How Are Mountains Made?

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SWBAT model and then explain the formation of a mountain.

Big Idea

We can use models to help us explain something that is hard to understand, like the formation of mountains. Luckily Milky Way is here to save the day!

Teacher Notes

Activity Description

The students will watch a 2 minute video which shows the formation of the Himalayan Mountains.  Then a discussion follows about how and why scientists use models.  The children will then use a Milky Way candy bar as a model.  They are given a set of directions to follow.  Then they explain what happened in the model to a turn and talk partner.  Then the teacher will explain, using a candy bar and then a set of stacked towels, how mountains are formed.  Then the teacher will read a book about the formation of mountains.  At the end of the lesson, the children will get to eat their "mountains."

NGSS/Common Core Connections

In the NGSS, the children are expected to use information from several sources to provide evidence that Earth events can occur quickly or slowly.  In order to do this, they need to have a basic knowledge of how events, such as mountain formation, occur.  In this lesson, they will be learning specifically about the formation of mountains.

Also as a science practice and part of the NGSS, the children are expected to understand and develop models.  In this lesson the children will be using a physical model, as Milky Way bar to represent the Earth's layers.


  • Milky Way bars--1 per student
  • plates or napkins to put candy bars on
  • plastic knife--1 for you to cut the tops of the candy bars
  • Milky Way Observations recording page
  • 3-4 dishtowels (If you do not have any, as an alternative, you could show this power point).

Additional resources:

  • PBS Kids--Plum Landing--This has 10 different videos about mountains; Most of the videos explore the types of plants and animals found there.  It also shows kids hiking up mountains.  

Literature Connection:


5 minutes

To engage the students, I have them watch a video that shows the 70 million years of the Himalayan Mountains being formed in less than 2 minutes!  It is incredible and very intriguing to the children.  It gets them ready for the lesson that is about to unfold.

You just watched one of the most famous mountain ranges being formed--the Himalayan Mountain Range.  Scientists believe that it took the mountains over 70 million years to form.  How do you think scientists filmed this?  Why couldn't they film the formation of a mountain?  If they didn't actually film this, how was it made?  Why?

I want the children to be thinking about how and why scientists use models.  This helps them build a basis for understanding of science practices of developing and building models.  Scientists use models in so many ways that it is a foundation that they need to learn about.



10 minutes

I have the students wash their hands before this activity.  I go around with a plastic knife to make a break in the top of the candy bar in the middle.  

Today you are going to be modeling plate tectonics with a Milky Way candy bar.  The candy bar is going to represent plates of the Earth.

I want the children to be aware that they are creating a model, but, at this point, I do not tell them any more information, since I want them to discover it on their own.

I have the children gently pull the candy bar apart about 1/2 inch or less (see photo).  I remind them to be careful not to pull it too far apart.  Then I have the children push the candy bar back together by firmly pushing on both sides of the candy bar (see photo).   To help them achieve the effect that I want, I have them squeeze both sides of the candy bar between their index finger and thumb (see video clip and making mountains photo).   Take a peek at how happy my kiddos were forming their mountains.  That adorable face could move mountains!

Now that you have modeled the plates moving, I want you to record your observations on this Milky Way Observations recording page.  You should write a simple sentence that tells what happened and also draw a quick sketch.

I have the children fill out their recording page after this after they have washed their hands so their papers are not full of chocolatey fingerprints. :)  I make sure to save these papers for the next lesson where they write about the process.  Click here for a student sample.

They should notice that when the two "plates" are squeezing together, that one plate goes underneath the other.  Both plates begin to crumble and then one rises higher than the other one.  Noting these observations will be an important part of understanding the process and then writing about it in the next lesson.  Since their procedural text writing will be done on the following day, it important to get their ideas down so they remember the process.



20 minutes

First we talk about how scientists use models.  I want the children to have a basic understanding of models, how they help us and how scientists use them.

Scientists use models to help them understand how things work in the world around us.  Scientists model how landforms are made, such as mountains, since we cannot actually see mountains form.  One reason we cannot watch this is because of the length of time it takes mountains to form.  Think about the video that we just watched about the Himalayan Mountains forming.  The video was only 2 minutes.  But how long did it say that scientists think that it actually took to form? (70 million years)

Today we modeled how mountains are formed by using a Milky Way candy bar.  What layer of Earth do you think the chocolate layer on the candy bar represented?  When you pulled the candy bar "plates" apart, you should have noticed some caramel sticking out.  What do you think that represented in our model?  

 Then I had you push the two plates back together. What did you notice was happening?  How did the chocolate crust look?  What happened to the candy bar?  What do you think this was modeling?

They will notice that the "plates" move apart and the carmel stretches between the halves.  This should cause the chocolate crust to buckle up, which creates a mountain.  Noting all of these changes will help them understand the process more completely.



10 minutes

Then I show the students yet another model of mountain formation.  Having the children understand that you can model the same information using different models also helps with their conceptual understanding.

I simply use a stack of different colored towels that are stacked up nicely on top of each other. See this power point for directions on how model this.  If you do not have a set of towels, as an alternative, you could show the power point to the children. 

Each of the towels represent a different layer of the crust and mantle.  As I push these layers together, watch what happens.  Can you explain it in words?

The children should note that the towels buckle up and form "mountains."  Then we watch a short 4 minute video that explains plate tectonics in a fun way.

In this video, you will see Billy Blue Hair explaining plate tectonics and how mountains are formed.  I want you to watch and see if you can identify models that are used in the video.

The video sums up what we have learned so far about plate tectonics.  It also ties in the idea that scientists use models to help them understand things that they cannot actually see (such as a pizza to represent the Earth).  Using videos in the classroom is very engaging to the children.  They listen well and learn things in a different way, which increases their learning.

During the children's snack time I read a book about the formation of mountains, called How Mountains are Made. This helps solidify the process of mountain formation.  They have learned about mountains using many different modalities, which should help them retain the information.



5 minutes

To end the lesson I have the children discuss the main idea of the lesson.  They will need to be able to write the process of how mountains are formed in the next lesson.  Verbally discussing this will help them understand the process more effectively and also it will help them recall the information when they need to use it in this lesson.

Can you explain how mountains are formed?  Please have this discussion with your turn and talk partner.

As the partners are discussing, I walk around to clarify any misconceptions.  I make my rounds to make sure everyone has understood the main formation process.