Earth Science Strategies, #1: Using Models

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Picking the Right Earth Science Strategies for the Very Young

Have you ever tried to teach about something vast, to little children who think their dad is huge? Or have you ever tried to explain why we have seasons, or night and day, to a five-year old?

Often, our classroom resources don’t help us. They are often written by science experts who work with older students. So, the earth science strategies and materials we are given in these lessons are ones meant for big kids. Furthermore, it seems that they simply water down the concepts, or take away the “hard” ideas, for preschool and kindergarten …  And what we have left isn’t what we know our kids can learn!

Beyond Rocks and Minerals: Big Ideas for Small People

What SHOULD little ones know about the Earth’s surface?

By the end of kindergarten, children should understand the following big earth science ideas:

  • Systems in the natural world have parts that work together;
  • Models are used to represent relationships in the natural world.

In this post, you will learn two earth science strategies that can help you teach these big earth science ideas, to even the littlest Einstein:

  1. Using models of the Earth and its features;
  2. Working with hands-on materials to explore the structure of the Earth.

By including carefully chosen classroom materials and using models of big ideas, you can teach big earth science ideas in an easy-to-understand and age-appropriate way. earth science strategies

Using models makes understanding huge things – like mountain ranges – easier for young children. {Photo credit: (c) Karyn Christner, 2007 via Creative Commons}

What are Models?

A model is something that is used to explain an important idea or process, especially if it is very abstract or hard to see. It might be a physical model (such as a scale model of a monument or a diagram of a plant cell. But it could also be numerical (such as the equation length x width x height = volume), or verbal (“I before e, except after c”). Today we will be focusing on physical models.

Earth science strategies that include the use of models help young children learn about the Earth’s systems. First of all, they can represent something that is otherwise hard to imagine. In earth science, where we are teaching about huge things (planets, solar systems, stars), this is extremely important. Second, models of these things help children see how the parts work together in a system. Furthermore, a child who can physically move the parts of a model benefits even more.

What is NOT a Model?

Many people confuse replicas with models. A replica is just a copy (usually miniature) of another object. Kids playing with plastic animals in a sensory table are engaging in replica play. The plastic animals aren’t models, as they don’t explain an important concept, relationship or process.

Sometimes, we use activities that we THINK are earth science strategies that use models, but which aren’t. A well-known, and much-loved, example is the volcano that erupts using baking soda and vinegar. It’s fun, but it doesn’t teach students the important information about volcanoes:

  • their structure
  • relationships between the part above the Earth’s surface and materials below
  • the process of eruption
  • role of lava in forming the volcanic cone…

So, if you can’t answer the question, “What did you learn about the relationship between ______ and ______?” using a model, then it isn’t a model!

Models and Hands-On Materials for Kindergarten Earth Science

How do we select the best models for teaching earth science? Let’s look at early childhood programs based on Montessori, Charlotte Mason and Reggio Emilia ideas. Here, we find a number of good types of classroom supplies used to teach little ones, and see what earth science strategies use them. You will find these materials a help in teaching earth science to early learners, no matter where you teach.

Here are three kinds of science models that have withstood the test of time and are effective, hands-on ways to help young children understand concepts in earth science:

1.       Globes

First up in our list of earth science models is the globe. Globes are smaller-scale representations of the Earth. By using globes in earth science, students learn that the Earth is a sphere, surrounded by space, and that the oceans and land masses on its surface interact with one another in a global system.

Many Montessori classrooms also show the difference between the land masses and the oceans by using sandpaper to cover the continents of the Earth. As a result, students learn that there is a pattern to how the globe shows land and water in both color and texture, and the distribution of land and water over the Earth’s surface. Globes can also be used in demonstrations involving light sources, to help students understand day and night, and seasons.

Some globes split in two, revealing the layers of the Earth within. In this way, the model is used to show the relationship between the land masses on the surface and the materials deep within the Earth. earth science strategies

Using globes helps young children understand the Earth’s position in space. {Photo Credit: (c) Jon Jordan, 2012 via Creative Commons}

2.       World Map Puzzles

To further explore the land and water of the Earth’s surface, early childhood teachers use a variety of sturdy world map puzzles to teach the relationship between the land masses and oceans of the world. Ideally, the pieces of the puzzle are shaped like the land and water masses of the Earth’s surface. Most early childhood teachers use wooden puzzles, often with knobs to help little hands grasp and place the pieces more easily. These sturdy classroom materials last for many years.

Earth science strategies that involve globes and maps also are used to connect to geography, as teachers can begin with physical maps and globes, and then gradually shift to using political ones. earth science strategies

World maps should have pieces shaped like the land forms of the Earth’s surface. {Photo credit (c) Katherine Clark, 2012 via Creative Commons}

3.       Montessori Land forms

The third example of the earth science strategies that I love to borrow from Montessori classrooms is the use of land form models. Using these models, students learn about the names for different land masses: peninsula, isthmus, delta, etc. Some teachers buy these land forms models. Still others create them using salt dough or similar materials, or even have the children make them.

Students focus on identifying and describing a specific land form, using its unique attributes. Then, they can apply this learning to their work with maps and globes.

4.       Other Helpful models and materials

There are other models that are helpful for specific parts of earth science instruction. One model is the stream table. Stream tables are extremely useful when talking about the interaction between the water and land masses of the Earth’s surface. Another model that I would add to your classroom is a timeline. Geological timelines can help students understand how slowly Earth changes are happening. Finally, when possible, use real fossils, rock and mineral specimens, and other earth materials for authentic hands-on work.

Final Thoughts on Using Models

Today, I’ve taught you what a model is. Additionally, we discussed how earth science strategies using models can help young children learn important earth science concepts. Finally, I shared with you three models that I think all early childhood classrooms should have: globes, world map puzzles, and Montessori land forms.

Next time, I will share with you some ways that preschool and kindergarten teachers have incorporated these models into a purposeful sequence, so that little ones learn important ideas about the Earth’s surface.

If you’re shopping for teaching materials… earth science strategies models

Illuminated globe with base ~ $49.98 at Hearthsong. earth science strategies models

World map puzzle ~$11.04 at Barnes and Noble



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What models do you use to teach earth science?  Leave a comment below!










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