Orienteering: Lessons Learned From Nature

In a world of cell phones, GPS units and technological tools for just about everything, knowing how to read a physical map is becoming a lost skill. Third grade teacher Kathy Gates has incorporated the art of topography into her curriculum, and in doing so discovered the many benefits of bringing nature into the classroom.

In the spring of 2001, Kathy attended a conference held by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and took a workshop dedicated to outdoor education options in math. Along with other methods, they learned about orienteering, a type of sport that requires navigational skills using a map and compass to navigate from point to point in diverse and usually unfamiliar terrain whilst moving at speed. Participants are given a topographical map, usually a specially prepared orienteering map, which they use to find control points. The goal is to locate the controls in the fastest amount of time.

Thanks to a generous donation from a Baldwin family, Kathy purchased compasses and controls, which are 3-dimensional flags you place along the course. After contacting the Delaware Valley Orienteering Association, Kathy first introduced her students to this exciting program in the fall of 2001. After several years, she learned to set up the course herself.

As the girls venture into the woods at Ridley Creek State Park, their main focus is that they won’t be able to rely on familiar technology to find their way. But the beauty is that it’s a multi-faceted learning experience. Along with learning to use a compass and read a map, they’re using mental math – using the scale on the map to estimate how far you need to travel. They’re honing their sense of direction. They’re enjoying the outdoor exercise that comes with hiking. They’re also applying what they learn in other classes – science covers landforms and waterforms and the topography of PA, and they bring that knowledge onto the course.

They work in groups of four, shadowed by a teacher, and work to find the control before their other classmates. When they go off course, they aren’t automatically corrected. Instead, they’re asked questions that prompt critical thinking and collaboration to get back in the right direction. At the end of their journey, they’re asked to reflect on what they’ve learned in a journal.

The world is constantly evolving and progressing, and so should the classroom. Lower School science teacher Becky Lewis is interested in the benefits of using a map versus a GPS unit and decided to join the program this year to give students the experience of both. The first half of the course was spent using the compasses, the second half the units. The girls loved using both tools and discovered that map readers still had to use problem-solving strategies to help interpret instrument readings.

“What we found is that if the girls learn how to read a printed map and they become spatially and directionally savvy, then they can make intelligent decisions using the compass or the GPS, because they’re just tools. You still have to make intelligent decisions,” said Kathy.

Of course, one of the most important parts of the program is that it takes the classroom outside, giving the girls the chance to enjoy our local natural landscape. “Nature is one of our best teachers. It reminds you to pause and take a breath and enjoy our world, which gives us another wonderful way to introduce mindfulness into our girls lives,” said Kathy.