Making a Landform Model

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SWBAT develop a model to represent shapes of landforms and bodies of water.

Big Idea

We can create a model of different types of water and landforms by using our plans as a guide.

Teacher Notes

Activity Description

The children first explore the concept of making models by using home-made dough to create landforms.   How and why people use models are then explained.  Then the children elaborate on this idea by creating their very own model island from their plans from this lesson.

NGSS/Common Core Connections

In the NGSS, one of the performance expectations is for the children to develop a model to represent the shapes and kinds of land and bodies of water in an area.  In the science practices, the children also must develop and use models.  This lesson will help them understand that process.


  • homemade salt dough (see advanced teacher prep)
  • blue plastic plates (mine are square ones--Solo brand)--This way there is no painting involved!
  • Landform Map Flags run on construction paper (basic set or advanced set)--1 set per student; I ran the plain flags on yellow.  In this way, the kids could write their own labels and less paper would be needed.
  • 1 toothpick for each flag times the number of students (varies depending on which flags you chose)
  • glue
  • brown tempera paint or food coloring

Advanced Teacher Prep

To minimize the work that needed to be done, I sent home a parent letter to have the parents make the dough at home and then send it in with their child.  I sent it home about a week in advance.  Having the parents make the dough at home works wonderfully.  It makes the task easier than doing all of the preparation all by yourself.  I had the parents divide the dough in half and only color one part green.  About half of the other part will have to be colored brown, but I figured most households would not have that color at home, so I chose to do that myself.  

So once the children started bringing in their dough, I colored most of the plain dough with brown tempera paint that we have as a school supply.  I didn't measure the amount, but rather dumped it right in the bag until it looked right.  I made sure the bag was well zipped and had students squish and mix it up right in the bag.  If more brown paint was needed, I just added more.  I left some of the dough plain for kids to use as snow on the mountain, sandy beaches or glaciers.



5 minutes

We start the lesson by reviewing the previous lesson and the tasks that we accomplished in this lesson.  

Today is going to be a great day!  Yesterday you were given the task of creating an island of your very own!  What were some of the steps that we took?

I want the children to be able to verbalize that they drew up a diagram of what they thought they wanted their island to look like.  They drew a basic shape for the island and then added water and landforms by creating symbols for each one.  Consciously stating the steps will help them remember the steps for utilization another time.

 One of the next steps is creating a model of your island.  A model is different from a plan since a model is 3-dimensional.  Have you ever heard of the word 3-dimensional?  Who can explain what it means?  Have you ever been to a 3-D movie?  How was it different from a regular movie?

Most kids have heard of the word 3-dimensional, but I have a few students in my room who struggle with language terms.  Sharing these conversations as an entire class helps the children who need some support with their language.  

We are going to be taking your plans and make them "come to life."  All you need is your imagination, a plan and a few supplies.  


10 minutes

As a warm-up for making their models, I have the children explore the idea of making a model of a specific landform out of dough.  I give each child their own bag of dough.  If a child did not bring in their own dough, I just have the person sitting next to them share theirs.  There certainly is enough to share.

I am going to give each of you a chance to explore the idea of making models from the dough.  So I would like you to get out a handful of dough.  When I tell you the name of a landform, I would like you to create it with your dough.

At this point, I try to not give the children too much information or guide them how it would be best to make the landforms.  I want them to explore this idea and discover it for themselves.

I go through each of the landforms and have the children experiment with making each one.  As they are making them we stop and talk about what they have done to make the landform.  I have the children look at how others have made their landforms.  After they make each landform I ask them such questions as follows below:

Why did you make your landform the way you did?  How is your landform the same as others?  How is it different?  What way do you think represents the landform the best?  

I am careful in our discussions not to let the children focus on who made it best, but rather the characteristics that the person utilized.



10 minutes

Next we have a brief discussion to explain the use of models.

Now that you have had some experience making models, what have you learned?

I want the children to be able to voice the idea that models can be made in different ways, but you want to make your model resemble, or look like, the object that it represents.   

Scientists use models everyday.  Models are the building blocks of science.  Almost everything in science is shown using models.  It can be a substitute for what you are studying.  Even though it is a "stand-in" for what you are trying to represent, it still should resemble, or be similar, to what it represents.

A globe is a physical model of the Earth.  It looks just like the Earth but it is much, much smaller.  Scientists use physical models to visualize and understand what they cannot observe directly.  Let's take a look at some different models.

I show them the super quick Making Models power point.  It just has just a few slides that explain some of the basics about models.  I wanted to point out some of the basics, but still need to reserve time for us to make our models.  

Next I take a deep breath, roll up my sleeves and get ready to dive into the land of dough!


20 minutes

The children already have their green dough, so we are ready to go.  I have the brown dough that I had the children mix, right at my table--ready for action.  I also have some bags of the plain dough for children to use for the snow on mountains, glaciers and sandy beaches.

I hand out the 7 toothpicks, a page of Landform Map Flags and the original island plans to the students. 

The first thing you need to do before you create your model is to make labels for each of your landforms.  Take a look at the landforms on your plan.  Then write each of the landform names on a flag.  

I demonstrate making the flag as I give the instructions.  In this way they have verbal and visual directions.

You need to write the name of one landform on each side of the flag.  Then you will fold the flag in half.  Unfold it and put glue on both sides.  Place a toothpick in the middle and put the sides together.

When the children are ready for the next step, I hand out the blue plates.  Since I had a parent helper that day, I had her write the children's names on the back of the plates with a Sharpie marker.  If you don't have help, you can either pass around markers and have the children write it themselves, or you could go around as the children are creating their flags.  If you don't have Sharpies, just write the names on masking tape and apply to the back. 

 The next thing you need to do is to create the model of your island.  Remember what we have learned about making models.  Your landforms should look like the real thing and the size of each of the landforms should be in proportion to the rest of the island.  You need to start with making the base of your island.  The best way to do this is to roll the green clay into a ball.  Then place the ball on your desk and push down on it.  Then work around the edges, molding the island to look like the one on your plan.  After you have a base, you may begin working on the rest of your island.

I give the students explicit directions on how to make the base because of past experience.  It is hard for the children to know where to start, so some just randomly start plopping clay down without regard for the final project.  This gives them a start, which will make them more successful.  

Then the children work on creating their models.  I walk around and check in as they are working. Click here  to see my busy scientists at work.

Here is a photo of a child's plan along with his model.  He did a great job on his plan, but needs to work on his proportional perspective. Notice on his plan how he shows several small mountains, but made just one big mountain on his model.


10 minutes

To wrap up the session, I ask the children what they have learned about landforms from this activity. The first girl talks about how show learned more about each of the landforms by making a model.  She gives the example of a misconception she had about a lake, but changed her thinking after creating it.  This boy explains his misconception and how he repaired his thinking about hills and mountains.  The next video clip just shows a general increase of understanding of the landforms.

Since we ran out of time, we explain our models to the class later.  Here is a girl explaining her model.  Notice how she explains the shape of her island.  So cute!