Activity 1: String Course
Activity 2: How to Read and Use a Compass
Activity 3: How to Make a Simple Floating Compass
Activity 4: How to Use the Compass to Travel
Activity 5: Find a Hidden Treasure
Activity 6: Map Reading with Pre-schoolers
Activity 7: Map Reading with Grades K–3
Activity 8: Map Reading with Grades 4–8
Activity 9: How to Make a Topo Map
Activity 10: How to Read a Topographical Map

Introduction: What is Orienteering

Orienteering is an activity in which the participants locate control points by using a map and compass to navigate through a chosen environment: school yard, the woods, the city, etc.

“Orienteering is an activity that helps in the personal development of the student in such areas as problem-solving, decision-making, self-reliance, awareness of one’s surroundings, spatial relationships, use of resources, courage to go beyond the well-known paths, and enhanced self-esteem.”

Karl Kolva, “O” in Schools Committee (Orienteering and Map Games for Teachers by Mary E. Garrett)

Activity 1: String Course
Grade: Pre-school–3
Time: 45 minutes
Materials: string (surveyor’s tape, twine, colored string, or ribbon), spool for rolling the string in and out, teacher-made maps, control markers (5–8 orange and white markers), stickers placed at each control (STE Orienteering Kit)

Young children become comfortable with orienteering through a special course called a String Course.  The entire route is marked by string, ribbon, or tape, so the children can stay on course and no one gets lost. A simple map illustrates the route and the location of the checkpoints called controls.  (Controls are the mapped features such as boulders, trees, buildings, junctions in trails, fences, paths, etc.) When the children reach a control, they can mark their individual map with a sticker or stamp that is specific to that control.  Eventually, the string leads back to the finish, usually the same place as the start. As children become better at finding their way in nature, their self-confidence grows, and their abilities expand.

  1. Lay out the course and make the map. Find a suitable place for the route. Avoid road crossings, poisonous plants, thorns, high grass, and other potential hazards. Since the String Course is only a few hundred meters long, design the route with most of it within sight of the start and finish. As the route is designed, identify the location of the controls (boulders, trees, buildings, path junctions, fences, etc.) On the map include route, control locations, a legend, and places to punch or affix a sticker for each control. Make copies of the map, one for each student. (See sample map below.)

    Sample Map

  2. On the day of the String Course event, lay out the string and the controls. Tie the string to something so that it doesn’t blow away, such as laying it on the ground with rocks or wrapping it around trees.
  3. Hang the control markers low.  Place the stickers in a bag for protection.
  4. Spend some time explaining the map, course, and rules to the students.
  5. Now let the students start. (The whole class could complete the first String Course, walking the course and explaining as the class goes along. Then later have the individual students follow the course.)
  6. Variation: Leave the locations of the controls off the map. The students must then mark where they are on the map as they reach each control.

Activity 2: How to Read and Use a Compass
Grades: 2–8 
Time: 45 minutes
Materials: compasses (STE Orienteering Kit), Compass Identification Worksheet

  1. Review with students the directions: north, south, east and west. Draw this circle on the chalkboard with the four directions.

    Compas Rose

  2. Ask: in what direction does the sun rise; in what direction does the sun set; in what direction is Mexico; in what direction is Canada; in what direction is Disneyland; in what direction is Disney World; in what direction is Washington D.C.; in what direction is the North Pole; etc.
  3. Distribute the compasses to the students.
  4. Identify the five parts of the compass: orienting arrow, compass needle, direction of travel-arrow, orienting lines, compass housing (turnable).
  5. Have students complete the Compass Identification Worksheet. This may be done several times giving the students opportunities to learn the different parts of the compass. (Optional: Have students design a large compass to put on the bulletin board.)
  6. Discuss the compass needle. It has two colored parts, one is always red. The red part of the needle is always pointing towards the earth’s magnetic north pole. Earth has a magnetic north that is miles away from the geographic North Pole—the north pointed at by gridlines on a map. The magnetic north causes the needle to always point toward the magnetic pull.

Activity 3: How to Make a Simple Floating Compass
Grades: K–8
Time: 15 minutes plus overnight
Materials: needles, cork, tape, refrigerator magnets, small containers (STE Orienteering Kit)

  1. Tape one end of the needle to the magnet and leave overnight. 
  2. Test the magnetized needle by trying to pick up another needle.
  3. Pierce the magnetized needle through a small piece of cork so that the cork is balanced roughly in the middle of the needle.
  4. Float the cork in a container of water.
  5. Move the container around the room or take it outside. The needle should continue to float in the same direction. What direction is that? (magnetic north)

Activity 4: How to Use the Compass to Travel
Grades: 2–8
Time: 45 minutes
Materials: compass for each student or each 2-person team (STE Orienteering Kit)

  1. Practice with the students traveling in the north direction by finding where north is on the compass housing. Turn the compass housing so that north on the housing lines up with the large direction-of-travel arrow.
  2. Have the students hold the compass flat in their hands letting the red part of the compass needle turn to north.
  3. Have the students turn themselves, their hands and entire compass until the compass needle is aligned with north.
  4. Walk off in the north direction. Have the students notice what is in the north direction: a building, a tree, a path, the playground, etc.
  5. Now have the students practice other directions: south, east, west, northwest, northeast, southwest, southeast, while noticing what is in the environment in those directions.

Special Note to Remember: To avoid going in the wrong direction, remember the sun. At noon, the sun is roughly in the south in the northern hemisphere, so if the student is heading north, the sun should be behind the student.

Activity 5: Find a Hidden Treasure
Grades: 2–8
Time: 45 minutes
Materials: list of directions, compass for each student or each 2-person team (STE Orienteering Kit), treasures

  1. Design a treasure hunt by writing out a list of directions:
    1. Start at the door of the classroom.
    2. Go approximately 20 feet west along the sidewalk
    3. Stop and turn north. Continue north for another 50 feet.
    4. Stop and head east for 10 feet.
    5. Go southeast for 15 feet.
    6. top and look to the east. Find a tall pine tree with a broken branch on its north side. Your treasure is hidden at the base of the pine tree.
  2. Give each student a copy of the list of directions and have them find the treasure by following the directions.
  3. After the students find the first treasure, discuss with the students about finding the second treasure.
  4. Draw a map with an “X” where the treasure is buried. The map has several pathways on it. The students are asked which pathway would be best to take and in which direction the path seems to head. Compasses are used to point in the direction that they wish to go. Once the students have the direction, they should aim at some object or point in the distance and go there so they are not staring down on the compass.
  5. As the students hike, they are asked several times to stop and use their compasses to find which way they are headed and to point to where they are on their maps.
  6. Students arrive at the second treasure. A third treasure map is now handed out to the students. The teacher decides how many treasure hunts the students will complete for the day.

Special Note: This course with different maps and variations should be completed several times, so the students become very comfortable with the compass safely and accurately. A variation could be a different location: park, downtown, neighborhood, hike in the forest, etc.; a course with no paths; This does take time on the teacher’s part to create maps that are specific to an area, but well worth the outcome: increasing student confidence and decreasing the feeling of being lost.

Activity 6: Map Reading with Preschoolers
Grade: Pre-school
Time: 30 minutes

  1. Young children can be prepared to read a map by becoming familiar with the directional words: above and below, to the right and to the left, farther and nearer, here and there. These words and phrases help children with the concept of location.
  2. Observe the movement of the sun at the beginning of the school day and at the end of the school day. 
  3. Observe what is in the sky during the day (planes, balloons, birds, etc.)  
  4. Ask what do they think will be in the sky tonight. Send a note home to the parents encouraging the observation of the stars, moon, sunrise, and sunset. Ask what will be in the sky tomorrow. 
  5. Make a list or drawings of what is seen during the day and what is seen at night.
    Special Note: Do not look directly at the Sun! The Sun is very bright and by focusing the light onto the back of the eye (the retina) with or without a telescope, a lot of energy (both optical light and infra-red) is placed onto a tiny area. The retina of the eye does not have pain receptors, so students will not even feel the damage being done. It may not even become apparent until later.

Vocabulary to Review with students:
above, below, right, left, farther, nearer, here, there

Activity 7: Map Reading with Grades K–3
Grades: K–3

Activity A

Time: 15 minutes during the day, 15 minutes during the night, 15 minutes in class.
Materials: Observation Journal Page, What I Saw Worksheet

  1. Have students observe and record what they see in the sky in the daytime on their Observation Journal Page.
    Special Note: Do not look directly at the sun! The sun is very bright and by focusing the light onto the back of your eye (the retina) with or without a telescope, you are putting a lot of energy (both optical light and infra-red) onto a tiny area. The retina of your eye does not have pain receptors, so you will not even feel the damage being done. It may not even become apparent until later.
  2. Have students observe and record what they see in the nighttime sky on the Observation Journal Page.
  3. Have students observe and record for several days.
  4. Now record all they saw on the Observation Journal Page.
  5. Discuss with students changes, unique objects, directions, etc.
  6. Have students fill out What I Saw Worksheet, combining objects that they saw both day and night.

Activity B

Time: 15 minutes
Materials: compasses, Compass Identification Worksheets

  1. One of the best ways to introduce the reading of a map is to create a map of the classroom or the school grounds. Don’t worry about proportion and mperspective.
  2. Draw a map of the classroom on the chalkboard. 
  3. Place windows and doors on the wall lines.
  4. Place teacher and student desks, cupboards, bulletin boards, etc.
  5. Introduce the compass rose by using Activity 2 in the Orienteering Appendix.
  6. Place the directions north, south, east and west on the classroom map by asking where the sun rises and where the sun sets. The sun always goes east to west. Have students stand so the morning sun is facing them. This is east. Then the left hand is the north side of the body; the right hand is south side of the body; and everything behind them is west.
  7. Have students draw a map of their bedroom.  Label the directions, doors, windows, bed, desk, etc.
  8. Let students examine and discuss simple maps from the community: a hiking map, a map of the mall, a downtown map, etc.

Activity 8: Map Reading with Grades 4–8
Grades: 4–8 Special Note: If the students have not covered the concepts in the previous sections: Preschool and K–3, please review.
Time: 45–60 minutes
Materials: graph paper, pencils, colored pencils

  1. Draw a map of the school grounds using graph paper. Set the unit to represent a specific distance, for example: one unit on the grid equals 5 feet or 10 feet.
  2. Label directions, buildings, play structures, trees, parking lots, sports fields, etc.
  3. Give a title; make a legend; label unit distance, etc.
  4. Plan a hike using this map and give one to each student. Take the same hike but start in a different place.
  5. Have students create a scavenger hunt using the school grounds map.

Activity 9: How to Make a Topo Map
Grades: 3–8
Time: 60 minutes
Materials: A lump of clay or Play-Doh® about the size of a coffee mug, piece of cardboard or large tile on which to work the clay, piece of dental floss, about 2 feet (around 60 centimeters) long, ruler, piece of plain, white paper, long pencil, 2 toothpicks

  1. View instructions on how to make a topo map here (NASA website)

Activity 10: How To Read a Topographical Map
Time: 45 minutes
Materials: How to Read a Topographic Map Student Worksheet, topographic map of the Sacramento area (click here to download free topo maps from USGS).

  1. Review with students the following points:
      • A topographic map is a representation of a three-dimensional surface on a flat piece of paper.
      • Tell students the word is derived from two Greek words—“topo,” meaning “place,” and graphos,” meaning “drawn or written.” Ask students if they can use that information to figure out what “topographic” might mean. Then ask the students to look up the word in the dictionary to see whether the guess was correct.
      • Contour lines, sometimes called “level lines,” join points of equal elevation.  The closer together the contour lines appear on a topographic map, the steeper the slope.
  2. Hand out How to Read a Topographic Map Student Worksheet. The Illustration 1 introduces students to contour lines. Point out that a contour line joins points of equal elevation. Think of it as an imaginary line on the ground that takes any path necessary to maintain constant elevation.
  3. First, have the student look at the side view of the hills, Illustration 2 and answer the first two questions. (#1. Answer: hill B) (#2. Answer: hill B)
  4. Now have the students look at the topographic map of the same two hills (Illustration 3). Explain that the lines on this map are called contour lines or “level lines.” Ask the students to trace with their fingers around the 40-foot contour line on the map. Then ask them to look at the picture of the hill and draw their fingers along the 40-foot contour line. 
  5. Repeat step 4, having the students drawing with their fingers along and around the 20-foot contour lines.
  6. Ask students to answer question #3. (Answer: 10 feet)
  7. Ask students to answer questions #4, #5, #6. Help students understand that the closer the lines, the steeper the slope. Have students point out other places on the map that have a very steep slope. (#4. Answer: about 42 feet) (#5. Answer: about 54 feet) (#6. Answer: hill B)
  8. Have students identify and circle the following features on illustration 2: a church, a bridge over the river, an oceanside cliff, a stream that flows into the main river, a hill that rises steeply on one side and more smoothly on the other.
  9. Have the students identify and circle the same features on Illustration 3:
      • Draw the map symbol for a church.
        A topographic map symbol for a church which is a square with a cross on the top.
      • Draw the map symbol for a bridge.
        A topographic map symbol for a bridge.
      • Put an X on the oceanside cliff.
      • What is the elevation of the contour line at the top of the cliff? (Answer: 100 feet)
      • Locate a stream that flows into the main river. Draw a pencil line down that stream. Put an X where the stream joins the main river. On a real topographic map, streams are shown in blue and contour lines are shown in brown.
      • Find the hill that rises steeply on one side and more smoothly on the other. On the topographic map, draw a path up the gentler slope of the hill to the highest point. (Hint: remember that when contour lines are close together, the ground is very steep.) Draw a path showing a very steep way up the hill.
  10. Have the students tell how they might use a topographic map:
      • A route for a hike. (Choose route that's not too steep. When planning a long hike, you may want to see whether water is available or whether it should be carried in. Woods tint may indicate whether the route is shaded.)
      • The best location for an airport. (Make sure airplanes have plenty of room to take off and land before the ground rises. Do not let students suggest building in a swamp, in the woods, or in a built-up area.)
      • A route for a new road. (Find a shallow grade rather than a steep one. Do not allow them to cross too many rivers because bridges are expensive.)
  11. Use a topographic map of Sacramento area to answer these questions:
      • What is the approximate elevation of the State Capitol?
      • Would you be walking up hill or down hill to go from the state capitol to the Sacramento River?
      • Suppose you lived by the city library. Find a least three ways you could get from your house to the State Capitol.
      • List things you would see along the way.

Key Words

Map, Route, Controls, Control Marker, Direction, Magnetic North,
Compass, Declination

Downloads [PDF]



Symbols of Orienteering Maps

STE Orienteering Kit

  • Compasses (16)
  • Surveyors Tape
  • Landscapers flags (10)
  • Stickers
  • Needles (30)
  • Corks (30)
  • Refrigerator Magnets (30)
  • Containers (30)
  • Book: Orienteering and Map Games for Teachers by Mary E. Garrett


  • Bagness, Martin. Outward Bound Orienteering Handbook. Lyon's Press, 1995.
  • Boga, Steven. Orienteering: The Sport of Navigating With Map and Compass. Stackpole Books, 1997.
  • Bratt, Ian. Orienteering: The Essential Guide to Equipment and Techniques. Stackpole Books, 2002.
  • Kjellstroem, Bjoern. Be Expert With Map and Compass: The Complete Orienteering Handbook. Hungry Minds/John Wiley & Sons, 1994.
  • McNeill, Carol, Tom Renfrew, and Jean Cory-Wright. Teaching Orienteering, 2nd ed. Human Kinetics, 1998.
  • McNeill, Carol. Orienteering (The Skills of the Game). Crowood Press, 1996.
  • Nimvik, Maria, Barbro Roennberg, and Sue Harvey. The World of Orienteering. IOF, 1998.
  • Norman, Bertil, and Arne Yngstroem. Orienteering Technique From Start to Finish. Sweden, 1991.
  • Palmer, Peter, ed. The Complete Orienteering Manual. Crowood Press, 1998.
  • Renfrew, Tom. Orienteering. Human Kinetics, 1996.

Organizations and Web Sites

  • Canadian Orienteering Federation
    Web site:
  • International Orienteering Federation
    Web site:
  • U.S. Geological Survey
    U.S. Department of the Interior
    12201 Sunrise Valley Drive
    Reston, VA 20192
    Web site:
  • U.S. Orienteering Federation
    P.O. Box 1444
    Forest Park, GA 30298-1444
    Telephone: 404-363-2110
    Web site:

Equipment Sources

  • A&E Orienteering
    74 Decorah Drive
    St. Louis, MO 63146
    Telephone: 314-872-3165
    Web site:
  • Berman's Orienteering Supply
    23 Fayette St.
    Cambridge, MA 02139
    Telephone: 617-868-7416
  • The Compass Store
    2252 Alton Frank Way
    Dacula, GA 30019
    Telephone: 770-682-9885
    Web site:
  • Orienteering Unlimited Inc.
    Telephone: 914-248-5957
    Web site:
  • Scarborough Orienteering and BAOC Equipment
    3015 Holyrood Drive
    Oakland, CA 94611
    Telephone: 510-530-3059
    Toll-free telephone: 877-850-2420
    Web site:
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