First, make sure the kids know what a map is and how it works. Sure, they might have seen you scratching your head over a road map a dozen times, but perhaps they’ve never actually used one before.
Choose a map of a place with which they’re familiar, such as a favorite park or campground. Don’t start with a large state road map or similarly scaled map, all those lines and colors are confusing.
Point out how to turn, or orient, the map so north is at the top. Find a compass rose or direction pointer, and explain how that works: When north is up, east is always to the right and west is always to the left.
If you’re working with a topo map, point out just a few colors and shapes: green for forested areas, blue for water, small black squares and rectangles for buildings. Don’t go into too many details about topographic lines.
Explain the concept of a scale. Let the kids measure one inch on the map and calculate how far that would be on the ground.
Next, pull out a simple compass, such as a Silva Starter.
Many kids love technical details, so explain how the arrow floats in a liquid, the red pointer always pointing north. Show how they have to keep the compass level or the arrow can’t float freely.
Let them hold the compass and turn a complete circle, watching the arrow stay tracked to the north. Now that they have the basic elements of a map and compass down pat, it’s time to put the two together.
Have the kids place the map on a flat surface, and make sure they can point to north on the map. Now have one child place the compass on top of the map and line the direction of travel arrow so it points north.
Have another kid turn the map, without disturbing the compass, until the red arrow and the direction of travel arrow are aligned. Boom. Now both map and compass are pointing north.
The final step in Navigation 101 is to use the map and compass to actually navigate confidently from point A to point B.
All they have to do is find where they are on the map, and where they want to be.
They should align the compass so the baseplate connects these two points, then turn the compass dial until the north designation on the dial lines up with north on the map. Then they simply hold the compass and spin around until the red arrow is pointing to north on the dial. Start walking.