Exploring Maps and Models of Earth

Exploring Maps and Models of Earth

Students compare miniature models to real things. Then they explore maps and globes as miniature versions of places and the Earth.


Pre-K, K, 1


Geography, Physical Geography

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Learning materials

This lesson is part of a collection called Map Skills for Students.


  • Materials You Provide: 
    • Required: crayons; miniature items, such as cars or plastic animals
    • Optional: blocks, clay, or precut paper shapes; globe; photos described in the activity modification; scissors; stuffed animals
    • Note: If you plan to do the activity extension, make sure you precut paper shapes of the large furniture, rugs, and other permanent items in the classroom.
  • Required Technology: Internet access, 1 computer per classroom, projector
  • Physical Space: classroom
  • Grouping: large-group instruction

Introducing students to the concept of maps as representations of places at a young age is important. Modeling the use of maps in and out of school can help students to recognize the value of maps and gain confidence with them. Using maps of places that are familiar to students will strengthen their spatial thinking skills before learning about states, countries, and continents.

Students will:

  • describe the difference between a model of something and the real thing
  • describe places they see on different maps
  • explain the difference between a photograph of Earth and a globe

Teaching Approach:

Teaching Methods: demonstrations, discussions, visual instruction

Skills Summary
This activity targets the following skills:

  • 21st Century Student Outcomes
  • Critical Thinking Skills: understanding
  • Geographic Skills:
    • Organizing Geographic Information


1. Introduce the concept of a
Help students understand the concept of a model of something real. Show students miniature items representing things from their daily lives, such as a toy car or animal. Help students to describe the difference between the real objects and their miniature versions. Ask: How are these like a real car or animal? How are they different from a real car or animal? Provide students with sentence starters, such as:

  • They are alike because ___.
  • They are different because ___.

Make sure students describe how the miniature version may look like the real object, but people cannot use it the way they use the real object.

2. Activate students’ prior knowledge about why we use maps.
Show students the three provided maps: the Park Map, the Neighborhood Map, and the Community Map. As you project each, read its title aloud. Explain that maps are miniature versions of places on the Earth. Ask students to name what they see on the map. Explain that the small pictures are “symbols.” These are like the miniature version of the real things. Instead of a model of a house, there is a small picture.

3. Zoom out from students’ school and community on an interactive map.
Locate the students’ school using the search feature on National Geographic MapMaker. Point out places on the map as in Step 2. Ask: Where are the roads? Where are the buildings? Where do you see water? Zoom out very slowly. Explain that the views of the land and water students are seeing are getting smaller as we see them from farther away. Have students imagine looking down at the ground from a rocket or shuttle going straight up in space. At different points ask students to describe what they are seeing. Zoom out until students can see the continents.

4. Compare a picture of Earth and a globe.
Show students the picture of Earth from space. Ask them to describe the shape (a ball). Talk about how the details on this image look similar to what they saw on the map before, for example, they may recognize the shapes of the continents and oceans. Next show the picture of the globe, and pass around a globe. Explain that globes are miniature models of Earth. Ask: What shape is a globe? (a ball) How is a globe like Earth? How is a globe different from Earth?

Informal Assessment
Have each student complete the provided Earth Shapes worksheet to check for understanding. Provide crayons for each student and reading assistance as needed for younger students.

Extending the Learning
Have students work collaboratively to build a model of their classroom using blocks, clay, or precut paper shapes. Students can then "teach lessons" in their model classroom to their stuffed animal students or imaginary friends.

Tips and Modifications
Modification: If students are having difficulty understanding the maps, help them to think about looking at a place from above it. For example, show students a photo of a car that looks like the toy car. Then show a photo of the car from the top. Explain how we can look at things and also places from above, as if we were up high looking down.

Tip: To help ground this activity in students’ own experiences, invite them to talk about how people they know use maps. Ask them if they see people use paper maps, maps on cell phones, maps on computers, or all of these.

Connections to National Standards, Principles, and Practices

National Council for Social Studies Curriculum Standards

  • Theme 3: People, Places, and Environments

National Geography Standards

  • Standard 1: How to use maps and other geographic representations, geospatial technologies, and spatial thinking to understand and communicate information
  • Standard 3: How to analyze the spatial organization of people, places, and environments on Earth's surface

Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy

  • Reading Standards for Informational Text K-5: Key Ideas and Details, RI.K.2
  • Reading Standards for Informational Text K-5: Integration of Knowledge and Ideas, RI.1.7

The College, Career & Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards

  • Geographic Representations: Spatial Views of the World: D2.Geo.2.K-2: Use maps, graphs, photographs, and other representations to describe places and the relationships and interactions that shape them.
  • Geographic Representations: Spatial Views of the World: D2.Geo.3.K-2: Use maps, globes, and other simple geographic models to identify cultural and environmental characteristics of places.


  • Sobel, David. Mapmaking With Children: Sense of Place Education for the Elementary Years. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1998.
Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Lindsey Mohan, Ph.D.
Audrey Mohan, Ph.D.
Kristen Dell, National Geographic Society
Anne Haywood, Program Consultant, Environmental & Geographic Education, Geographic Education Consultant
Sean P. O'Connor
Christina Riska Simmons
Christina Riska Simmons, National Geographic Society
Educator Reviewers
Lydia Lewis, M.Ed., Grade 5 U.S. History/Geography Educator; National Cathedral School, Washington, D.C.
Anita Palmer
Expert Reviewers
Carol A. Gersmehl, Co-Coordinator of the New York Geographic Alliance, Associate Director of the New York Center for Geographic Learning in the Geography Department at Hunter College, CUNY
Michal LeVasseur, Ph.D., National Geographic Alliance Network Liaison
National Geographic Programs
Geography Awareness Week
Geography Action! Mapping Europe
Special thanks to Vannessa Prieto, Monica Fernandez, Rosa Fernandez, and the students at Play and Learn Pre-School, Miami, Florida
Adapted from National Geographic's Geography Action! toolkit “Mapping Europe” activity “What Is a Map?” and from National Geographic's Map Essentials: A Comprehensive Map Skills Program
Last Updated

January 22, 2024

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