How to Use a Compass: Lesson for Kids

Instructor: Mary Beth Burns

Mary Beth has taught 1st, 4th and 5th grade and has a specialist degree in Educational Leadership. She is currently an assistant principal.

Knowing how to read a compass is an important skill, especially if you enjoy hiking or exploring the outdoors. Learn about what different types of compasses do, their different parts and how to read a compass in a real-life situation.

What Does a Compass Do?

Have you ever gotten lost or needed directions? What did you do? More than likely, you either asked someone for help or plugged the address into a GPS. But what would you do if there was no one around to ask and no GPS? Have no fear--compasses are here!

A standard compass

Compasses have been used to find directions for over 2,000 years, with more complex compasses being used as early as the 1100s in Asia and Europe. A compass is a device that uses a floating, magnetized needle that can help you determine your direction.

Parts of a Compass

The parts of a compass

Not all compasses look exactly the same, but each has some basic parts that make it work. On the base of the compass, which can be rotated, are the four cardinal directions: north, south, east and west. Many also display the ordinal directions, which are northeast, southeast, southwest and northwest. The base plate also displays an orienting arrow (usually in red or signified by a big arrow) that points north, as well as orienting lines that can be rotated and used to show you which direction you need to move in.

Circling the outer edge of the compass is a dial that displays the 360 degrees of a circle. This dial is also movable, so you can use it to determine how many degrees you need to turn your body to point in a desired direction.

The Needle

But the key component is the magnetic needle in the center of the compass. It's the only component that is in a fixed position. It's controlled by the geomagnetic field, a magnetic field that starts in the planet's core and extends outward into space.

How is this magnetic field created? The inner and outer cores of Earth are made of metals like nickle and iron--the inner core is solid, while the outer core is liquid that moves around. The movement of this liquid metal is what creates the magnetism of the geomagnetic field around Earth.

The geomagnetic field of Earth

Magnet needles are created to attract to the North Pole, which is Earth's magnetic northern end. So, when you look at a compass, the magnetic needle's north end (usually colored in red) will always point to the North Pole.

How To Read a Compass

When using a compass, you can find north by line up the north (red) end of the needle with the orienting arrow. A common rhyme for remembering this is: 'Put the red in the shed.' The 'red' is the red tip of the needle, and 'the shed' is the northern end of the orienting arrow (the northern tip of the orienting angle usually looks like the roof of a shed).

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