Understanding Direction Based on the Sun

| |

This lesson plan introduces the concept of direction to young children by using the location of the Sun in order to understand where east, west, north, and south are located.

A video tutorial on how to figure out direction based on the Sun is available towards the end of this article.

Level: Kindergarten – Second Grade

Time: 30 minutes

Materials: Paper and pencil

Surveying Compass. Photo: Justin Bongard, U.S. Geological Survey. Public domain
Surveying Compass. Photo: Justin Bongard, U.S. Geological Survey. Public domain

How the Sun Shows 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.

Cardinal points: north, south, east, and west.
Cardinal points: north, south, east, and west.

We can use the location of the sun in the sky in order to determine direction.

 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 hovers just above the Arctic Ocean horizon Sept. 9, 2009.  Photo: Patrick Kelley, U.S. Coast Guard. Public domain.
The sun hovers just above the Arctic Ocean horizon Sept. 9, 2009. Photo: Patrick Kelley, U.S. Coast Guard. Public domain.

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.

An artists rendition of the Earth and the Sun.
The Earth rotates counterclockwise and takes about 24 hours to make one full rotation. Image: NASA, public domain.

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.

To understand where north, south, east, and west are, first point your left arm towards the sun in the morning.
To understand where north, south, east, and west are, first point your left arm towards the sun in the morning. Image: Caitlin Dempsey.

Now, take your right hand and point it towards the west.  You are now facing south and your back is towards the north.

With your left hand pointing towards the sun (east) and your right pointing in the exact opposite direction (west), you can figure out where north and south are in the morning.
With your left hand pointing towards the sun (east) and your right pointing in the exact opposite direction (west), you can figure out where north and south are in the morning. Image: Caitlin Dempsey

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

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.

Share:


Enter your email to receive the Geography Realm newsletter:
Previous

Review | The Consolation of Maps

Slower Hurricanes Means More Dangerous Hurricanes

Next