Continental Drift Lesson for Kids: Theory & Facts

Instructor: Patrick Zedrow

Patrick has taught intermediate science, language arts, and technology. He has a master's degree in educational technology.

Can you imagine what the world would be like if all of our continents were placed together as one huge supercontinent? This idea is more real than you may realize. This lesson is about the theory of continental drift and evidence to support the idea.

The Earth as a Jigsaw Puzzle

Have you ever put together a jigsaw puzzle? The pieces fit so nicely together. Let's compare this to the Earth. Imagine that the Earth's continents are all puzzle pieces. Can you notice any that would fit together like a puzzle?

For many years, scientists have noticed this possibility. Then, in the early 1900s, scientists came up with a possible answer to why this might be so: the theory of continental drift. The idea behind continental drift is that the Earth's continents are constantly drifting away from each other, and they have been doing so for billions of years. In other words, the continents have not always been in the places they are right now, and they will all be different places on the globe millions of years from now!

This timeline of maps shows the drifting of the continents in last 250 million years. Scientists think that at one time, the continents were all much closer together.
map of pangea changing to ice age

How Does Continental Drift Work?

To understand continental drift, you must know how the Earth is made up. We know that the Earth is made of rock. But inside the Earth, the temperatures are so hot that the rock is melted, almost like a liquid ball. The outermost rigid layer of the Earth is called the crust; we are standing on it right now. This layer is cool and hard compared to the Earth's interior.

The crust is made of up of many sections called tectonic plates. Our continents are located on these plates. These plates are always moving around. But don't worry, it's only about an inch a year. Imagine a swimming pool packed with sunbathers on rafts. The water in the pool is liquid, and the rafts they are floating on are firm and drifting slowly. This is similar to how tectonic plates drift on top of a softer, liquid layer of the Earth.

The crust of the Earth is made of about a dozen tectonic plates, which are always moving around.
image of tectonic plates

What's the Evidence?

As mentioned before, you may notice similar coastlines and outer shapes of continents which might give you clues of how they once fit together. For example, Africa and South America look like they could snap together like jigsaw puzzle pieces. This evidence was perhaps what sparked the continental drift theory, but there are other pieces of evidence as well.

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