Tectonic Plates and Physical Features

Tectonic Plates and Physical Features

Use National Geographic MapMaker to guide students through an analysis of Earth’s tectonic plates, how they interact, and shape the location of physical features.


4 - 10


Geography, Physical Geography, Earth Science, Geology, Geographic Information Systems (GIS)

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  • Required Technology: Internet access, 1 computer per learner
  • Physical Space: classroom


This activity, with the related map and data, is designed to enable a one-period exploration with students of plate boundaries and related volcanoes. A National Geographic video and article are provided for the teacher to obtain a refresher in plate tectonics if needed, and to gather ancillary information. The video is appropriate, short, and interesting media for the students as a preset activity. The map activity will allow students to explore plate boundaries and volcanoes around the globe. The activity can be completed entirely in the classroom or can be assigned for independent student consumption and exploration.


Students will:

  • Analyze maps of tectonic plates to predict the location of physical features.

Skills Summary

This activity targets the following skills:

  • 21st Century Student Outcomes
    • Information, Media, and Technology Skills
    • Learning and Innovation Skills
      • Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
  • Critical Thinking Skills
    • Analyzing
    • Evaluating
  • Geographic Skills
    • Analyzing Geographic Information
  • Science and Engineering Practices
    • Analyzing and interpreting data


1. Teacher Materials Preparation: Watch the video and read the article to familiarize yourself with the materials and to backfill any information needed for the activity.

2. Preset Activity: Familiarize students with tectonic plate boundaries and plate movements through viewing the Plate Tectonics video, then check for understanding.

Have students watch the Plate Tectonics video. Then, use what you learned in the Plate Tectonics and Volcanic Activity to lead a class discussion on how Earth’s crust moves and runs into, pull away from, or slides against other pieces of independent crust and how that creates or triggers volcanoes. Next ask: What are boundaries called where plates are stretching or drifting apart? [DivergentWhat are boundaries called where plates are moving toward each other? [Convergent] What are boundaries called where plates are in a side-swipe collision? [Transform]

3. Investigate: Utilize the interactive features of an online map to investigate and further familiarize students with the location of plate boundaries.

Open the plate tectonics map in National Geographic MapMaker. In the bottom navigation, click on Map Layers, then select the eye icon next to Plate Boundaries to toggle visibility on for Plate Boundaries. Navigate to the plate boundary that runs along the Andes Mountains in South America and tell them that this is a convergent boundary. Next, navigate to the Mid-Atlantic Ridge as an example of a divergent boundary. Encourage them to notice the terrain of the land near the boundaries on each type. Ask: What do you generally notice about the terrain near the convergent boundaries? Divergent?

4. Build Knowledge: Access a new MapMaker map layer provided to add to student knowledge of the location of volcanoes relative to plate boundaries.

Have students click "Add Layer" and search for the layer called Significant Volcanic Eruptions. Have them add that layer by selecting the "+" sign next to the layer name, then close the Add Layer popup. Next, instruct students to drag their map or use the search tool to view the plate boundary that runs along the Andes Mountains in South America. Ask: What type of boundary is this and how many volcanoes are near to this type of boundary around the globe? [Convergent] Again, instruct students to navigate to the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Ask: What type of boundary is this and how many volcanoes are near to this type of boundary around the globe? [Divergent] Ask: Why do you think there is such a difference in the number of volcanoes at one type of boundary than the other? [Convergent boundaries have two plates colliding and the denser plate sinking beneath the less dense plate. The plate below causes pressure and temperature to increase and can cause the mantle to melt and magma to rise, causing volcanoes. Divergent boundaries with two plates pulling apart, typically result in submarine volcanoes found thousands of meters below the ocean surface.]

Tips & Modifications

Basic Map Navigation and Exploration

  1. Click on the zoom in (+) and zoom out (-) buttons to view the physical features (terrain) of the land.

Connections to National Standards, Principles, and Practices

National Geography Standards

  • Standard 17: How to apply geography to interpret the past
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.

Anita Palmer
Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Last Updated

March 6, 2024

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