How to Make a Topographic Map Activity

2.6 based on 10 ratings
Updated on Nov 5, 2013

Maps are a big part of the fourth grade social studies curriculum, but maps in a textbook can seem boring and hard to conceptualize for many students. Learning how to make a topographic map is a great way to show kids how three-dimensional objects can be represented on a two-dimensional page.

What You Need:

  • Modeling clay
  • Sharp paring knife
  • Paper
  • Pencil

What You Do:

  1. Ask your child to shape his own mountain out of the modeling clay. Encourage him to make the mountain an interesting shape, rather than perfectly symmetrical.
  2. Once finished, take the pencil and push two holes in the top of mountain all the way down to the bottom. Then, use the pencil to make horizontal markings on the clay from top to bottom about one inch apart.
  3. Assisting your child with the paring knife, cut the top most slice of the mountain. Go slowly and carefully so as not to smoosh your mountain!
  4. Put the first slice on your piece of paper, and have your child trace around it. Then color where the two holes in the clay appear on the paper. Place the first slice aside.
  5. Now cut your second slice and again trace on the paper. Be sure to line up the holes in the clay with the holes on the paper. Put the second slice aside. Repeat with the rest of your slices.
  6. Now have your child put his mountain back together again, and compare the model with his topographic representation. Does the map look like his mountain? Can he find the steepest side? The most gradual slope? The highest point?
  7. Discuss with your child why a topo map is a useful tool.

What's Going On?

While modeling clay is usually endless fun all by itself, there's also important lifetime learning here.  Maps provide abstract representation of all the earth's surfaces, and they'll show up in textbooks, classrooms, and all sorts of newspapers and magazines for years to come.  With practice, your child will become fully comfortable with maps of all kinds—and may even ask to climb a mountain or two!

Chris McAllister spent nine years teaching fourth and fifth graders in two metro Atlanta school systems. He challenged his students with technology-based projects and was recognized as the first-ever Outstanding Technology-Integrating Teacher of the Year for Shoal Creek Elementary.

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