object in view, and the children call out its direction.

Materials: Gym cones marked East, South, West, North; optional: list of Simon Says commands for leader.

Objective:  To learn how to use a simple scientific instrument – an orienteering compass – for locating the cardinal directions.

Hand out a compass to each pair of children, or each child if there are enough. Have the children stand in a line facing the leader. Hold up the Parts of a Compass poster or large-scale model of a compass, and explain the different parts and what they do. Have the children find each part on their compass as you describe them.

Base Plate

Direction of Travel Arrow

Compass Housing

Compass Needle

Orienting Arrow (also called the “Shed” or “Bed”)

Have the children find the letters for each direction: N, E, S, W on the compass housing.

Have them practice holding the base plate against the chest and then turning right or left, watching the needle to see how it swings a little and then rights itself each time.

Now have the children follow these steps to find east:

  1. Dial E for East: turn the compass housing until the ‘E’ is lined up with the Direction of Travel Arrow.
  2. Hold the base plate against your chest, with Direction of Travel arrow pointing away from you.
  3. Slowly turn your whole body and the compass with it, until the red end of the needle is in the shed. Look forward – you are now facing East.

Repeat with each of the other cardinal directions, ending with North. To help with remembering these directions, have the children learn this rhyme: Put the Red in the Shed and Head.

Optional: for older children, try finding the direction of an object. Point out an object in the distance. Hold the base plate against your chest as you face in the direction of the object. Turn compass housing until red end of the needle is in the shed. Now read the direction (in degrees of a circle) on the rim of the compass housing, directly opposite the Direction of Travel arrow.

Materials: orienting compasses for each child or pair of children, Parts of a Compass poster or large model of a compass, Parts of a Compass descriptions.

Objective: To use a compass to locate different landscape features and find a hidden treasure.

Ahead of time, set up a compass course on the school grounds. Include a series of six to twelve steps (depending on the age group) so that the children visit different locations or features along the way. Each step should have three parts: clear directions to a very specific location, something to do once there, and directions to the next place.

Have the children work in small teams, younger children with an adult. Provide each team with written instructions to follow the course, including compass directions. For younger children, use only cardinal directions and have the adult assist one child at each station with finding the direction on the compass. Older children should take turns finding the compass directions and leading their team to the next station.

You may include a task to complete at each station, or questions to answer referring back to other units during the year. Or have them look for a puzzle piece or find clues to a “treasure” hidden at the final station. Compass readings to each location will vary somewhat depending on just where one stands, so give very specific directions. Remember that steel fences and playground equipment may alter compass readings. Below are some examples of different kinds of clues or steps for the compass course.

Orienting tasks:

In which direction is the sun?

Where is the wind coming from?

Where is your shadow?

Other tasks:

Walk north to the swing set. How many swings are there?

Head west to the storage shed. What color are the flowers on the north side of the shed?

Walk north to the stone bench. To whom is it dedicated?

Face west and walk to a fence. Follow it to the right until you come to a sign. What does it say?

Rhyming clues:

Off to the north, that’s where you should go, run to the tallest tree and don’t be slow.

Face to the south, now here’s the scoop, skip all the way to the basketball hoop.

Walk to the south and look for a clue, find a puzzle piece near the red, white and ____.

Questions based on topics studied during the year:

Walk south to a white rock by the entrance to the school. What kind of rock might this be? Has it been changed by erosion? What might have caused this?

A useful final clue:

Hand in your compass to your Four Winds volunteers; be sure to give them three big cheers!

Materials: for each team or pair of children: compass, clipboard, pencil, written compass course; optional: puzzle pieces or clues for each station, hidden treasure or snack.

UPPER GRADES CHALLENGE – Nickel Navigation (Grades 5-6)
Objective: To follow a compass course using the degrees in a circle.

Give each student (or pair of students) a nickel.  Ask them to put it on the ground between their feet.  Give them a series of instructions for which they need to use the compass.

A typical set is this:

150 degrees for 11 steps

240 degrees for 6 steps

330 degrees for 7 steps

80 degrees for 10 steps

290 degrees for 8 steps

If they follow these directions correctly, it will lead them back to their nickel. Step size does not matter, as long as it is consistent.

Optional: Place the nickel on a golf tee so it is easier to see.

Materials: compasses, Nickel Navigation Directions on index cards, nickels;
optional: golf tee for each pair of students.

Objective: To use landmarks and prior observations to create a map of a familiar place.

Have children draw a map from memory of a place with which they are familiar. For the youngest children (K-2), this could be a map of their bedroom including furniture, windows, closet, etc. For second and third graders it could be a map of their house noting the different rooms. For the upper grades, it could a map of their neighborhood (school bus stop, library, fire station, school, store, friend’s house, etc.).  If possible, have children consider where north is located when they are in their homes, and put a north arrow on their maps. In small groups, have children show their maps to each other, telling about their favorite location on their map.

Materials: notebooks or paper, pencils, colored pencils or crayons.

Objective: To review some ideas about how animals and people find their way in the natural world.

Have each child complete this sentence, “A favorite place I can see in my mind is __________.”

Hometown Maps: Bring in maps of your town and have children locate their homes. Or show pictures of nearby places in your town for the children to guess. To see an aerial photo or topo map of your home, visit this website:

Make a Map: Challenge children (2nd-5th grade) to make a map from their home to the school. Have younger children draw a map of a place that is special to them.

Fantasy Maps: Have children picture an imaginary place in their minds, such as a secret island or faraway land, and draw a map of it, including and naming its special features.

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