We might not all be outdoor adventurers, but we can all benefit from knowing how to read and understand a topographic map. These maps are designed to be an accurate representation of the area in a 2D form, and we can use them for directions, planning, and as a guide in case of an emergency.
Middle school students are old enough to learn the basics of earth science which include a lot of interesting facts and educational activities about the inner workings of the land we live on.
From earthquakes and landslides to mountains and valleys, here are 20 of our favorite authentic activities to improve your students' mapping skills.
1. DIY Contour Map
This interactive map activity can help your students understand the contour lines of mountains. We use these lines to indicate differences in elevation on a 2D surface. Help your students mold a mountain from clay/play dough, and draw the contour lines to demonstrate how tall and wide their mountain is.
Learn More: Education
2. Location by Triangulation
Being able to use a compass and topological features on a map to determine the position of something is an extremely useful life skill. This activity teaches students how to read a map and coordinates graph using a protractor and compass.
Learn More: Teach Engineering
3. Color Coding Elevation
Here is another creative activity for kids and teens to practice their spatial awareness and depict the difference between contour lines. The first step is to create a 3D model mountain using DIY salt dough. Show your students how to use a ruler to measure and section off the mountain so they can color code the elevation.
Learn More: Layers of Learning
4. Foam Paper Maps
Give your kids some experience building models with just a few art supplies! Foam paper is a great option to create space and distinction between the layers of your maps. Find a topographic map of one landform and help your students trace and cut the outline. From there they can trace and cut the contour lines until they have a colorful 3D version of the map!
Learn More: Instructables
5. Magnetic Field Demonstration
Magnets are an incredible substance that creates a field of electrical charge affecting different materials, especially metals. We can demonstrate how magnets interact with strong metals by doing simple experiments like this one.
Learn More: Super Magnete
6. Map Reading Worksheet
This worksheet can be an extension activity once your students have created their own three-dimensional model. These types of lesson plans can reiterate information students have already actively learned so they can begin to read and understand maps more easily.
Learn More: Education
7. Hands-On Topography
By hands-on, I really mean HANDS-ON! This fun and easy classroom project just needs a pen and your students' hands. Demonstrate how to draw contour lines on the back of their hands where the highest point is on the knuckles. When their hand is flat the drawing looks like a map, but when they make a fist they can see the elevation difference.
Learn More: Scouter Life
8. Contour Map Canvas
A truly creative art project your middle schoolers will get lost in. Inspire your students to design their own topography map by looking at examples from their area. Give them markers, crayons, cardboard, and a canvas to outline and build their one landform model.
Learn More: Crayola
9. Edible Landforms
10. 3D Interactive Topography Tray
If you're looking for another visual example to illustrate contour lines, this three-dimensional model is a good option. You can find or recycle some plastic tray tops and use markers to draw one elevation level on each tray, then stack them for an interactive learning experience!
Learn More: USGS
11. Geography Scavenger Hunt
Ready for a high-energy activity that will get your students out of their seats and working together to solve geography questions? Create your own scavenger hunt with maps of each continent and stations where student teams can rotate and try to answer all the questions the quickest!
Learn More: The Hunting Tonian
12. Sea Level Lesson Plan
When reading a map, it is important to know which landforms are above and below sea level. These details can be determined based on the map's coloring, line variation, and reference numbers. Teach your kids the various ways to read and follow sea levels on a map.
Learn More: NPS
13. What Topographers Do
This link has a very informative audio lesson along with a full lesson plan for introducing topography to your middle schoolers. Use the video as a Q&A to see your students' prior knowledge and what needs more attention.
Learn More: Study
14. Navigation Apps
There are a few free map reading applications available for smart devices. Ask your students to download your preferred app and create an inquiry-based activity for them to research and complete using the app.
Learn More: Sail Magazine
15. Salt and Clay Models
This project is for middle-level science classes. Kids can mix together salt clay and then use it to form geographical features of the map they chose. They will work together to turn their map into 3D, then present their work. These maps can then be used for future lab activities or displayed as interactive resources.
Learn More: Princeton Montessori
16. DIY Relief Models
It's time to help your students create some realistic-looking 3-D paper models of an imaginary location. The first step is to design and draw out the 2-D map. Next, students can use cardboard to make the layers for various landforms in the scene. Finally to bring their maps to life they need to use paints or markers.
Learn More: Instructables
17. Topographic Map Puzzle
Quiet class time can be spent putting together a personalized topographic puzzle of your area. You can type in your school's address and receive a puzzle of your local geography for your students to complete!
Learn More: Hammacher
18. Rice Krispies Maps
Geography can be messy and delicious! Whip us some rice krispies and bring small candies and treats for decoration. Have your students pick a state, country, or continent they want to model, and let their sticky fingers get creating!
Learn More: Organized Homeschooler
19. Online Map Activity Center
20. World Topography Maps
This is a great final project idea for your topography map section in geography class. Split your students into groups and give each group a continent to create a topography map of.
Learn More: Rich Center