Outdoor Education: Sense of Direction Test

Outdoor Education: Sense of Direction Test

Dick Moss, Editor, Physical Education Update.com

A truth known by all woodsmen is that anyone can become lost, even if only temporarily.

While many people feel their innate sense of direction will prevent them from becoming lost in the woods, in fact, a sense of direction is not an internal ability. It is simply an awareness of sun position, landmarks and familiar terrain. If these landmarks are forgotten or become obscured by fog, heavy bush or darkness, all "sense of direction" disappears.

You can perform the following test to demonstrate to students that they don't have an innate directional sense. It may destroy the complacency they feel about developing "lost-proofing" and survival skills.

Sense of Direction Test
This test is best performed on an overcast day with little wind, in an area that is relatively quiet because the sun, wind and noise could give your students external clues that would help them determine their direction of movement.

Select several volunteers and position them in the center of your school's football field, facing the goalposts. Then blindfold them. Instruct them to walk to the goalposts, with the assurance that you'll prevent them from bumping into anything. Ask your class to be as quiet as possible but to note what happens to the blindfolded students.

Your spectators may have difficulty stifling their giggles. Why? Because none of the blindfolded students will get anywhere near the goalposts. Without external cues as a guide, those students who are right-handed will tend to circle to the right. while the left-handed students will curve to the left. In most cases, the blindfolded students will cross the sidelines by the time they get to the five-yard line.

This becomes a vivid demonstration that without external cues, people have no internal guidance mechanism.

Walking In Circles When You're Lost
The same principle applies when people get lost in the woods. To confirm common folklore, people who are lost actually do tend to walk in circles - especially if they panic. They follow their dominant foot, not their so-called sense of direction. In fact. the average adult may walk in a complete circle within one square mile of bush. Children, who are smaller, circle even faster.

Knowing whether a lost person tends to circle to the left or right is important information if you are tracking them in the woods. And it's important information to know about yourself.

Find the Campsite Test
You can perform a similar demonstration if you are out in the woods. Using a compass, take a hike away from your campsite and make a number of subtle direction changes. After a while, sit everyone down and ask them all to point back to the campsite. Usually the fingers will all point in different directions.

1. Chris Berdik, "An Interview with Colin Ellard, author of "You are Here: Why We Can Find Out Way to the Moon but Get Lost in the Mall." Doubleday, July 2009, from Boston.com http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2009/07/05/qa_with_colin_ellard_an_argument_for_reconnecting_with_the_space_around_us/?page=full
2. Tom Brown, Judy Brown, Tom Brown's Field Guide to Nature and Survival for Children, Berkley Books, 1989.

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