8 Engaging Natural Disasters Activities

Let’s get this out of the way: natural disasters are not explicitly required within the Next Generation Science Standards. Regardless, they are still extremely important to teach in your upper elementary science classroom!

Natural disasters as a unit often align with other standards, such as plate tectonics and weather, and it also provides a plethora of opportunities to develop a stronger scientific background, develop critical thinking skills, and, of course, providing students with ways to mitigate and respond to natural disasters. This is important everywhere, too, not just in hurricane-prone areas; every location on Earth is susceptible to some kind of natural disaster, whether tornado or flood or drought!

Besides, natural disasters are simply engaging by design. They’re action-packed and easy to grab student attention with. And, as an added bonus, natural disasters lend themselves well to plenty of hands-on activities that are bound to keep student interest high.

Now, we have eight natural disasters to get through: earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, droughts, and landslides. That’s quite a list, so let’s not waste any time!

Natural disasters are not explicitly required within the NGSS, but they are still extremely important to teach in your upper elementary science classroom! Check out these eight engaging activities.

8 Activities for Teaching Natural Disasters

Earthquakes: Shake Table Experiment

Depending on the order you teach your science curriculum, your kiddos may have already encountered earthquakes and all their power; after all, earthquakes are often tied into the Earth science unit on plate tectonics. I, myself, cover earthquakes (and volcanoes!) in my Catch Shifty Crust science center rotations—you can find more information in this blog post

Regardless, earthquakes are a force worth repeating in your unit on natural disasters. Earthquakes are defined as a “sudden and violent shaking of the ground, sometimes causing great destruction, as a result of movements within the Earth’s crust or volcanic action.” Let’s see… How many scary words is that? Violent shaking, great destruction, volcanic action… Not to mention movements within Earth’s crust. It’s clear from the get-go that earthquakes are a very serious matter!

So how can you help your upper elementary science students see just how important it is to be prepared for earthquakes, especially if you live in an area prone to these natural disasters? Well… It’s time to shake some cities! 

Oh, no, not literally. Let’s not cause any destruction!

For this activity, students can work in groups or partners to conduct a “shake table” experiment, similar to the earthquake simulation I outlined in this blog post. Differently from that activity, however, every group should be provided with just one small foil pan filled with soil, as well as a variety of craft materials, such as craft sticks, clay, Styrofoam blocks, Legos, or even marshmallows!

To get things shaking, students will create “structures” out of their craft materials and plant them in the soil, one at a time. Then, students should simulate earthquakes of varying magnitudes by (SAFELY) shaking their desks. It’s worth noting that you may want to emphasize that part… You don’t want dirt and debris flying everywhere, no matter how realistic that would be for a real-world earthquake!

Students should observe how different structures respond to the shaking. How well does a craft stick house stand up to the shaking? What about the Legos? These observations should lead into a discussion on the degrees of severity of earthquakes (the Richter scale) as well as a brainstorming session on earthquake-resistant designs in the real world. 

Volcanoes: The Classic Model Volcano

If you’ve touched on earthquakes in the classroom already, then there’s no doubt that volcanoes have come up, too; after all, these two natural disasters tend to go hand-in-hand… Or should I say, plate-in-plate? Or plate-on-plate? Maybe? No? 

Well, anyway, volcanoes are often taught right alongside earthquakes, usually when focusing on the cause and effect of plate tectonics. Volcanoes are practically the poster child of Earth’s changing surface—when the Earth’s crust moves around, volcanoes start springing up all over!

Still, volcanoes are not something to be taken lightly. Volcanoes are natural disasters for a reason. They erupt with incredible force straight out of Earth’s mantle! As defined by Oxford Languages, volcanoes are “a mountain or hill, typically conical, having a crater or vent through which lava, rock fragments, hot vapor, and gas are being or have been erupted from the Earth’s crust.” 

Okay, so volcanoes are important. But how can you help your kiddos see that? Well, you could always play it safe with my Volcanoes Science Investigation Booklet, but that’s definitely not as fun as, say, making an entire volcano!

Of course, the investigation booklet is a great way to explore volcanoes, too!

Yep, that’s right. We’re pulling out the tried-and-true volcano experiment. If it isn’t broken, then don’t fix it, right? It’s time for creating a model volcano! 

This activity is one that I recommend doing yourself and allowing students to observe. While the ingredients in a model volcano are not harmful by any means, things can get messy. Too many volcanoes erupting at once is NOT ideal, even if the volcanoes are small and harmless!

To get started, you’ll need a plastic bottle (like an empty 2 liter soda bottle) or even clay shaped into a mountain if you want to go all-in. It’s also a good idea to work on top of a baking sheet or some other container that will catch all the “magma.”

Use a funnel to fill the bottle about two-thirds of the way with warm water and a few drops of red food coloring. Then, add several (approximately five) drops of dish soap and two tablespoons of baking soda to the water. 

Before you add the vinegar, make sure you’re wearing eye protection and your kiddos are standing back. Again, these ingredients are harmless, but no one wants to be sprayed, and you definitely don’t want your face in the line of fire! 

Once you’re ready, remove the funnel and add two cups of white vinegar to your baking soda mixture. The learning will be immediate and explosive! 

After the mini eruption, discuss what happened with your students. Make sure to explain that while this “volcano” erupted due to a chemical reaction, real volcanoes erupt as a result of pressure building up underneath Earth’s crust. In addition, hot lava exploding is much more dangerous than vinegar and baking soda.

Hurricanes: DIY Hurricane Simulator

Depending on how in-depth your weather unit goes, you may have touched on hurricanes already. For instance, my Weather Detectives Vocabulary Game covers hurricanes, but that may not always be the case. Regardless, hurricanes are definitely something to discuss during natural disasters! 

Hurricanes have a relatively simple definition: “a storm with a violent wind, in particular a tropical cyclone.” Still, don’t let the short description fool you; hurricanes are natural disasters, and they come bearing plenty more destruction than normal winds would cause. 

To help students comprehend how these natural disasters are formed, you’ll guide them through a DIY hurricane simulator. This is another activity that I feel is best done by you personally, just because it involves a decent amount of water, although you can always give students a turn with the model you end up creating! 

For this simulation, fill a large, clear container with water and add a few drops of blue food coloring to represent the ocean, reminding students that hurricanes are oceanic events. If possible, I recommend using a wide circular container, like a deep mixing bowl.

Once you have your “ocean,” make a show out of trying to blow the water. Surely the water will move as you blow on it, but it won’t be nearly strong enough to cause the water to spin rapidly. Invite students up to try to blow the water into a strong swirling cycle!

Eventually, it will become clear that these “normal winds” won’t be causing any natural disasters. To get your hurricane going, you’ll have to make even stronger winds… Time to pull out the hair dryer! 

No, seriously. Use a hair dryer to blow air over the surface of the water, aiming at one side of the container to cause the water to spin in swirling patterns similar to a hurricane. I would caution against allowing students to use the hair dryer, as there’s a good chance of water flying everywhere, but you’re welcome to give it a go if your kiddos are responsible enough!

Regardless, once your students are satisfied with this model, convene to discuss the formation and characteristics of hurricanes while observing the simulated storm. To really drive home the point of hurricanes being natural disasters, give kiddos the raw numbers in terms of wind speed. Depending on your hair dryer, you’re likely looking at about 22 MPH; meanwhile, according to the National Hurricane Center, hurricanes start at 74 MPH for Category 1. The strongest hurricanes fall under Category 5, which start at a whopping 157 MPH. To really blow their minds (no pun intended), tell them about Hurricane Patricia, whose sustained wind speeds got up to an incredible 215 MPH!

Oh, and as a side note, the NHC page linked above has a super cool graphic of what various wind speeds look like. I definitely recommend showing that one to your kiddos! It’s a great way to visualize the impact of natural disasters.

Tornadoes: Tornado in a Jar

Tornadoes are relatively common as far as natural disasters go, especially here in the Midwest. They’re like hurricanes, but with much less water being tossed about. Of course, less water means less weight, which means tornado winds are often even stronger and faster than hurricanes. Still, tornadoes generally have shorter lifespans and have a smaller radius than hurricanes.

But natural disasters aren’t a competition! Both hurricanes and tornadoes can be extremely dangerous in their own ways. Tornadoes are often accompanied by thunderstorms, too, or other severe weather such as hail, as noted in the definition: “a mobile, destructive vortex of violently rotating winds having the appearance of a funnel-shaped cloud and advancing beneath a large storm system.”

Okay, scary, sure, but… Kind of hard to visualize! Well, maybe not difficult for those of us who’ve seen a few tornadoes in our time, but it may be challenging for your students. To fully grasp natural disasters, help your kiddos bring these concepts to a more concrete level by showing them a tornado… Safely, of course!

To make a tornado, we’re going to use another classic activity: tornado in a jar. To start, fill a clear jar or soda bottle (the 2 liter bottles work best) and add a few drops of dish soap and glitter to represent the debris that often gets swept up by a tornado. Secure the lid tightly, then swirl the jar or bottle in a circular rotation to create a vortex. 

This activity is relatively simple, so it’s easy enough for every student to create their own personal tornado to observe. Of course, a simple activity means there’s more time for discussion! 

Remind students that, while hurricanes form above the ocean and thus pull in a lot of moisture, tornadoes are generally much drier, though they’re often partnered up with a bit of rain. Ask students to brainstorm other differences and similarities between these two natural disasters, then go over appropriate safety measures.

Floods: Use a Floodplain Model

I’m starting to think natural disasters are all either wind, water, or a combination of both! Oh, and earth itself, too… And I guess fire sometimes… 

I know, I’m making huge scientific discoveries over here.

Nonetheless, it’s time to talk about floods! These natural disasters may seem a bit more reserved than the explosive power of a volcano or the high-powered winds of a tornado, but floods are natural disasters in their own right. A flood is “an overflowing of a large amount of water beyond its normal confines, especially over what is normally dry land.” Now, what’s so special about dry land?

Well, for starters, that’s usually where we build our cities! 

But I don’t need to lecture you about the dangers of floods. That’s your job! Let’s check out how you can demonstrate floods to your students.

To explore floods, have students work in partners to create miniature floodplains. Each set of students will need a shallow container, like a rectangular tin foil pan, filled with sand or soil. Then, students will form a “river” by creating a channel lengthwise through their soil and pouring water (carefully) into it. The water should not overflow!

Once their river is stable, have students plant small houses (like Monopoly houses) and other structures they can think of along the banks of the “river.” Once everything is set up, have students simulate heavy rainfall by pouring water “upstream.” 

How does the floodplain respond? What happens to the structures on the bank of the river? Where does all the excess water go? Even if the houses aren’t immediately washed away by the flood, students should notice that the soil “foundation” of the houses is now soggy and crumbly. In the real world, this soil would not hold up a house very well at all!

Wildfires: Fire Triangle Demonstration 

Okay, I’ll be real: I do not think you should demonstrate a wildfire in your classroom. I know, bold take, right? Regardless, wildfires are natural disasters, so they’re on the list. 

First, let’s define wildfires: “a large, destructive fire that spreads quickly over woodland or brush.” Yikes! Even for students who live in areas where these natural disasters aren’t common, it’s immediately clear that wildfires are serious.

Because it simply isn’t feasible to demonstrate these natural disasters, let’s go with something much safer for your classroom: a candle! While candles don’t exude anywhere close to the amount of destruction a wildfire does, they still follow the same three tenets of the fire triangle.

For this demonstration, first discuss the components of the fire triangle—heat, fuel, and oxygen—and how they contribute to wildfires. Consider the usual setting of a wildfire; generally, it’s a dry forest, such as those in California. How does the fire triangle fit in? 

Well, heat can come from the general temperature of the area, but a lot of times, the triggering heat in a wildfire comes from an external source like a lightning bolt or even a human cause like an unattended campfire. Then, there’s fuel, which doesn’t just refer to gasoline—fuel can take the form of a flammable liquid, yes, but it also can be anything that catches fire. Usually, this is forest debris like dry leaves and dead wood—note that these materials have to be very dry, such as during a period of drought!

Finally, there’s oxygen. That one is exactly as simple as it sounds; the air around us contains approximately 21% oxygen! 

Wildfires rely on the fire triangle to ignite and continue burning, and so does every other fire, such as the flame on the candle. To demonstrate the fire triangle, use a candle to SAFELY show each component. I recommend using a candle with a matching lid, and you should always have plenty of water on-hand to be on the safe side.

Before lighting it, show the candle to your students. Ask them to point out the three sides of the fire triangle. Oxygen is easy! But where is the heat? It will come from the match. What about the fuel? In this case, the fuel is the flammable wick.

Finally, light the candle. Ask students how they would put out the candle. There are several ways: first, most commonly, you can blow out the candle, but which side of the fire triangle is this? It can be heat, as your rapid rush of wind is usually strong enough to quickly cool down the wick, and it can also be fuel as the combustible wax vapors are blown away from the fire.

You can also put out the candle with a bit of water. This will also cool down the wick, removing the “heat” component, in addition to removing “oxygen.” Water will suffocate the flame, preventing it from accessing the oxygen in the air that it needs to stay alight.

Lastly, you can put the lid on the candle to extinguish the flame. Show students this method and ask them to explain what’s happening! They should come to the conclusion that the flame is using up all the oxygen inside the jar, and because the jar is now sealed, there is no new oxygen coming in. When one side of the fire triangle is taken away, there can be no fire!

Okay, but that’s just a single candle flame. How does that compare to a raging wildfire? That’s a great brainstorming question! Ask students if any of these methods can be applied to these natural disasters. While you can’t necessarily put a lid on a forest to starve it of oxygen, many firefighters use a flame-retardant powder that functions the same way. 

Of course, water is a good strategy, too, but it can be challenging to spray water over an entire forest!

Droughts: Water Conservation Challenge

After wracking my brain to come up with an engaging activity to demonstrate droughts in your classroom, I finally realized: what better way to emulate these natural disasters than by pretending you’re caught in one? Well, safely, I mean. And, besides, Earth Day was just last week, so I figure it’s a great time to explore water conservation regardless!

Now, droughts may be less in-your-face and imminent than other natural disasters, but that doesn’t mean they’re any less serious. Droughts are defined as “a prolonged period of abnormally low rainfall, leading to a shortage of water.” In case you haven’t gone over your biology unit yet, it’s important to note that living things need water, and lots of it!

Droughts often make students think of deserts, but it’s important to be aware of the differences. Desert organisms, like cacti and camels, have specific adaptations that help them survive in a harsh, water-less environment. In other words, they’re MADE for living on very little water!

On the other hand, humans who have built cities in biomes where water is plentiful, and the creatures that live alongside us here, are not adapted to a reduced-water lifestyle. For instance, those of us living in Michigan would be in for a drastic lifestyle change if we suddenly entered into a period of drought.

Droughts are especially detrimental for biomes that we use to raise crops—temperate deciduous forests and grasslands. These biomes are absolutely reliant on their water sources, such as rivers and streams, and would be in shambles if their water simply vanished!

Okay, I’m getting a bit ranty, here. Obviously, droughts are natural disasters, which means they’re dangerous! The best way to demonstrate droughts to your students is by showing them exactly how impactful these natural disasters are.

For this activity, you’ll engage students in a water conservation challenge where they track their water usage at home or at school over a week. Then, discuss the importance of water conservation during droughts and brainstorm ways to reduce water consumption… Then challenge students to actually execute their ideas! 

After another week, compare numbers again to see how much has changed. Was it difficult to use less water? Were they surprised by how much water they ended up using? In what parts of their lives do they take water for granted, like doing laundry?

Obviously, you can’t simulate a real drought in your classroom; that might be against the Geneva convention. Still, there are ways to help your students fully comprehend the impact of these dry natural disasters.

Landslides: Slippery Slope Experiment

Landslides, like all natural disasters can be scary. Thankfully, I’m blessed enough to live somewhere where the hills aren’t too steep, so I’ve never witnessed the true force of these natural disasters! Regardless, landslides are a force to be reckoned with. Landslides are defined as “the sliding down of a mass of earth or rock from a mountain or cliff,” a definition that’s covered in my Earth Changes Task Cards

Like other natural disasters, landslides have certain “triggers.” They aren’t random! Before launching into this activity, discuss as a class what the more common causes of landslides are.

Then… It’s activity time! Students will work in groups to create slippery slopes. Each group will need a “slope,” which can be any long flat object. I recommend using plastic, as there will be water involved! A really cheap, useful option are toy race car tracks, like these

Every group should also come up with a way to prop their slopes up on one end, such as with textbooks, but they should be careful not to position them in a way where they may get wet from the spray bottle. Oh, did I mention there’s a spray bottle? 😉

Once a gentle incline is created, students should cover the slope with a thin layer of sand, gravel, soil, or rocks. Then, have them place various objects such as toy cars or small houses at different points along the slope to represent real-world structures.

Now, there are a few variables that groups can adjust here. Students can gradually increase the angle of the slope or even introduce “rainfall” with a spray bottle… Just make sure things don’t get too out-of-hand. Though both are natural disasters, this activity is about landslides, not floods!

Students should observe how the materials respond to changes in slope and “rainfall.” Discuss as a class the factors that trigger landslides. What can they determine about the importance of land planning? What could they do to prevent a landslide from occurring? That’s a key question, if you think about it—natural disasters will always happen, so we must do what we can to prevent as much damage as possible.

When it comes to natural disasters, it sometimes feels like there isn’t much we can do. However, by promoting critical thinking, students will find that there are solutions to any problem presented to them.

Once you feel your kiddos have learned all they can about natural disasters, supplement their activities with my Natural Disasters Investigation Booklet. With this resource, students will cut out the name of each described disaster and glue it in its place and can even write in their own facts, making it perfect for checking for understanding. It even comes with reading passages to boot!

Natural disasters may not be explicitly required by the NGSS, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be covered. It’s practically guaranteed that everyone will encounter natural disasters at some point in their lives, so it’s important that students understand how they work as well as proper safety procedures!

Besides, natural disasters can be exciting to learn about with their plethora of hands-on opportunities. If you have a chance to promote engagement and interest in the science classroom, you should always jump on it, right?!

Of course, the activities listed here are by no means exhaustive. What other natural disaster activities do you like to use in your classroom? Let me know in the comments, and don’t forget to sign up for my email list, too!


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