Lessons in orienteering at school could provide cross curricular benefits to children of all ages. Lisa Symonds explores

What is orienteering?

Orienteering is an outdoor sport similar to cross-country racing. However, while both these activities require participants to travel over diverse and unfamiliar terrain, orienteers are expected to work out the quickest route around the course using a map and compass, and navigate at their own pace. The participants check into control markers across the course using an electronic card. Foot Orienteering has four disciplines: Long, Middle, Sprint and Relay, and competitions can be hosted anywhere from remote forests to inner-city parks or school playgrounds.

Orienteering is now recognized by Sports Councils and can be enjoyed by anyone from pre-school children to elderly people. All that is required is enthusiasm and a willingness to embrace map-reading. The annual British Schools Orienteering Championships, held every November, is the perfect opportunity to talent spot for national teams. England has already produced two world orienteering champions, Yvette Baker and Jamie Stevenson. Orienteering is now offered by 55% of schools in England.

The history

Orienteering can be traced back to late 19th-century Sweden where it was introduced as a training exercise in land navigation for military officers. The term ‘orienteering’ was first recorded in 1886, when the definition was listed as ‘crossing of the unknown land with the aid of a map and compass’. Orienteering became a competitive sport in the military, with its appeal soon spreading to civilians. The first public competition was held in Norway in 1897.

Enthusiasm spread through Europe when cheaper compasses became available in the early 1930s. The first international orienteering conference was held in Sweden in 1959, with 12 countries represented. The International Orienteering Federation (IOF) was established in 1961 with 10 members; in 2006, that figure had risen to 67.

The establishment of federations allowed for the development of national and world championships. Orienteering is currently included in the programs for the World Games and World Police and Fire Games.

Who can get involved?

Age is no barrier to orienteering: all you need is lots of enthusiasm. Orienteering challenges are not necessarily about fitness; other strengths, such as organization and communication, are important. Orienteering is as competitive as the participant wants to make it. You can compete alone, alongside a team or just one partner.

Why for schools?

One in 10 schools have adopted orienteering as part of their PE and school sport provision. Its popularity has risen dramatically in recent years for a variety of reasons:

  • Orienteering is good exercise for both the body and mind.
  • It supports geography, mathematics and citizenship studies as well as the PE curriculum. Students experience new terrains and use scaled maps to work out distances while on the move.
  • Orienteering is an alternative way to deliver the Outdoor Adventurous Activity (OAA) element of the PE curriculum. While many adventure sports for students are expensive and often involve travelling out of town, it can be set up relatively cheaply, quickly, and right on your doorstep.
  • Orienteering has school competitions and championships at every level, enabling ambitious students to take their passion outside the classroom and get competitive if they want to.
  • As well as supporting the curriculum without breaking the school budget, orienteering can broaden students’ horizons, ensure that they spend time outdoors and boost life skills that are transferable to the classroom, social life and the wider world.

Orienteering enables student to:

  • push themselves and rise to a new challenge
  • learn the often confusing art of map-reading and how to use a compass
  • make decisions
  • strengthen team-working and negotiation skills (if they choose to compete with others)
  • develop a sense of independence (if they choose to go solo).

Environmentally friendly orienteering

Support classroom work on protecting the environment by telling students how to minimize their impact on the countryside.

Some essential tips for caring for the land on which you compete:


  • Do your best to use public transport
  • If the center or land on which you’re holding a session is near to the school, how about walking or, if the group is small enough, cycling?
  • If you use a school minibus, fill all the seats.


  • It’s hard to be concerned about a great unknown, so the more you can teach your students about the terrain on which they orienteer, the more they’ll respect it and appreciate it.


  • Whenever and wherever practical, stick to paths
  • Do your utmost to avoid treading on wild flowers in bloom
  • Take care not to disturb wildlife or nests


  • Wherever possible, use existing openings, gates and crossing points
  • If you spot damage to a gate or opening, report it on your return
  • Remember to close any gate you open – it only takes a few moments and livestock could be in danger if you forget.
  • If you see a gate already left open, the best policy is to close it and then report it.


  • Remember that you are likely to be sharing the land with horses so avoid scaring them. A human appearing out of nowhere at speed will terrify a horse.
  • While you might be keen to finish at speed, remember that other people might be visiting the countryside for a peaceful stroll – try not to disconcert them.


  • Even if there is a bin on site, take your litter home and recycle it.

Advice and support The British Schools Orienteering Association (www.bsoa.org) is dedicated to encouraging all forms

of schools orienteering (including activities on school sites or parks) by providing access to information, advice and support. The association runs incentive schemes for students and offers teachers orienteering competition models and map-making tips.

It sells orienteering equipment at discount prices for schools and colleges starting out, and provides a network of regional contacts. More than 500 schools and colleges are members of BSOA, and that number continues to rise.

The association sends around 40 young athletes to the World Schools Orienteering Championships and supports the establishment of school leagues and other inter-school competitions.
It was founded in 1995 by Peter Palmer (its first chairman) to re-energize the development of orienteering in the UK and introduce it into educational institutions, which were then mostly unfamiliar with cross-curricular sports. Palmer believed such activity challenged a generation increasingly constricted by society, and offered a great sense of achievement and improved self-belief.

Get involved

Make contact: your first stop is your regional development officer for British Orienteering, who can offer help and advice to teachers wanting to introduce orienteering. To find the contact closest to you, visit www.britishorienteering.org.uk/developing/development.php

Get trained: the BSOA recommends that teachers are trained to ensure their delivery of the sport meets the requirements of the appropriate national curriculum or the national competition framework.

Training is accredited by British Orienteering, which runs Teacher Orienteering courses Parts 1 and 2. See www.britishorienteering.org.uk for dates.

If you are part of a School Sports Partnership (SSP) and want to run an orienteering course for partners, you can keep the cost to a minimum by setting it up through your British Orienteering RDO.

Make the most of the BSOA: there are resources for teachers on the BSOA website, including step-by-step advice on commissioning an orienteering map of your school site.

Book ahead: the BSOA recommends Orienteering in the National Curriculum, Key Stages 1-3 and Orienteering in the National Curriculum, Key Stages 3-4 (Harvey Maps, £10.95 each, www.harveymaps.co.uk, or via the BSOA for a members’ discount). Both books are A4 size and fully illustrated. They offer advice on curriculum links and delivery of the key stages and contain attainment targets, lesson plans and exercises for the classroom and beyond.

British Orienteering publishes a free guide for teachers working with GCSE PE students, Guidelines for Orienteering in GCSE PE. Visit www.britishorienteering.org.uk to download.

A checklist to use while booking

Is this the first time your students have been orienteering?

  • Yes:
  • Let the provider know as this will influence the challenge set during the session.
  • Ask how long the session will run for (take travel time into consideration).
  • Ask what size of group the instructors are willing to work with – you don’t want any
  • pupils left out.
  • Try to see a copy of the map(s) that are to be used before the session.
  • Check whether the skill-based Step System will be followed.


  • Let the provider know as this will influence the level of challenge set.
  • Tell the provider any specific skills from the Step System you want your group to undertake
  • If your group is involved in the BSOA Explorer Challenge (see Incentives, page 13), ask whether the provider can offer accreditation of their log books.

Outside providers

The BSOA advises teachers who are new to orienteering to start by treating their students to a challenge offered by an outside provider. With equipment and maps supplied, the outside experience will prove less stressful and will offer invaluable pointers on hosting challenges closer to home. British Orienteering runs an accreditation scheme for providers. If your provider is accredited, this is what they should offer your group:

  • permanent staff who hold the minimum qualification of Instructor or above
  • maps specifically produced for orienteering
  • well planned sessions delivered at a level appropriate to your group.
  • a center that has been inspected by a member of the British Orienteering Federation.

However, do not immediately reject those centers without accreditation, applying for the scheme incurs costs and this may be the reason a center has so far opted out. Just be extra careful to check the above points thoroughly.

Also, some providers have orienteering listed on their Adventure Activities Licensing Authority (AALA) license, which means they can offer higher level sessions in more challenging terrains. Those who do not include orienteering on their AALA can still run basic orienteering sessions.

The age-related Step System devised by British Orienteering runs from Level 1 to 5+. Each level expects certain skills of the student, such as acting independently and reading symbols on a map. To download a breakdown of the system, visit www.britishorienteering.org.uk

Incentives for young orienteers

  • The BSOA Explorer Challenge

The Explorer Challenge is an award scheme which encourages students to embrace the great outdoors and put themselves and their skills to the test. It can be taken as part of the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme.

There are four stages to the scheme, with the number of checkpoints to be located increasing as the student progresses: from 10 checkpoints for the Acorn Certificate to 100 checkpoints for the Forest Award.

  • Color-coded badge scheme

Whether they’re competing at local or district level, orienteering students can earn the BSOA’s color-coded badges as they progress. To claim a badge, a student needs to have finished three events within 150% of the winning time or completed the course in the top 50% of participants (if that includes more people).

If your students want to start earning their stripes, contact your BSOA Regional Development Officer, details can be found at www.bsoa.org.

The world at his feet

Carl Edmonds may only be 14 but already he’s being touted as a future world champion in orienteering.

Carl is a Year 9 student at St Bernard’s Catholic High School in Barrow in Furness, Cumbria and a member of the Barrow and District Orienteering Club. He started orienteering in 2007 while a pupil at Holy Family Catholic Primary School, won the Barrow Schools Championships and later took bronze at the Year 9 boys British Schools Championship race.

Earlier in 2008, he was handpicked to compete with the English Schools Select Team and take part in the International School Sport Federation World Schools Championship in Orienteering (ISF WSCO). The five-strong team battled against other students from the likes of China and New Zealand, and was rarely out of the medal tables.

Carl’s coach, Fran Stone, believes her student’s success is only the beginning of a long orienteering career:

“Carl is very focused on his orienteering and totally committed,” says Stone. “He trains three to four times a week and goes with the North West Junior Orienteering Squad once a month for training weekends. He has a fantastic ability to gauge his running speed so he can still navigate at the same time.”

While he enjoys running, Carl prefers the challenge of map reading: “Anyone can run, but you can’t get good at orienteering if you can’t map read. I do lots of races and really enjoy competing. The events are over all kinds of terrain, from forests to fells to sand dunes, everything really.”

Young Leader Award
British Orienteering’s Young Leader Award for 14 to 19-year-olds, part of the government’s PE and School Sport Club Link (PESSCL) strategy, gives students a great incentive to exercise their orienteering and leadership skills to the maximum. It introduces young people to the sport, instructs them on how to assist at events and encourages sports leadership and volunteering.

Visit www.britishorienteering.org.uk for application forms and tutor packs.

Further information

British Orienteering Information on developing orienteering within your school, training for teachers, opportunities for students, news of events and details of clubs. Plus publicity materials, DVDs and books to buy online.

British Schools Orienteering Association
Discount orienteering equipment, teachers’ guides, resources including step-by-step printable instructions on mapping your school and student awards. Plus details of your nearest regional development officer.

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