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Teaching Students How to Use a Compass

By Haley Drucker

If you're looking for a way to teach your students how to use a compass, this lesson plan will get you started. You'll review the cardinal directions, explain the parts of a compass and how to use one, and participate in some fun but easy hands-on activities.

Teaching the Compass

Compasses may seem antiquated in today’s world of MapQuest and GPS devices. But knowing how to use this simple tool is still a valuable skill, and more importantly gives kids a practical way to understand and relate to the cardinal directions. So if you’re interested in teaching your students how to use a compass, this lesson plan outlines some tips and advice to get you started. This lesson on the compass can be adapted for a range of grade levels, but is probably best for mid to late elementary school classes.

Step 1: Review the Cardinal Directions

Especially if you’re working with younger kids, you’ll want to be sure they have a handle on the cardinal directions before you start teaching them about compasses. Two good ways to accomplish this review are by referencing a map and teaching them a mnemonic. For a more practical, everyday example, you might also want to mention driving, since many cars now have displays that show the direction the vehicle is moving and students are likely to have noticed this at some point.

Looking at a map: Get out a map (or a globe, though that will make the lesson a little more abstract) and show the students the compass rose, explaining how it is a visual guide to understanding directions. Locate your hometown and another town or city (have the students suggest one) and ask questions such as “What direction would you go to get from A to B” to determine if the students understand how to interpret and follow directions.

Introduce a mnemonic: Even older kids (and adults) sometimes have trouble remembering the order of the directions, particularly the correct orientation of East and West. Introduce the students to a mnemonic such as “Never Eat Soggy Waffles,” “Never Eat Sour Watermelon,” or “Never Enter Stinky Washrooms” to help them keep the cardinal directions straight.

Step 2: Explaining the Compass

Bring in a real compass, preferably more than one. If you have enough, first let the kids play around with them in pairs or small groups, and solicit their ideas as to how this device might work. Then you can segue into the informational part of the lesson, which deals with explaining the function and parts of a compass and how it is used.

Compass Function: This is straightforward, and won’t take much time. Explain what a compass is for and how it might be used, referencing examples such as finding your way in the woods or navigating across the ocean. Ask the students if they have ever used a compass, and invite them to tell their own stories about how they did so.

Parts: There are many kinds of compasses, but for this introductory lesson it would be best to start with the simplest kind, pictured to the right. There are three main parts to this type of compass: the needle, the degree dial, and the compass rose at the center. The needle and compass rose are obvious enough; these are the tools you must line up correctly to determine in what direction you’re heading. The degree dial is more complicated, and it's up to you whether you want to just mention it in passing or explain what it represents.

The Degree Dial: If you’re dealing with younger kids, you might want to skip over this part and just focus on how to use a compass to help you travel North, South, East, and West (and perhaps NE, NW, SE, and SW as well). For older kids, you can review the fact that a circle has 360 degrees and point out that North is at 0 degrees, with East at 90 degrees, South at 180 degrees, and West at 270 degrees. Breaking down the directions into degrees is useful for those times when you want to travel in a direction other than simply South or Southeast.

Usage: Using a simple compass is straightforward and shouldn’t be hard to explain. Start by emphasizing that the colored part of the needle should always be lined up with North before you can take a reading (usually it’s red or green). Demonstrate taking a reading by first asking the students to identify an object in the room (such as a chalkboard). Holding the compass out in front of you, turn it so that the red part of the needle lines up with the “N” and then estimate the direction you would need to take to reach the chalkboard or other object. Continue demonstrating and letting students try this out for themselves until they appear to have a grasp of basic compass usage.

Step 3: Practice and Activities

Using a compass is a hands-on skill, and one that the students should be given time and opportunity to practice. Lead them through one or more of the following activities, depending on time constraints and how much practice they need.

Maps: Print out maps for the students, whether of their hometown, the country, or the entire world, and have them use their compass to plot pathways from one location to another. You can assign them goals, such as “Tell me what direction you would take to go from Chicago to Springfield,” or have them come up with their own.

Create a scavenger hunt: Prepare a scavenger hunt for students to follow in pairs or small groups. Provide a list of directions and checkpoints, such as “First go 10 steps North, then 5 steps East, then 12 steps Northwest.” For a more precise course, you could also use degrees for the directions and feet or meters for the distances. This activity is best done somewhere outside, such as a playground or courtyard, or perhaps through the school hallways.

Student-designed scavenger hunts: Let the students create their own scavenger hunts. Put them into small groups and have each design a course for another of the groups to follow. This will take longer than handing them a pre-determined course, but engages students’ creativity and motivates them to be precise in their calculations. Either way, this hands-on practice should make the experience of using a compass more memorable, and help them better retain the skills and knowledge required.