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Teaching Orienteering to Newcomers

Jeff Brucker

I have been teaching O and also Wilderness Navigation classes for several years, mainly to adults but occasionally to children. My one recommendation is to not victimize these beginners with compass games until well after they have learned proper map-reading skills.

USOF course-setting guidelines specifically say that a beginner should be able to complete a White course, as well as a Yellow course, without the use of a compass whatsoever. (other than perhaps to orient the map). I heartily agree with this policy, for a variety of reasons.

The first reason is that map-reading is a new language which is a little scary to many beginners. They are looking for any excuse to avoid the pain of learning to read a map, so they jump at the chance to use a compass (or worse, a GPS) instead of a map. Your first job as an instructor is to instill in your students a belief in the importance of the map as the primary tool of orienteering. Introducing the compass too early will sabotage your efforts.

The second reason is that giving a compass to a beginner is like giving a calculator to a 5-year-old who hasn't yet learned the concepts of simple math. They press a lot of buttons and come up with a lot of very exact but wrong answers. Worse, they trust these wrong answers as if it was gospel, because they have a piece of technology in their hand which is giving them this answer. They trust those precise but wrong numbers more than they trust the seemingly vague and imprecise map.

The third reason is that a beginner has only so much brain energy to invest; please don't allow them to waste their valuable energy with a compass. Every minute they spend on a compass is a minute that could be spent learning to read a map. When I began teaching I taught both map and compass in one classs, but I soon dropped the compass for this reason, and teach it in a separate, more advanced, class. It is best to learn the two skills separately, and then combine them together later. Of course, some people are naturals or have a math background and can learn both at the same time, but most can't.

Only after a student has good map skills will I teach the compass, and even then I teach them to first visualize the bearing (i.e. north, east, northwest, etc.). Even if a beginner does use a compass properly, they often overuse the compass, and do not develop the map-reading skills necessary to correct small errors, which accumulate into big errors.

I have observed the following scenario often: Our practice destination is a small saddle. There is a whole series of obvious land-marks on-route. The "compass" people typically end up on the wrong terrain feature 50 meters away on the side of the hill or in a ravine, swearing that they are in the right spot. They were fairly accurate and only off by a couple of degrees and a reasonable distance error, but they have ignored the landmarks and let the small errors accumulate. I see this often with those who put a lot of faith in technology. I usually let them make a few errors while the little grandmother is nailing every check-point, and then they usually get the idea.

There are many books available on several orienteering web sites about teaching orienteering to kids, so there is no need for you to reinvent the wheel. The few bucks you spend will reap big dividends.

Good Luck.

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