Plate Tectonics Activities for Kids

Instructor: Kimberly Elliott

Kimberly teaches college humanities and has a master's degree in humanities.

Understanding plate tectonics can be a tricky enterprise, but there are a number of fun activities that will help kids understand this fundamental geological science principle. Read on for ideas to bring plate tectonics to life!

Candy Bar Tectonics

This is a fun activity that helps students understand the fundamentals of shifting plates and how these shifts in the Earth's core affect the Earth's crust. Give each child a candy bar with multi-layers (nougat, caramel, cookie, etc.) that represent the layers of the Earth. After unwrapping the candy bars, have them use a plastic knife to make small cracks in the chocolate exterior. These cracks illustrate fault lines in the Earth's crust. Then, have them do the following manipulations to their candy bar:

  • Pull the ends apart to represent tension on the Earth's plates.
  • Push the ends together to represent compression of the Earth's plates.
  • Move the two ends in opposite directions to represent the shearing of the Earth's plates.

Have children note the changes that occur in the chocolate along the fault lines to understand how shifts in the Earth's plates affect the surface of the Earth. Use this activity as an introduction to this chapter on understanding plate tectonics. The lessons in this chapter will allow your students to get a better understanding of this scientific concept. Let them gauge their knowledge with the short quizzes at the end of each lesson and the chapter exam.

Graham Cracker Tectonics

This is another fun activity with a sweet treat reward at the end. Give each student a paper plate covered in frosting and several graham cracker squares. The graham cracker represents the Earth's crust, divided into plates; and the frosting represents the mantle within the Earth's core. Have them place two cracker squares in the frosting and follow the guidelines below to recreate four plate movements showing the effect of each on the Earth's crust.

  • To recreate the transform boundary, place the two crackers together and then slide them back and forth against each other. Note the sound and the feeling that resonates through the crackers. This movement simulates what occurs along fault lines. When enough pressure builds up along fault lines, an earthquake may occur.
  • To recreate the divergent boundary, have students press lightly on the crackers while slowly pulling them apart. Notice how the space left by separating the crackers begins to fill with frosting. This simulates how the movement of plates creates underwater lava flows, eventually leading to a buildup of lava and the creation of new islands.
  • To recreate the convergent boundary, dip one edge of each cracker in water, then return to the plate. Have students gently push the crackers together and have them note how the soft edges begin to push upward. This simulates the formation of mountain ranges, through a shifting of the Earth's plates.
  • To recreate a subduction zone, start with two fresh crackers. Tap some small holes in one and place them in the frosting on the plate. Have students slowly push the crackers together so that the one with the holes is above the other one. They should notice frosting beginning to seep up through the holes you made; the cracker may even begin to fracture in that area. This represents how volcanoes form.

To understand plate tectonics in more depth, your students may enjoy this lesson on the theory of tectonic plates. In this lesson, the earth is compared to a S'mores casserole to help young children understand the layers of the earth and tectonic plates. You can also use this lesson titled What is Plate Tectonics? to brush up on your own knowledge of this topic.

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