“I thought the world was flat, like the map showed it!”

Building Geographic Understanding with Elementary Students


Gwendolyn Thompson

The idea for building a globe came to me in the middle of a restless night. The school year had just started, and the knowledge that my third grade class would soon begin the yearly Maps and Globe Study loomed over me. I knew that the past experiences I had offered my students in place labeling and map interpretation were not terrifically engaging, and that I needed to rethink how we should approach this introductory study of maps and globes.

Earlier that day, we had been talking about our summer experiences, and I had told the children some stories about my trip to Chile. When I mentioned that I had traveled about five thousand miles in a predominantly southerly direction, one of my students gasped and said, “Whoa, Mrs. T., it must have been hot down there.” The group nodded in agreement. This was one of those “uh oh” moments when it dawns on you that what you think your students understand, they don’t. I had been operating on the assumption that my third graders understood the concept of our earth as a sphere suspended in space, and I was wrong. Simply handing them a globe to examine would not make the matter any clearer.

Once again, I was reminded of how carefully we need to listen to our students to determine what parts of abstract concepts they understand and where confusion reigns. My challenge, I realized, was to provide an experience that would allow students to develop a sense of place, not only on the earth itself, but also in space.

I determined to have the children build a model of our planet so that they could experience with their whole bodies the shape and bulk of a sphere in space. This model globe should be large and should hang just above eye level to help students develop a better sense of the southern hemisphere and the vastness of the oceans. Our study would include locating the major physical features of each continent on the globe, along with places of special importance to us.


Building the Globe from the Inside Out

I decided to begin with the creation of the earth, and contacted a young geologist at a nearby university who was excited about the idea of teaching young children. She described clever analogies she would use to help the children understand difficult concepts. She arrived in our class loaded down with tablecloths and styrofoam to be used in her demonstration, and meticulously-created figures representing various periods in the history of the earth for making a timeline. She talked about the earth as a ball of fire, and then described the cooling process and the formation of its crust. She showed how the crust of the earth actually floats, described the movement of the tectonic plates, the formation of mountain ranges, and the filling of the seas. Once constructed, her geologic timeline took up the length of the room and showed the evolution of the planet.

Now we were ready to take on our project. We began creating our model of the earth by inflating a 48-inch beach ball which we covered with chicken wire and hung from the ceiling. We spent quite a bit of time figuring out how to hang it, and at what point on earth the hanging apparatus should be placed. We decided it should hang from the North Pole, and that the axis of the earth should point to the North Star, which the children knew how to find from their study of constellations.

Next we covered our globe with layer after layer of paper mache. This took three afternoons to complete, allowing for some drying times in between layers. The children decided to paint the earth with hot, brilliant colors to represent the ball of fire that it was for billions of years. I mixed up paints and the gluey newspaper disappeared under the swirls of red, yellow, and orange. It blazed that way in the classroom for two weeks as we moved on to the map making portion of our study.


Making Maps While the Earth Cools

I began by asking the children about their own experiences with maps. How many had actually used maps to help find their way? Hands were raised all over the room.

“Oh yes, to find our way skiing at Killington.”

“I’ve used a map on our hike up Mt. Washington.”

“I’ve helped my dad read a map when we’ve been lost. That was really hard.”

“We used a map to look at the Winter Hexagon.”

Almost everyone shared a story in which map reading was a vital part of the experience. That was a good first step.

Now I posed the question, “What shall we map?” We happened to have an ant-farm in the room and frequently wondered about what happened to escaped ants. Somebody had the great idea that it would be fun to make a map for a lost ant. We broke into groups and arranged our round tabletops with random objects. Each group made a tiny representation of an ant and placed it on its table. It was easy to see how the information a map could provide might come in handy for that little creature.

Each group now made a map using symbols it created. The maps were elaborate and colorful, and though all followed the basic shape of a circle, each was different from the others. One group of children constructed intricate trails across and around the tabletop especially designed for ant travel, and then indicated them on the map using a key.

Our next activity grew from the fact we had a new student in the class who needed to know how to get from our room to other places in the school. We decided to make maps to the art room. I gave each child a strip of paper, but few directions, setting them free with that mission. Again, the shapes of the maps were similar, but each child developed his or her own scale and symbols. They were pleased with their work and happy to offer their maps to our new student. Some went on to map routes to the gym and library.

Meanwhile, we concluded that the earth had cooled down sufficiently for the crust to have hardened. We spent the next afternoon painting the crust a pale gray. Again, I wanted time to pass, so we left our globe in that state and turned our attention to the immense problem of representing a sphere on a flat surface.

Once again, ants came in handy. This time our poor ants were lost on tennis balls! I provided each table with a tennis ball with a plastic ant glued to it, and gave each child the task of mapping the round ball on a flat surface. The children fetched paper and went confidently to their seats. Then the consternation set in. “How can I do this, Mrs. T.?” “I can’t do this, Mrs. T.”… and so on. But with encouragement to work it out the best way they could, the children produced some amazing solutions.

“It’s like cloth all crumpled up,” said one girl “You just spread it out and its flat and that’s what I’m doing.” Another offered: “Just cut it in half and flatten it out…or up.” Students were discovering for themselves solutions to this complex task. Later, when we looked at different projections of the globe developed by map makers, they were able to understand the inherent distortions.


Tinfoil Lakes and Peanut Mountains

It was time to place the continents on our globe. The children at once recognized the need for some way to describe points on the earth. The notion of dividing the earth into hemispheres using the Equator and the Prime Meridian made good sense to them. The idea of a grid placed over the globe came out of this discussion very naturally. Suddenly those abstract concepts of latitude and longitude became relevant as we faced the real life problem of locating the continents on our model earth.

To prepare the children for this activity, I constructed grids of different sizes with simple polygons drawn on them. The children practiced enlarging and reducing the polygons until they felt secure enough to design their own shapes for classmates to duplicate. Next, I made outlines of each of the seven continents, and they practiced enlarging and reducing these. One boy exclaimed, “Wow, Mrs. T., I never, I mean never, thought I could draw Europe. Come look at this, bigger and smaller.”

We spent several afternoons exploring the shapes of the continents and trying to recognize forms within their outlines. Africa became a horse’s head and Australia a dancing lady in a big dress. This was time well spent, as it helped my students become very familiar with the shape of each continent, and gave them a new way of looking at the land masses on the globe.

With the help of a few students, I pinned lengths of string on our globe to indicate the Equator and the Prime Meridian. After that, it was easy to subdivide the hemispheres into roughly 30 degree intervals. Here were the now understandable lines of latitude and longitude for my students to use in placing the continents. During a subsequent reflection period, one boy wrote the following:

“I didn’t care about grids, Mrs. T.! But I learned about latitude and longitude. One goes that way and one goes that way so it makes little squares and by the number on them you can tell what square Mexico or London is. It took a very long time to learn which way was which! Pretty neat.”

The children now worked in groups to research the continents. I provided a worksheet directing them to look for various geographic features. Our classroom included a fine selection of atlases and wall maps of various sizes for use as references. When the research was completed, each group presented the information gathered and chalked its continent on the globe. I wasn’t striving for absolute perfection, but I hoped for a reasonable facsimile, and got it. As each group drew in its continent, a lot of discovery was going on.

“Look, look, how close we are to Europe.”

“Look how big the Pacific Ocean is.”

“Wow, South America is so close to the South Pole.”

“Look how Australia could fit into Asia, and Africa, wow, its practically moving in front of our eyes!”

The immensity of Africa and Asia especially surprised the children. The world was taking shape before their eyes, and it held new meaning. Our activity certainly confirmed the observation of David Sobel in Children’s Special Places that “children are biologically programmed to learn and create concepts through working with things, rather than just ingesting words and symbols.”

Painting in oceans and seas helped students to visualize the ratio of land to water on our planet. There was a lot of water to paint! We outlined the coastlines in black, and mixed up a just-right shade of earth for the continents. The children did not want to forget that earth covered those great masses floating on the surface of our planet. We thought hard about how to show mountain ranges and finally settled on using peanut shells. We ate peanuts one afternoon and then glued their shells down all over the world—a tangible response to learning about those shifting tectonic plates. We decided to show at least one river on each continent.

Deserts held a special appeal for the class, as we had just read Edward Eager’s Half Magic, in which some children become stranded in the Sahara. Students decided that glitter should symbolize the deserts of the world, and silver paper the important lakes. Children’s reactions to this activity showed up in another period of reflective writing:

“I thought there were no deserts or they were just teeny, tiny and hot. I found out that deserts were important and big.”

“Look at all the deserts in Africa! Too bad for Europe!”

“Those mountains almost connect North America and South America. It’s a whole line of them!”

Our world was nearly complete and had come about, little by little, at the hands of these eight-year-olds.


A World Inside Us

To conclude the project, we each drew a world map from memory. This was followed by a Geography Bee in which children drew questions from a box and then located the places on their world maps. We celebrated that day with a globe cake that had a million cracks and crevices in it. We placed a plastic dinosaur on the cake and laughed about it.

The globe hung in our room all year and was used continually for locating places. When we studied birds and learned that the Arctic tern migrates pole to pole each year—a distance of 22,000 miles—we gulped in amazement. When we learned about the movement of the earliest native peoples across the Bering Strait from Asia, we stood on chairs to look far north on the globe and get a better picture of that migration. When we studied the Westward Movement, the children concluded that the jumble of peanuts that were the Rockies must have been an intimidating sight. When one of the children learned tha a new cousin was coming from Viet Nam, we found and labeled that country on our globe. By the time the globe was completed, every single parent had found a moment to come in and see what had been so passionately described by his or her child.

When I see children so involved in a classroom experience, I know this must be the right approach. The key to teaching is to provide ways for children to learn through experience, and to make sure what we ask them to do has some sort of relevance to their young selves. As the globe became their own, their concepts of how the earth came into being and what it consists of became stronger.

In comparing the children’s memory maps of the earth before and after the project, I could see at a glance how much learning they had internalized from our model-building. But I did not know how much the experience had affected their perceptions of the world. So, at the end of the school year, I asked my students what they knew about the world now that they had not known when our year together began. Some of their answers:

“I found out that U.S. was just a small piece of the whole world.”

“I thought of the world as busy, I didn’t know there were all those barren places.”

“I thought the world was flat, like the map showed it!”

“You can look up at it, turn it over and around, it’s round!”

“I thought deserts were just sand, but now I know they were something else before.”

“I thought we were all connected. I didn’t know the ocean separated us from other places.”

“I could only imagine that the world was like Vermont, that every place was like here.”

“I was surprised about Asia and Africa. The earth must be bigger than I thought it was.”

“I changed a whole ton. I thought the world was mostly America, mostly our people, mostly people who spoke our language. I didn’t even know about South America. I’ve gone through this process and I now know about all those different places.”

“I never made the connection, I knew it but I didn’t think of it before. I just thought of the U.S. as our whole world. I didn’t think of the rest of the world at all.”


Gwendolyn Thompson teaches at the Marion Cross School in Norwich, Vermont.

©1999 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.