Here in Michigan, it’s easy to fall in love with Earth’s landforms. From our natural peninsula and archipelagos to our dunes and sandstone cliffs, there’s certainly something here for everyone!
Of course, I’m not trying to say you should immediately pack up your classroom and take a trip to the Great Lakes, although that may be an interesting way to engage your upper elementary students. Instead, I’m pointing out that the beauty in Earth’s landforms is all around us… In fact, it can even be found in your own classroom!
Exploring the wonders of geology and the formation of Earth’s diverse landforms can be a fascinating journey for students, especially when you bring the intrigue to them. By engaging in creative hands-on activities, students can develop a deeper understanding of the geological processes that shape mountains, hills, plateaus, plains, and so much more!
Bringing your kiddos on a mountain hike is one method to explore Earth’s landforms, but if field trips aren’t an option for you, then what’s a teacher to do? No worries: just like my Earth’s systems blog post from a few weeks ago, I’ve come bearing several engaging, hands-on activities that align with NGSS—specifically, standard 5-ESS2. All you have to do is sit back and enjoy the ride, knowing that these lessons are sure to take your science students on a journey around Earth’s landforms that they won’t soon forget.
Now, let’s make like a mountain and rock it!
Engage with Earth’s Landforms Activities
1. Landforms Escape Room
Who doesn’t love escape rooms? The allure of mysteries and the excitement of finding new clues is sure to pique your students’ curiosity. There’s a reason why escape rooms have become so popular in recent times!
This geological escape room is designed to engage your upper elementary students in a hands-on, interactive learning experience where they solve geology-themed puzzles and challenges in order to “escape.” By working together to solve the challenge, students will develop teamwork skills, critical thinking, and, of course, geological knowledge.
For this activity, you’ll need lockboxes with combination locks (or just use cardboard boxes with the honor system!), geological maps, rock samples, diagrams, a timer or stopwatch, and geology-based puzzles and clues. These clues should be set up as sort of a scavenger hunt in a similar fashion to my ecosystems and biomes scavenger hunt. Essentially, come up with riddles or “Who Am I?” questions related to Earth’s landforms, such as “You’ll find me between the as the triangle-shaped connection between a river and the sea. Who am I?” Then, students will (hopefully) search for the delta landform somewhere in the room, revealing another clue, such as a combination number for a lock accompanied by yet another riddle to solve.
You can also include design tasks that require teamwork, such as assembling a large puzzle of a geological map or collaboratively arranging geological layers. Include challenges that encourage physical interaction, such as creating mountains out of clay and then eroding them away! Each solved puzzle, of course, should provide a piece of the code or key needed to unlock the next path of their adventure.
Ultimately, how you choose to set up your escape room is up to you! Once everything is set up, regale your students with an exciting narrative: they’ve been chosen as an elite team of scientists who must unlock the secrets of Earth’s landforms! Explain the rules of the activity, including what kiddos should do if they’re stuck. What kinds of hints will you offer? Students should be divided into small teams, so remind them to collaborate. Build those teamwork skills!
After teams have solved their puzzles and “escaped,” reconvene as a class for a group debriefing. Every group should share the puzzles they solved, the strategies they used, and what they learned about Earth’s geology. Classroom discussions are a must after these activities… It can’t be all fun and games! 😉
2. Rock Cycle Role Play
Anyone who knows me knows that I am low-key obsessed with all things rocks, including the rock cycle. There’s a reason my rock cycle causation cards were my very first created product! If I hadn’t become a teacher, a geologist would’ve been my career of choice.
But we aren’t here to talk about me. Instead, let’s discover how to make your kiddos love rocks and minerals just as much as I do with a rock cycle role play! With this activity, your elementary students will explore the role of the rock cycle and geology in the formation of various landforms such as mountains, hills, plateaus, and volcanoes.
In this role play, you’ll need a variety of cards (or small slips of paper) describing rock types and processes, such as sedimentary, igneous, metamorphic, erosion, melting, cooling, and so on. Divide your classroom up into groups and hand out the role cards to each student. Each group should work together to figure out how their unique roles interact and allowed time to research their assigned rock type or process.
Encourage groups to focus specifically on how their roles contribute to the formation of Earth’s landforms and prepare a short act that demonstrates their role. Once students have been given enough time, have each group act out their parts in front of the class! After each role play, discuss how the depicted processes or rock types affect Earth’s landforms.
As a bonus, challenge students to consider other factors such as time, climate, and geographical location in the formation of their landforms. How is each student’s role affected? Do some roles interact differently in a different climate? There are dozens of opportunities for student-led inquiry!
3. Geological Time Travelers
Time travel isn’t exactly the kind of science we’re after, but I’m willing to bet it’ll help us out regardless! For this activity, students will embark on a creative journey through geological eras, exploring the evolution of Earth’s landforms. Tectonic plates will form mountains and plateaus before their very eyes! …Well, if their imagination is willing, of course.
To help your students along on this sci-fi exploration, you’ll need time travel “passports” or “tickets,” story prompts related to different geological eras and specific landforms, art materials (such as clay or simple markers and paper) to create “artifacts,” and then whatever reference materials you choose to bring along for your kiddos.
Begin by distributing passports or tickets to your students. Each ticket should detail its own geological era as well as an associated landform, such as Precambrian and ancient mountains or Mesozoic and early plains. It may be helpful for you to go over the significance of different geological eras so students have an idea of what they’re getting into!
Once tickets are distributed, provide story prompts and your preferred reference materials to help students explore their assigned era and landform. Encourage them to research how their specific landform evolved during their era through the use of your materials and other academic resources, such as the National Geographic website—it’s always a win to build those technology skills!
When students seem to have grasped their landforms, it’s time to break out the arts and crafts. Provide materials for students to create physical artifacts that represent Earth’s landforms during their assigned era; for instance, they could create a clay model of a historic mountain range or a layered paper representation of sedimentary rock formations.
Once your science students have returned from the past, allow them to show off their artifacts to others, either in groups or as a whole class. Students should immerse themselves in their roles as time-travelling geologists sharing newfound artifacts with the world!
As always, encourage discussion among peers and as a class. In fact, you can even throw in some think-pair-share action with a side of student-led inquiry!
Regardless of how you choose to navigate your science classroom’s dive into geology and Earth’s landforms, I’m sure you’ll rock it. After all, that’s what geology is all about! Besides, adhering to NGSS doesn’t have to be as strict and droll as it may seem at first glance. There’s plenty of room for creativity to shine.
With these activities, your students may just come to love Earth’s landforms and geology as much as I do. Even if science isn’t their thing, they’ll at least be engaged and motivated throughout your science block! By nurturing their natural curiosity, you’re creating lifelong learners regardless of the subject. Standards and testing aside, that’s something to be proud of!
Now, go forth and rock your NGSS and Earth’s landforms units… But first, tell me about your favorite landform in the comments!