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Lesson 1.2: Navigate your Schoolyard


Map reading seems to be a challenge for some students, but with the proper technique and repeated practice, students can master the skill. This exercise provides some hints on teaching students to read maps in the outdoors. The exercise can be combined with the next activity, "Find the Rocks."

Learning Outcomes
  • Practice the skill of navigating using a map.
  • Pre-drawn maps of schoolyard (from Schoolyard Mapping Activity, or teachers can make the map for students if they choose not to do the previous activity. You might want to photocopy students' original maps so that they don't mess them up during this exercise.)
  • At least one compass for the class, but preferably one compass per pair of students.
  • At least one long tape measure for the class.
  • Pencil
  • Ruler
  • A clipboard for each student (something sturdy to write on while outside -- textbooks, binders, etc. all work well).
Time Requirements 15 minutes (older students) - 50 minutes (younger students)

Introducing the Activity

To navigate using a map, you need to know where you are and where you want to go. You can find out where you are by determining your location relative to other features on the map. The more features that there are on a map, the easier it is to figure out where you are. For example, you might be next to a streetlight on the sidewalk near your school's main entrance. If you can find the school on the map, you know you must be near that. If your map shows sidewalks, you can pinpoint your position even further. But if your map does not show the location of streetlights, you'll need to use other information to figure out where you are. That's where your tape measure and compass can help you.


Head out onto the schoolyard with your school maps. Students should work in pairs to help one another try to read the map. Walk them through the following instructions, adapting them for your particular schoolyard.

Instructions for using a map:
  • Hold your compass level and look at the direction that the needle points. Make sure you are reading the correct end (north). You might want to draw an arrow pointing north on the ground using chalk.
  • Navigating using a map is a lot easier when you are holding it correctly. Hold your map so that the writing in the legend is right side up. Find the north arrow on your map. Now, turn your whole body so that the north arrow on your map is facing the same direction as north in real life. Buildings and objects in front of you will be towards the top of the page on your map. Those that are to your right will be closer to the right side of the page (east of you). The process of turning yourself so your map north arrow faces north is called "getting oriented."
  • To find out where you are located on your map, find at least one feature near you that also appears on your map. Let's say it's your school's main entrance. Using your compass, determine if you are standing north, south, east, or west of the entrance. Then, estimate or measure using a tape measure the distance between you and your school entrance. Let's say that you are about 10 meters due south of the entrance. Now, look at your map. Put your finger on the school entrance where it appears on your map. Move your finger towards south on the map. Now, use your map's scale bar to determine how long 10 meters in real life would be on your map. Measure out that distance on the map using your ruler, starting at the school entrance and moving in the direction of south on the map. Draw a dot on the map to indicate your location.
  • Check to make sure you are still oriented towards north. Then, look at the map and look for an object or building to the right of the dot that shows where you are currently standing. Now, look up. The object should be to your right. Looking back and forth between the map and the area around you, locate other objects that are near you. Don't forget to look behind you!
  • Have students move to various locations on the schoolyard and try to pinpoint their location.

Ask students to explain the steps that they use to read a map. This can be done either verbally or in a short writing assignment.

Have students navigate to a "secret" location indicated on a photocopied map you hand out.

Further Web Resources

Map Adventures: (Grades K-3)

What Do Maps Show?: (Grades 5-8)

Exploring Maps: (Grades 7-12)

27 Ideas for Teaching with Topographic Maps

Classroom map activities (Grades 3-6)

Critical Thinking Reading Assignment about map reading skills (Grades 9-12). Have students read and discuss this article on the importance of geography and map reading from a newspaper article in 2005.

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