How to Teach Children the Cardinal Directions

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Early geography education involves teaching children spatial awareness.

Spatial awareness is the ability to understand objects in space and your own personal position relative to those features.

For geographers, there are two main components of spatial aware: space and movement. These two components are important for navigating.

Spatial awareness involves an understanding of space: is the tree in front or behind the boulder? How far is the tree from the boulder?

Spatial awareness also involves an understanding of movement: are you walking towards or away from the mountain?

Spatial awareness is an important skill to develop.  Photo: Andrew Cyr, USGS. Public domain
Spatial awareness is an important skill to develop. Photo: Andrew Cyr, USGS. Public domain

Cardinal Directions

One of the most fundamental orientation skills involves understanding the cardinal directions

With spatial awareness, it’s important to understand the concept of cardinal directions. Knowing where north, south, east, and west are important for navigation and for describing the relative location of features.

A compass rose showing just the cardinal points of north, south, east, and west.
A compass rose showing just the cardinal points of north, south, east, and west. Adapted from Brosen~commonswiki, CC BY 2.5, Medawiki Commons

Cardinal directions are the four main points of a compass and are: north, east, south, and west. 

Teaching children (or anybody that wants to learn cardinal directions) can be made easy through to use of mnemonics.

What is a Mnemonic?

A mnemonic is a strategy of making memorization easier through the use of letters, words, or ideas.

Teaching Geography with a Mnemonic

To learn the cardinal directions and the order in which they appear on a compass, the following mnemonic is effective. 

The silliness of the saying and the use of simple words makes this mnemonic easy for children to memorize.

The mnemonic is “Never Eat Soggy Waffles.”

The first letter of each word is the same as the cardinal direction that it represents. 

The order of the words mimics the order in which the cardinal directions appear on a compass: North, South, East, and West.

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