Classroom Activities on Plate Tectonics

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Teaching plate tectonics in the classroom can be fun for both the students and the teacher, so long as you approach it in the right way. Learn about classroom activities on plate tectonics with help from a science teacher and writer in this free video clip.

Part of the Video Series: Plate Tectonics
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My name is Ben Deeb. I'm a science teacher in Southern California with a background in science and geology. I'm going to talk about some activities you can do in your classroom to help your students learn about plate tectonics. Plate tectonics can be kind of an abstract concept that kids can't really get their hands on and see firsthand. One activity for teaching plate tectonics is to take a map of the plate boundaries around our planet. Now we have seven or eight main plates on the planet Earth. Most of them line up with our continents, but as you can see on this map, the continents actually fit on top of a larger plate. So on this map, you can see the outlines of the continents and the plates underneath them. Now these plates all meet, they're like a puzzle that the plates all meet at joints called plate boundaries. They're like a puzzle that goes over the entire Earth. They fit together. To help demonstrate this and how they move around, you can have kids take this map and cut it into small pieces. For example, here we have the Pacific plate and we have the North American plate. Once they're all cut up, you can have them work in groups to try to fit the pieces together. So you can see that the Pacific plate fits right in with the North American plate right there, and over time these plates actually move. So what's happening right now is the Pacific plate is moving this way, it's moving up, the North American plate is moving down, and so that is actually what causes Earthquakes, is that plate motion and those plates pushing against each other. Another activity you can do to demonstrate plate tectonics with your kids is get them up out of their chairs, get them active, and use that to help them understand the actual composition of the planet Earth. Now, behind me I have a picture of what the Earth looks like on the inside. You have the very inside of the Earth, it's called the core. The core is solid, it doesn't move a lot. Above that, we have the mantle. The mantle moves a little bit. It's like a ductile solid in a little bit of liquid, that's the magma, the liquid rocks that are very super heated that move around in there. And then on top you have the crust, and that's where those plates are. The plate boundaries are part of the crust, and they fit over the top of the mantle. Now to demonstrate this with your kids, you can ask them to all stand up, pick a few children to stand in the center. They will be the core, and they'll pretty much stand motionless there. Around them you'll have some slower-moving kids being the mantle that kind of circle around, up and back, around the core. Now that's called convection currents, when the mantle moves up and down inside the Earth. So you can have those kids kind of move around in there. And on the outside you'll have the crust, and so you want a few kids making up the crust that kind of, maybe they can link arms or something like that, and they can bump against each other like those plate boundaries do. So that could be a way to get them out of their seats and get it really engrained in them how the Earth is made up and how those plates move against each other. Another important thing to talk about when you're discussing plate tectonics is the differences in friction when plates meet. So sometimes you'll have plates that slide pretty smoothly against each other, and other times there will be a lot of friction where they'll be kind of stuck together and it will take a lot of, kind of, pressure, a lot of force for them to actually move. A good example of this is if you ask the students to take their hands like this and push them together lightly and rub them back and forth. Now that's pretty easy to do, you'll all notice that there's like a little bit of slipping maybe when they're moving their hands back and forth, and then you can ask them to push their hands together and do it really hard and if they push their hands together really hard and try to move them forward or backwards, it's not going to slide easily, you're going to have big slips like that. And those actually are kind of like the different earthquakes that we have. So in Southern California, the plate boundaries are a little more smooth, and so Southern California has pretty frequent, but smaller earthquakes as they move kind of like this, along, kind of slowly. Now if you look at Northern California, there's a lot more friction at the faults up there, so their earthquakes happen more infrequently, but when they do happen they're bigger jumps, and so they'll be more like that, more like when their hands were pressed together. So that can be a good way to demonstrate those properties to children with your hands. My name is Ben, and those were a few classroom activities on plate tectonics.

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