Map skills for children: Navigating with the sun

Most people know how to find your direction using the sun at midday. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west, so at midday you can tell roughly where north is by standing with your back to the Sun. Here are two fun ideas for using the Sun to tell the time at other times of day.

Activity 1: Using a clock or watch

You will need a watch or a clock with an analog face. We used our kitchen clock as it was big and easy to read. Lay your watch or clock on a flat surface in the sunshine. Now turn the watch or clock around so that the hour hand is pointing towards the Sun. In the photo below, the Sun was in the sky behind me at 3 o’ clock.

Finding north and south using a clock with a stick.

Now that you have your watch in position, draw an imaginary line half way between the hour hand (at 3 o’ clock), and the 12 o’ clock position on the clock. We’ve shown this in the photo with a stick across the clock. This line is the north-south line.

NB: during British Summer Time, you need to draw your line half way between the hour hand and the 1 o’ clock position. During the summer, our ‘solar noon’, or the time when the Sun is at its highest point, is about 1pm rather than 12 noon.

Activity Two: Tracking the Sun’s movement

This takes a bit of time, so it would be a good one to do whilst having a picnic. You will need two straight sticks, and a couple of pebbles. Put one stick in the ground, and mark where the tip of its shadow falls on the ground with a pebble. Wait about 20 minutes, and the shadow will have moved a bit. Place the other pebble on the ground to mark where the tip of the shadow now falls.

Tracking the sun's movement with sticks and pebbles to find north.

Now place the second stick on top of the two pebbles. The straight line of the stick runs from east to west. If you stand on the line with your left foot near the first pebble and your right foot near the second pebble, you will be facing north.

It’s fun to try out different ways of navigating using the Sun. Of course it does rely on sunny weather, which we don’t always get here in the UK!

These activities were inspired by the Ultimate Mapping Guide for Kids by Justin Miles, a really fun book which I would recommend.


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