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Essential Science for Teachers: Earth and Space Science

When Continents Collide Children’s Ideas About Mountains

Children’s Ideas About Mountains

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. Earth was once flat, and water from rain or streams eroded the surface into valleys, leaving the high ground as mountains.

Many children know that the erosive power of water can carve deep canyons into land. One such example is the Grand Canyon, but almost every community has an example of erosion by water that leaves higher ground in its wake. Children may therefore reason that all mountains were carved out of a once-flat Earth. Most mountains are formed through the action of plate tectonics, especially where plates collide. In this session, the collision of continents riding on top of plates was featured as an example.

2. All mountains are formed by molten rock from a volcanic eruption.

The image of lava erupting from a volcano and creating new land is common in print and film media. Children often think that all mountains and volcanoes are closely linked, and often believe that all mountains can become volcanoes. While volcanoes are examples of mountains and mountain building is often associated with volcanic activity, most mountains are not themselves volcanoes and never were. Most mountains are the result of the uplift of land associated with the collision of tectonic plates.


  • Baxter, J. Learning Science in the Schools: Research Reforming Practice, edited by In Duit and Glynn. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates: 1999.
  • Broadstock, M.J. “Children’s Understanding of Earth Systems Phenomena in Taiwan.” The Third International Seminar on Misconceptions and Educational Strategies on Science and Mathematics, Misconceptions Trust, Ithaca, NY: 1993.
  • Happs, J. “Mountains.” Science Education Research Unit Paper 202. University of Waikato, New Zealand, 1982.
  • Smith, M., Southard, J. and Mably, C. “Investigating Earth Systems: Our Dynamic Planet.” Teacher’s Edition. Armonk, NY: It’s About Time, 2002.

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Essential Science for Teachers: Earth and Space Science


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