A video tutorial on how to figure out direction based on the Sun is available towards the end of this article.
Level: Elementary school students
Time: 30 minutes
Materials: Paper and pencil
What is direction?
The way to a place is called direction. In order to find a place or to describe where it is, we must know in what direction from us it lies.
Most commonly, directions are provided in terms of whether the place lies north, south, east, or west of where we are currently located (this is known as relative location).
North, south, east, and west are known as cardinal directions. These cardinal directions can be abbreviated as N, S, E, and W.
How the Sun Shows Direction
We can use the location of the sun in the sky in order to determine direction. Each morning, the Sun rises in the East and can be seen across different parts of the sky before setting in the West.
This movement of the Sun across the sky is because the Earth is rotating from West to East. This rotation of the Earth eastward on its axis is called prograde.
Getting started with finding cardinal directions using the Sun
Stand outside in the morning and look up at the sky (never look directly into the sun).
Where is the Sun currently located? The sun rises in the east. Therefore, the location of the Sun in the morning is towards the east.
Compare this to the location of the sun in the sky in the late afternoon. The sun sets in the west. At noon local time, the sun is directly overhead.
The Sun Always Rises in the East and Sets in the West
The Sun always rises in the east.
It doesn’t matter if you live in the Northern Hemisphere or the Southern Hemisphere. We see the Sun move across the sky based on the rotation of the Earth. Since both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres rotate in together, the position of the sun is the same in both hemispheres.
While it may seems like the Sun is moving around the Earth, the change in where the Sun is located in the sky is because the Earth is spinning around on its axis.
It takes the Earth about 24 hours to complete one rotation on its axis. At any given point in that period, half of the Earth is facing the sun and is in sunlight. The other half of the Earth is facing away from the sun and is in darkness (night).
The line between day and night on the face of the Earth is called the terminus.
The Earth rotates counterclockwise so the Sun will appear in the sky from the east and set in the west.
How To Use The Sun to Locate North, South, East, and West
In the morning find the general location of the rising sun, stretch out your left arm so that your left hand is pointing towards the sun. Your left hand is now pointing east. Important: make sure you never look directly at the sun.
Now, take your right hand and point it towards the west. You are now facing south and your back is towards the north.
Exploring North, South, East, and West
Stand outside the front door of your house or school. What direction is the building facing?
Take a piece of paper and mark the locations of north, south, east, and west on your paper. Now draw the outline of the building with the front of the building in the correct location.
Look around the building. What is on the north side of the building? Doors, windows, trees?
Mark those on your paper in the correct spot.
What is on the east side of the building? Draw those now on the paper in the spot you marked for the east direction.
Do the same for south and west.
Watch: Use the Sun the Find Direction
This article was originally published on July 7, 2018 and has since been updated.
Definitions of direction
- Cardinal Directions and Ordinal Directions – Learn about the four points of the compass.
- Geocentric Direction Systems – Not all culture understand direction the same way.
- Providing Good Directions Depends on the Order of the Words
- The Brain Never Stops Making Maps
- Conjunction Junction Found in the Brain: Helps with Spatial Navigation