Classroom Solutions > Addie Albano > Hands-On Geography: "Paint a Partner" Topographic Maps

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Hands-On Geography: "Paint a Partner" Topographic Maps


"Where in the world is Randolph, NY? Is that near New York City?"

I smile every time I hear that question because our little corner of Western New York is nowhere near — and geographically nothing like — the big city. Modern technologies such as Google Earth show students the world through a whole new lens and offer exciting opportunities for them to improve their geography. But unfortunately most of my students still can't identify basic geologic formations on a topographic map: they're far more used to the flat, traditional maps they see online. For teaching topographic maps, modern technology just won't cut it.

Instead, I take an old-fashioned, hands-on approach that gives my students a solid understanding of how topographic maps work. Read on to turn your students into expert cartographers using their classmates as canvases.





For this activity, you'll need the following items:

  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons water
  • 4 1/2 teaspoons cold cream (preferably unscented)
  • small mixing bowls
  • spoons
  • food coloring
  • tissue paper

Step One: Prepare your Palette

Mix the cornstarch, water, and cold cream in a bowl until smooth and add a few drops of the student's favorite color of food dye. (You might want to warn students that darker colors such as pure red are more difficult to remove from the skin afterwards.) Having a few bowls prepared beforehand will help catch their attention. I get a bunch of inquisitive students once they see the brightly colored contents!


Step Two: Survey the "Land"

To introduce this activity I pose some general questions to my class such as "What are some physical features that catch your eye when you visit a new place? What makes them intriguing to you?" After brainstorming a list of possible answers, I state that we are going to become expert mapmakers using the materials above. Have students pair up and examine the features of their partner's face, noticing what features make them unique. Doesn't the brow, for instance, look like the rocky terrain on a mountain range? What do cheekbones make them think of?

Now it's time to create an original work of art. Using their fingers, have students gently paint contour lines across facial features, being careful not to get any cream near the eyes. Remind students that contour lines do not touch!



Step Three: Press and Peel

Take two pieces of tissue paper and lay them gently across the face, carefully pressing the painted areas. Then have them slowly lift the paper off and admire their topographic maps. I like to have students make a master map by turning the finished product around so that both partners' faces are represented. For a more dramatic look, choose contrasting paint and tissue paper colors, such as yellow and blue.

After our projects dry, I hang them up to create a gallery for our class to admire. I love to see if students can identify each other from the features represented in their creations. For an extension activity, have each student create a topographic name or initial map like the "RCS" drawing shown at the top of this post.


For more fantastic geography activities, check out 25 Map Crosswords and Content Area Mini-Books: Geographic Terms.

What unique and interesting lessons do you use to teach geography?


  • #1 Addie

    Tuesday, September 20, 2011 at 05:58 AM

    Thank you so much Lauren! The kids had a blast and have been asking me every day since when we can do it again. The best part is not a single student forgot what a topographic map was when I gave the test. Hopefully it will be something that they always remember fondly!

  • #2 Lauren

    Tuesday, September 20, 2011 at 05:36 AM

    That is a great idea Addie! I know your students will learn greatly from that project and anyone who utilizes it will as well! Thank you for sharing it! You are very creative! : )

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Addie Albano
Addie Albano
Randolph, NY
Grades 6-8
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