Map Science with a Homemade Compass

If there’s one thing my older son adores (besides birds), it is maps. Mapping and geography are passions of his so I knew he would love to learn how to make a homemade compass for the super simple summer science camp we are doing with Coffee Cups and Crayons (see below for the activities so far). I wasn’t sure if he was going to be interested in only making a compass, so we combined it with a little map science.

Simple geography science activity with a homemade compass. Perfect for just before a trip.

We did the project one morning when we were headed out to learn about plovers at Rockaway Beach (I did mention he adores birds, right?). We got out the map to find out in which compass direction our destination lay.

First the experiment! You’ve probably heard about this simple compass science project, but here are the instructions:

How to make a homemade compass

What you need:

  • small piece of cork
  • needle
  • strong magnet
  • shallow dish with water (I used a pie plate. I chose a stained one so you can feel superior about your own dishwashing skills.)
  • working, store-bought compass (optional)
  • enthusiastic child (required)

Step 1. Float the cork on top of the water.

Step 2. Magnetize the needle. You do this by drawing the needle across a strong magnet several times in the same direction. We counted 50 strokes.

How to magnetize a needle for a homemade compass.

Step 3. Carefully place the needle on the cork.

The cork will spin back and forth a few times before it settles down to north. You can check your work by placing a store-bought compass next to the dish.

Map Science: Using the Compass

As you can see, we placed a map underneath our snazzy cork compass and lined up the north-pointing needle with the compass on the map itself. My son then located our destination and current location, and determined that we were headed S-SE towards Rockaway.

I asked Kiddo if he knew why compasses point north. When he responded “no”, I explained that the earth has a magnetic field and since we are in the Northern Hemisphere, the northerly magnetic field “pulls” the arrow of the compass. Then Kiddo proceeded to explain to me that actually, compasses don’t point true north, but slightly off because the magnetic field is located in Canada. So. I guess he did know how it worked after all. In any case, you can read this article to learn more.

Using a homemade compass to explore map science.

Even though Kiddo loved exploring his map with the compass, he may have had the most fun manipulating and controlling the needle with the strong magnet. Long time readers (love you!) may recall these 9 magnet activities my kids adore.

Have you ever made a compass? It’s something ever kid should do!

Summer Science Camp so far:

On this blog: Ice cube on a string (or how failure makes you a scientist), Solar oven

At Coffee Cups and Crayons: Mentos geyser, Dancing raisins, Density layers

Follow the maps and geography activities Pinterest board:
Follow Erica • What Do We Do All Day?’s board Geography and Map Activities on Pinterest.

Simple summer science projects for kids

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  1. says

    Erica, I’ve never made a compass and have never successfully used a real one! Though I should learn how…love anything that has a “Boy Scout” feel to it—so valuable!

    This is very cool and I totally get the fun factor with the needle and the magnet. I love the stuff you do with your kids 😀

    • Erica MomandKiddo says

      I find it confusing to navigate with a compass. I had a park ranger demonstrate to us once, but I still have to relearn it every time.

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