I randomly threw down some squishy balls onto my map and kids practice reading the absolute location aloud. They all wanted a chance to "read" of course! Once they got proficient with this, then I called out latitude and longitude and students placed the squishy balls. We even got tricky with 17 degrees (fell between two of the lines, etc.) They had such a blast!! We do this for a couple of days before moving onto reading the actual map. Because the map/grid is so large, they can see and touch everything. They understand when latitude lines read 20 degrees NORTH; it's north of the equator because they can SEE the squishy ball is above (north) of the yellow equator line.
Next we use our newfound knowledge to mark off latitude and longitude lines on a 9"x12" piece of chipboard/cardboard. This is a step-by-step directed lesson with me modeling each line with a ruler and cross-checking with the real latitude and longitude lines in our Social Studies book. After the lines are all drawn, we trace a template of California onto the chipboard; again, at the proper latitude and longitude. Students sketch the four regions onto California.
Now for the fun part! We make a basic salt dough recipe to create a relief map of California. I have experimented with this for MANY years. Here is the best recipe I've found that doesn't crack as much once it's dry and sticks pretty well to the cardboard. (The secret ingredient is the Cream of Tartar!) Print and laminate the recipe to give to groups of 5-6 students. The proportions for each region are divided into fraction bars so they are easy to understand. I've also learned that it is much better to mix food coloring right in with the dough so it eliminates the need to paint their maps later (at least the California portion). HOWEVER, caution students about not using too much food coloring!
Once the dough is made, students tear off bits to place onto their outlined maps. They use their fingers to push down the Central Valley, pull up peaks for the mountain region, etc. Have maps available as reference!
Once the maps have dried over the weekend, use watercolor paints to paint in the bordering states, Mexico and the Pacific Ocean. The watercolor allows the latitude and longitude lines (in Sharpie) still show through.
Finally, have students color in a regions legend key, noting the colors of each region. Glue on a compass rose, and then label major cities. We use the punch out circles from the hole puncher and number them to correlate with the cities listed on the legend. You can download a copy of both legends and compass roses here.
Your students will LOVE this project and gain a better understanding of California's geography!
Lastly, for a quick review of all the geography concepts learned in this first unit, we play several rounds of "I Have, Who Has." It's an excellent review and study guide! You can find a copy at my store here.
I'd love to know if you try any of these ideas! Do you have other interactive ways to teach Social Studies? Click on the button below to find more great geography lessons!