Layers of the Earth: Plate Tectonics


  • This lesson explores the basics of plate tectonics, and the layers of the earth.

Estimated Time

  • 45 minutes


  • Cantaloupe (Engagement Activity)
  • Compasses
  • Coloring Supplies (Markers, Colored Pencils, Crayons)
  • Graham Crackers
  • 2 Knives (one sharp knife to cut the Cantaloupe, one butter knife to make the PB & J and graham cracker sandwich)
  • 11 x 17 paper
  • Paper Towels (for clean up)
  • Peanut Butter and Jelly
  • Pens and Pencils
  • Rulers


  • Students will be able to identify the different properties of each layer of the earth.
  • Students will be able to explain in their own words the movement of plates.

National Standards Addressed

Math (Presented by National Council of Teachers of Mathematics in 2000)
  • Use visualization, spatial reasoning, and geometric modeling to solve problems.
  • Understand measurable attributes of objects and the units, systems, and processes of measurement.
  • Apply appropriate techniques, tools, and formulas to determine measurements.
  • Recognize and apply mathematics in contexts outside of mathematics.
  • Use representations to model and interpret physical, social, and mathematical phenomena.
  • Recognize and apply mathematics in contexts outside of mathematics.
Science (Presented by National Research Council in 1996)
Unifying Concepts and Processes
  • Change, constancy, and measurement
Physical Science
  • Motions and forces.
Earth and Space Science
  • Structure of the earth system.
Science in Personal and Social Perspectives
  • Natural Hazards
Technology (Presented by the International Society for Technology in Education in 1998)
Technology problem-solving and decision-making tools
  • Students use technology resources for solving problems and making informed decisions.
  • Students employ technology in the development of strategies for solving problems in the real world.

Engagement Activity (optional)

  • Gather all students around a table where they can all see.
  • Cut a cantaloupe in half, or have done so before class.
  • Ask students to identify the number of layers, and to give properties of each (e.g. the center most layer is squishy and like liquid, while the outermost layer is tough and looks like rock).

Instructional Plan

  • Hand out 11 by 17 paper to students, along with compasses and rulers.
  • Explain that much like the cantaloupe, the earth has many layers, each with its own properties.
  • Write the following information (chart 1) on the depth of each layer where all students can see it.
Chart 1
Layer Depth from the Earths Surface Layer Thickness
Crust 30 km 30 km
Mantle 30-2890 km 2860 km
Outer Core 2890-5150 km 2260 km
Inner Core 5150-6378 km 1228 km
  • As either individuals or small groups have students determine a scale to use so that they can draw a diagram of these layers on their 11 by 17 paper.
  • After students are finished drawing the layers, and labeling them accordingly, pass out coloring supplies.
  • Relating the layers of the earth back to the layers of the cantaloupe discuss the properties of the layers of the earth. Refer to chart 2 below for more information on this.
Chart 2
Layer Properties for the earth layer Properties for the cantelope layer
Crust Solid surface, with great expanses of water Solid surface, rough
Mantle Solid and liquid (like magma), ranges in temperature from 1000-5000 C Solid and liquid, green
Outer Core Liquid, scientists think its made of iron, ranges in temperature from 5000-6200 C Solid and liquid, orange fruit (the part you eat)
Inner Core Solid, made of Iron and Nickel, ranging in temperature from 6200-6700 C Solid, liquid, gas (the seedy mess that you scoop out)
  • Have students take notes on their diagrams, or on the back, to indicate the properties of each layer.
  • Set diagrams aside.
  • Gather students around a common table so all can see.
  • Using graham crackers, peanut butter, and jelly (peanut butter can be removed from this activity if students have peanut allergies), make a sandwich. Be sure to use a thick layer of jelly.
  • Holding the sandwich up (layering graham cracker, jelly, peanut butter, then graham cracker), push slightly down on the top graham cracker, sliding it over the jelly.
  • Explain the earth has similar motion. On top of the solid and liquid core and mantle sits solid plates. They move on the surface, very slowly, but they move. Sometimes colliding into each other. Much like bumper cars at an amusement park in slow motion.

Sustaining, Concluding, or Extending Activities (optional)


  • Have students discuss and explore other common items with layers, relating these layers to the layers of the earth.
  • Consider an orange, an apple, an avocado, a hard-boiled egg, a baseball, a golf ball, or a lacrosse ball.


  • Convert scales from C to F, and from kilometer to miles
  • Explore internet sites for other information on the layers of the earth:

Evaluation and Assessment

Students will be able to:

  • Diagram the layers of the earth.
  • Explain the movement of plates.

E-Resources, Print Materials, and Hands-on Activities