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Essential Science for Teachers: Earth and Space Science

Restless Landscapes Children’s Ideas About Glaciers

Below are common ideas children in grades K-6 have about this topic, compiled from research on children’s ideas about science (see the Session 1 Children’s Ideas Bibliography). Consider what evidence might refute this idea, and why a child would be likely to believe this?

1. Landforms of similar appearance have a common origin.

The forces and processes that shape the Earth’s surface occur over immense periods of time, and are quite complex. Without knowledge of these aspects of landforms, it is difficult to appreciate the many and varied ways that landforms are created and sculpted. Children are quite literal in their interpretation of the world, and it is easy for them to assume that things that look the same, such as two valleys, are created in the same way, when in fact one may have been formed by a stream and the other by a glacier.

2. Glaciers don’t move.

Glaciers are enormous rivers of ice that move very slowly (meters or tens of meters per year). Typically, though there are some exceptions, glacial movement is too slow to be easily observable. Also, glaciers are not readily available for observation in most parts of the world, so are outside of ordinary experience for many children. As is true with tectonic plates, the sheer immensity of the size of glaciers seems to suggest that they do not move, and many children believe this.

3. Children’s ideas about glaciers do not indicate an understanding of the erosion that glaciers cause.

Glaciers gouge and scrape the landscapes over which they flow. Watching the water or the wind transport grains of sand and soil and weathering rock is common to everyday experience. This typifies the way children and adults think of erosion. As a result, a huge, seemingly stationary mass of ice does not inspire thoughts of erosion.

4. Groundwater typically occurs in the form of basins, lakes, and fast flowing streams underground.

Groundwater is stored relatively close to the surface in underground aquifers. Common aquifers include porous rock and sand. Groundwater percolates through the spaces in aquifers, and does not exist as a body of water in the same way as water does on the surface. Popular media is replete with images of underwater lakes, rivers, and flowing streams that exist in caverns deep within the interior of the Earth.



  • Dove, J. Immaculate Misconceptions. Sheffield, UK: The Geographical Association, 1999.
  • Happs, J. “Glaciers.” Science Education Research Unit Paper 202. University of Waikato, New Zealand, 1982.
  • Philips, W. “Earth Science Misconceptions.” Science Teacher 58 no, 2 (1991): 21 – 23.

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Essential Science for Teachers: Earth and Space Science


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