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AshLeigh's avatar

How do you explain plate tectonics to a 3 year old?

Asked by AshLeigh (16276points) September 25th, 2014

Alaska just had a 6.1, and my nephew is very curious. :)

Thanks guys!

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19 Answers

Dutchess_III's avatar

Hm. Get a jigsaw puzzle with very large pieces, maybe? Show him how they fit together, and then pull them apart so he can see how they used to fit. Then show him the continents and how they are shaped. You can see where one continent has the opposite shape of another.

osoraro's avatar

Unpeel an orange carefully in pieces and put them back together on the orange as best you can. The Earth’s crust is like the pieces of the orange, and they’re moving against each other because the inside of the orange is under pressure.

snowberry's avatar

Agree with the above. And you can also take the pieces and slide one over the top of the other.

seekingwolf's avatar

I like the orange idea. It’s very visual and yet interactive.

CWOTUS's avatar

As much as I love the idea of educating children about the world around us, I don’t think that I would have the least interest in attempting to teach a three-year-old about plate tectonics. To start, what does the child know about earthquakes and volcanoes? That would be the point of entry: Teach that the surface of the planet moves, fractures and opens up to what’s beneath, and it often happens in human time.

Teach the effects of geologic time in the formation of sedimentary rocks, canyon formation and river beds. Teach about dinosaurs and fossilization – and again work on the concept of “geologic time”, which is going to take a long time for any three-year-old, no matter how bright – to wrap his mind around. That’s a hard concept even for adults to fully grasp.

Dutchess_III's avatar

Somebody should invent a 3D plate tectonics puzzle.

Darth_Algar's avatar

“The surface of the Earth is made of “plates”. These “plates” move around and grind against each other. Sometimes they slip and move quicker than usual for a few minutes. This is what causes earthquakes.”

- That’s probably the best way I could think of to try to explain something like plates tectonics to a 3 year-old.

(Though if it were my kid I’d probably just say “because God is angry” and when he asks “why?” I’d say “probably because of something you did”.)

gailcalled's avatar

Use @osoraro‘s show-and-tell and then feed the kid the orange segments.

Adirondackwannabe's avatar

Can you find a few flat rocks, and show him how they would slide against each other, and occasionally catch? And how it takes a firmer push to slide them when they catch.

ARE_you_kidding_me's avatar

Get the kid a chocolate dipped cone and break it up a little bit in the shape of continents.

RocketGuy's avatar

Then eat some of the chocolate bits so there is room for the bigger pieces to move around on the ice cream.

ibstubro's avatar

Take a thin piece of Styrofoam and break it into several large pieces. (You can score them in the shape of continents if you’re creative. Then I would start with a round piece.) Put them roughly back together and slide then carefully into a sink full of water. Make waves so that the pieces float apart, and eventually run into each other. Bang! Earthquake.

Darth_Algar's avatar


To be honest I’m not sure giving the impression that the continents float on water is the best way to explain plate tectonics to a kid.

Buttonstc's avatar

You can try any of the above examples cited but don’t be crushed if the three year old is as clueless as before.

But I’m a firm believer in not talking down to kids or giving them ridiculous mythical explanations for natural phenomenon so I think any of the examples suggested would be far more preferable than the ridiculous “because God is mad at you” nonsense.

(Im assuming the latter was said with tongue firmly implanted into cheek :)

But also be prepared to repeat the explanation the next time he asks (and the time after that…) or whenever the next earthquake comes along :)

Adirondackwannabe's avatar

I never talk down to a child of any age. They all can learn and grow. So what if I have to repeat it? I’ll spend all day doing that.

AshLeigh's avatar

We did the orange thing. He accepted the answer, and moved on, while happily eating his orange.
Thanks so much, guys!

ibstubro's avatar

Nor would I suggest that the world is made of Styrofoam, @Darth_Algar.
Or that it is an orange.

Dutchess_III's avatar

I actually think @ibstubro had a good idea. The plates DO float.

gorillapaws's avatar

@CWOTUS I recall in early elementary school we unwound a giant rope on the playground that must have been 100’ long. It was a physical timeline where we marked various milestones like the dinosaur extinction. I remember it was only the last little part of the rope that mankind was around. It made a big impression and really helped put geologic timescales into perspective.

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