Topographic Maps

We have been learning about elevation and topographic maps and I could tell the kids weren’t quite grasping the idea of contour lines.  They understood that the lines meant a change in elevation, but couldn’t quite visualize the spatial concept of it.  I decided a hands-on lesson was in order.

Exploration: Topographic Maps With A Mountain Model

I covered our school table with white butcher paper and got some colorful markers, dental floss, and some rulers out.  I made a big lump of salt dough and created a mountain with it in the middle of our table.  The kids all helped sculpt the mountain.

We picked up the mountain and one by one, put it right in front of each kid, allowing them to trace the outline of the mountain on the spot in front of them using a marker.  Then we put the mountain back in the middle.

Next, we used a ruler to measure one inch up the mountain and sliced the mountain using the dental floss right across the one inch elevation mark.  Then we picked up the top of the mountain and traced it in a new color on top of our mountain outlines before putting it back in the center.

We continued this process at each inch interval until we climbed to the very top of our mountain.


Each of the kids colored in their own topographic map of our model, showing each elevation.


I marked the mountain with corresponding colored lines  of marker so they could see the matching lines on their own maps.


Then we talked about how on a real mountain, each of our inches would represent some number of feet.  The kids created a scale and labeled their own maps.


We looked at several topographic maps and models, comparing ours with some from books.  We also talked about how it would have been different if our lines had been every 2 inches, or every 1/4 inch instead of every inch.


It really helped them get the concept down and I could see their little cogs turning as they looked at flat maps and could finally visualize the 3-D version in their minds based on the contour lines.

Expedition: Museum of Natural Curiosity

We also went to the Museum of Natural Curiosity at Thanksgiving Point in Utah to play with their amazing relief model.

Topographic Maps display at the Museum of Natural Curiosity (4)

It uses tiny rubber pieces that you can manipulate into mountains and valleys, much like a sandbox.  The rainbow lights surrounding it shine on the white rubber and instantly create a topographic representation as you move the rubber bits.

Topographic Maps display at the Museum of Natural Curiosity (1)

It was so cool to see the colors change instantly as you built or knocked down mountains.

Topographic Maps display at the Museum of Natural Curiosity (3)

Additional Layers

  • Go an an expedition to a mountain, valley, or anywhere that has a rapid change in elevation.  Talk about how the contour lines on a topographic map would be very close together in an area of rapid elevation change.  Compare it with a flatter area.
  • Look at a relief globe.  Relate a topographic map to a relief globe.  How are they the same?  How are they different?
  • Make a list of uses for topographic maps.  They aren’t really useful for finding your way around town, so what are they useful for?
  • Use your salt dough mountain as a story starter.  Let it be the setting for a story you write.
  • Learn more about mountain habitats in your area.  What is the nearest famous mountain to you?  What animals live in the mountains closest to you?  What is the climate like there?  How does elevation affect a habitat?

More From Layers of Learning

The inspiration for this lesson came from Layers of Learning Unit 1-6 about our physical earth and mapping it.  Check it out to learn even more about this topic.


Every unit in our catalog comes with a geography component.  Read here for more thoughts on teaching geography in your homeschool, then take a little tour of what a week of using Layers of Learning looks like.  You can also tour our school rooms and find out a little more about Karen and Michelle, the Layers of Learning sisters, and our homeschool story.

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