How Do Glaciers Change the Shape of the Land?

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SWBAT observe, diagram and note how glaciers can change the land using a model.

Big Idea

Glaciers have drastically changed and shaped our land for over thousands of years. But exactly how does this happen? Let's observe a model to help us understand.

Teacher Notes

Activity Description

The students will begin the lesson by watching a super short video clip from the Disney movie Ice Age.  Then they will model the movement of glaciers by using clay and a "glacial" ice cube filled with sand and pebbles.  They will observe, diagram and then write notes about what they have observed during this modeling.

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 shape the land.  In this lesson, they will be learning specifically about the movement of glaciers and how they shape the land.

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 hands-on process to model how glaciers play a role in shaping the land.  As part of the science practices, they will be obtaining and evaluating information.  As part of a cross-cutting concept, this lesson helps the children to understand that some things stay the same and others change.


  • ice cube tray--you only need one ice cube per group
  • sand and small pebbles (just a handful or two; I got mine from my sandbox and my driveway)
  • clay--1 stick per student group
  • paper towels (I just used the school ones)
  • rolling pin (having more than one is very helpful)
  • Glacier movement recording page--1 per student
  • glacier info sheet for science notebooks--1/2 per student

Advanced Prep

In advance, you need to prepare the ice cube "glaciers."  I just filled the bottom of an ice cube tray with the sand and small pebble mixture. I put the ice cube tray on a cookie sheet so I wouldn't spill it getting it into the freezer.  I figured my family would not appreciate sand in their ice cream. :)  Here is a photo of how the glaciers looked after freezing and a close-up photo.


Here is an informational website that will help give you valid insight of how glaciers have shaped the landscape.


5 minutes

To get the children engaged and get them in the right frame of reference of thinking about the Earth long ago, I choose to show them a cartoon video clip.  

Today we are going to go back 12 thousand years to the Ice Age to take a look at how glaciers move and how they change the land.  How many of you have ever watched the movie Ice Age?  Ice Age was a movie that takes place during ice age times.  Do you think the movie was fictional or informational?  The Ice Age really happened, but the movie is, of course, fictional.  I thought it would be fun to take a look at how the movie shows glaciers moving and compare it to how glaciers really move.  

I show the children a clip from the movie Ice Age.  It shows a character named Scrat who accidentally starts the Ice Age and puts glacier ice in motion. It's a short clip, only about a minute, and it thoroughly engages the children, getting their appetites whet for the next part of the lesson.


20 minutes

I divide the children into groups of three.  Since I wanted the children to work at their own tables, I simply divide them by table groups.  One person from each of the groups comes to the front table to get one stick of clay and a paper towel.  They also grab a Glacier movement recording page for each person in the team.  

First I show them how to make a model of the land.  

Take the clay and roll it into a ball.  Roll it back and forth to create a thick hot dog shape. Take the rolling pin and roll over the hot dog lengthwise so it has a long rectangular shape.  This will be a model of the land.  Place the land on the paper towel.  This will absorb any of the melting glacier that overflows on the side.

I give each partner group their very own glacier ice cube.  

Next you need to read the directions at the top of the page that I just gave you.  Then go ahead and follow those directions.  Look closely at what is happening and draw a diagram that shows what you notice.  Then write down your observations.  We will be doing a writing activity using this information, so the more detailed notes that you take will help you write this information.

By filling out this sheet, the children will be using one of the science practices, obtaining information.  They are also using models to help them understand a concept that is abstract for them.  

As the children are exploring and investigating, I walk around checking in on their progress (see student sample A and sample B).  The children are amazed and enlightened about what they are observing (see photo 1 and photo 2).  They can actually see why this process has happened.  I talk to the children to help them pull-out necessary information that helps them develop a conceptual understanding (see video clip).

  • What do you notice happening?
  • Can you see anything being left behind?  Why do you think that is happening?
  • What happens to the surface of the land?  How can you tell?
  • What would eventually happen to the rocks at the bottom of the glacier if you repeated this experiment for a long time?
  • How do you think this model helps you to understand what you are learning?

Asking these questions helps them understand modeling and help them connect that learning to the actual process.  It also helps them start to evaluate their observations and put them into a useable context.



25 minutes

I want to make sure the children understand glaciers and the impact of the movements changing the shape of the land.  We will be viewing a few websites and video clip which goes over that material.   

We visit this website called One Geology Kids.  It is a nice website that includes information that is digestible for second grade students.  On this page it shows all of the basic terms that help the children to understand about glacial movement.  You can click on each of the words to find out more information.  As part of the NGSS standard, the children only need to know the basics to determine if a glacier changes the land slowly or quickly.  Therefore I just stick to this main page and we go over the captions and the photos to glean meaning from them.  

I also have the children view this 4-minute video that shows a glaciologist that goes into a temporary ice cave to show people what a glacier is made from.  It is a nice connection since the glaciologist shows a section of the glacier that has sediment at the bottom (1:22-2:00), which looks very much like our ice cube glaciers.

Then we take a look at glacial movement itself.  On the same One Geology Kids website, we visit this page. It helps them to understand that part of the reason that glaciers are able to shape the land is because of its massive weight, which is paramount.  It also talks about how glaciers move very slowly, which is a key idea of this lesson.

To make a further connection to our model and what we have learned I wipe the rocks off and rinse of one of the group's piece of clay.  It reveals evidence of the changing landscape (see glacier land photo).  I walk around to each table to make sure the children are able to see these changes.

I ask these questions so they can make the connection between our modeling and what glaciers are like and how they have changed the land.

  • What changes do you notice?
  • Why do you think these changes happened?
  • What does this show us?


They should be able to tell me that there are large spaces left behind.  This shows how lakes are formed.  There are also many scratches, divots and other evidence that movement has occurred.  I show the students a diagram, that looks very similar to our clay "land." I use this model since it looks very similar our piece of clay after our model glaciers had passed over it.  We only look at the diagram, not all of the complicated wording, that models actual landforms.

By learning more about glaciers and their movement, the children work towards the science practice of understanding that some things change, like our landscape,  and some things do not.  

We will elaborate on these ideas in the next lesson, when we write about how the glacial movement has shaped the land.



10 minutes

I want to make sure the children understand scientific modeling as we move forward.  I want them to know how a model is useful, but also has its shortcomings.  So as we wrap the lesson up, I want the children to be aware of the differences between our model and actual glaciers.

Today we modeled glacier movement and saw how they changed the land.  How do glaciers change the land?  

Modeling this process helped us to understand it better.  Modeling is very helpful and useful.  But since a model is not exactly the same as the "real" thing, it has some things that are different.  For example, we could not have a real glacier in the room to show us how it moves.  So we used an ice cube, which is much, much smaller.  What are some other differences between our model and a glacier?

Part of the science practice of developing and using models is for the children to be able to distinguish between a model and the actual object, process and/or events that the model represents.  They should be able to compare the common features and differences.  So practicing this orally helps get them to that goal.

Some of the most important and relevant answers that we come up with are glaciers are made of snow, not frozen water; the ice is much, much thicker in relationship to the sediments at the bottom; glaciers don't move like an ice cube, but rather they are flowing rivers.

Then I have the children glue their finished notes in their science notebooks on the right side.  They glue the glacier info sheet on the left side.