Teaching city kids compass skills might seem a little outdated in an age of GPS and turn-by-turn navigation, but we didn’t let that stop us on Sunday. I told the kids I had found a stash of treasure maps in storage and passed them out to the kids to decipher.
Only one of the kids was a confident reader, so she read us the first few lines.
“What do you think ‘NW’ means?” I asked.
“North west!” “It comes from a compass. It’s a way to go.” I passed out one compass to each kid, showed them how to lay their open palms flat against the table and raise their compasses parallel to the ground so that the tiny circle swayed and swooned until it found magnetic north. I told them that Earth has a liquid iron core which makes it act like a giant magnet, pulling all their tiny magnetic needles to point to a spot in northern Canada.
We went outside to play “Orientation and Disorientation.” I’d yell, “Disorient!” and they’d spin around in place clutching their compasses, then, “Orient!,” and they’d stabilize, check their compasses and swing their arms to point north. Then each kid got to assign us a number of steps and a direction to walk in. Three steps north, nine steps east, two steps south. Even the tiniest ones in the group, three years old at the most, were starting to get the hang of it.
With that I broke out the directions to the secret hideout, and we counted off our steps as we marched through the garden, under a chain that blocks off a rough and tumble part of the garden that’s only open when I’m up there to supervise, until finally we found the secret hideout: a kid-sized teepee made out of scrub mulberry trees. We’d built it earlier in the season with the second and third graders in the after school program.
Without prompting, the kids quickly grabbed sticks and wood chips and helped add to the fort. A weed bucket became a bathtub, a broken piece of irrigation hose became a faucet, a stump became a mirror, and a scrap of fabric became a leash for our family pet, a dead spider. “And this,” said a kindergartener, holding up a tiny square wood chip, “this will be our MetroCard.”