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Tectonic Plates Lesson for Kids: Definition, Theory & Facts

Instructor: Amanda Kramer

Amanda (Mandie) has taught middle school science and geography, as well as 3rd and 5th grade. She recently obtained a masters degree in instructional technology.

Ever wonder how breath-taking mountains, trembling earthquakes, and exploding volcanoes are formed? The answer is plate tectonics! This lesson takes you deep into the Earth to introduce the concept of plate tectonics and how this theory plays such an important part in the world of geology.

Take a minute and think of your favorite puzzle. Better yet…have you ever built a 3-D puzzle? I want you to imagine a 3-D puzzle of the Earth made up of different sized pieces. Do you have that imaginary puzzle in your mind? You have just visualized your first concept of plate tectonics!

Layers of the Earth

Before understanding the entire theory of plate tectonics, we need to take a look at the different layers of the Earth. The Earth is made of of three generic layers: the outside is called the crust, below the crust is the mantle, followed by the innermost core.

An Illustrated Inside Look at the Layers of the Earth
Figure1

The crust is just how it sounds: a rigid, cool layer, very much like the crust of your favorite pie! Just like the pie may have a nice, warm, gooey inside, the Earth's crust floats on top of a layer similar to that of the pie. This layer is made up of hot, partially melted rock and is called the mantle. The melted rock in the mantle is constantly moving underneath the crust because of uneven heating, or convection currents. The core is the innermost layer that's extremely hot and is the energy source for the uneven heating of the mantle's convection movement.

A Diagram Illustrating the Idea of Mantle Convection Currents
figure2

Let's get back to visualizing the outer layer of the crust. This is a solid, rigid layer that is broken up into puzzle pieces that float on an unstable molten layer of the mantle. The idea that these different 'puzzle pieces,' called tectonic plates, are constantly moving and changing the surface of our Earth is a simplified version of the theory of plate tectonics.

15 Main Tectonic Plates and their General Direction of Movement
figure 3

The Plate Tectonics Theory

The theory of plate tectonics is one of the most important theories in the history of Earth science because it gives reasoning to what causes earthquakes, volcanoes, and the ever-changing surface of our planet! Innovative technology in the 1950s allowed scientists to use sonar (sound waves) to capture an image of the bottom of the ocean.

Before this technology, most people assumed that the bottom of the ocean was completely flat and smooth, much like the bottom of a swimming pool. Once scientists were able to see what it really was like, there were astonished! They saw mountains, valleys, ridges, trenches, and volcanoes, all underneath the water!

Modern Day Sonar Image of Underwater Landslides from an Earthquake
Figure 4

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