To begin the activity, I collect the necessary materials. These include pieces of cardboard for every student, the ingredients to make salt dough for the whole class, and flat state maps to serve as a guide. Next, I ask students to draw Michigan on their cardboard pieces using a method called contour line drawing. This involves selecting a point on the the map to begin (usually a corner where two border lines meet) and, as they move their eyes slowly along the border of Michigan, drawing a corresponding line on the piece of cardboard.
A clever, yet effective method of teaching contour line drawing is to hand each student an imaginary ladybug. I tell them the ladybugs have been trained to crawl along the border of their map of Michigan. The students watch as their bugs travel, imagining the path that the ladybug is following. Then, the students draw its route onto their cardboard.
I prefer having students draw their own map rather than tracing it with a stencil for two reasons. Contour line drawing forces students to notice the interesting irregularities in a state's borders. These may result from geographic features, such as rivers or coastlines. Or, they may reflect historical events or political decisions.
I believe map-making encourages higher order thinking, and the more curious students become, the better their thinking. The students analyze their map as they study its shape. Next, they synthesize as they begin to draw the map. Finally, they evaluate as they check for accuracy, often erasing or turning their map over and beginning the process again.
After students have completed their contour line drawings, we make the salt dough that will give their maps a third dimension. Each student begins with a small handful of dough, spreading it over the map. Next, they begin building up elevations, such as mountains and plateaus. At this point, they refer to their geography books or other resources for more information. Toothpicks are helpful tools in etching rivers and lakes. Later, we break them in half and glue small paper flags with labels for the state capitol and other major cities in Michigan.
The relief maps are dry enough for painting the following day. Students use realistic colors of green, blue, yellow, and brown tempera (poster) paint for their relief maps. Once again, they refer to geography books for guidance in order to make their maps as accurate as possible. The finished maps can be displayed in the classroom and used for further social studies lessons throughout the year.
As an elementary art specialist, I work with all of the teachers in my school to incorporate art into the curriculum. I have found this relief map activity to be adaptable to varying grade levels and lesson topics.
Cheryl Szymanski, who teaches second grade, wasn't sure her students could master drawing state maps on their own. She became impressed with her students' ability to draw Michigan without using a pattern, and now teaches a map-drawing lesson of this kind each year.
Doren Steckler, a fourth grade teacher, knew that many of her students found it difficult to understand the relationship between Michigan's upper and lower peninsulas. She observed an immediate impact on their learning when students began constructing their own relief maps. Her students were fascinated with the three-storey relief map of Michigan which they saw on a field trip to the historical museum in Lansing, and offered many thoughtful comments about how it was constructed.
Kristi Klimner each year requires her fifth graders to do a research project on one of the fifty states and make a tri-fold poster display of what they have learned. She noted that, once students had made relief maps of their chosen state, they were able to make more advanced map observations. For example, they noticed that, while the adjacent states of California and Nevada have similar latitudes, they have very different geographical and topographic features.
Whatever the grade level, making three-dimensional relief maps using salt dough can help elementary students expand their spatial skills to produce a more accurate vision of our big round world.
About the Author
Craig Hinshaw is an elementary art specialist at Lamphere Schools in Madison Heights, Michigan. Some of his recent student projects include making a life-sized, clear plastic, inflatable whale large enough to hold two classes of children, and making summer travel journals by using the Japanese woodblock art of Hiroshige's Tokaido Road as a guide.