Hands-on Geography: How to Make a Salt Dough River Model

How to Make A Salt Dough River Model

“Mommy, guess what?” my son asked after school one day.


“The people from the Canal River Trust brought a really cool canal model into to our class today. We even got to pour water in it!”

“Fun,” I said.

“And I want to make a river model for my homework!” he finished enthusiastically.

Oh no! Inwardly, I groaned. Not another messy project…

This term, my son’s class is studying rivers and canals. One creative homework assignment was to research a local river and find a creative way to present the findings.

Inspired by the canal trust visit, my son was determined to create his own river model. I asked him what materials he needed for the project. He shrugged his shoulders. So, we did some research.

Soon we found some great YouTube videos of river models made with recycled materials. We even watched Luke Towan’s YouTube video of realistic rivers and streams. His river looked so real, my son and I were convinced he took a snapshot of a river to display on his homepage until we saw just how he made it.

Although Mr. Towan’s diorama was far too professional for our abilities, my son still learned some useful techniques to make his model look more realistic. For example, he learned to paint rocks darker first and then add lighter shades of paint across the rock faces to make them look more 3-dimensional.

I sent my son upstairs to find a box he could use for his river model (shoebox storage is under the bed).

Then, I took a deep breath. It was time to reign in my perfectionist tendencies and let my son do the project himself. I reminded myself of my favorite Harry Wong saying:

“The one who does the work is the one who learns” – Harry Wong

So, I let my son do the work and I bit my tongue.

The Importance of Geography

Geography is an important yet often neglected topic in education. When I taught elementary school in the U.S., geography was sometimes pushed aside as we focused on preparing students for the language arts and math sections of the annual standardized test.

Here in the U.K., geography is a required part of the National Curriculum. Teachers must cover the required geography content each year. I think this is good.

Our children will face many challenges when they grow up including threats from dramatic climate change and globalization. Geography will be critical for their understanding.

Future leaders who are oblivious of geographical knowledge will have a hard time analysing world events and making rational decisions, let alone understanding basic physical systems of everyday life, like implications of the solar system on climate, water cycles, ocean currents, etc.” 

Geography is important, but how can we help young children grasp its often abstract concepts.

Children may find it difficult to relate to some of the concepts you will teach in Geography; especially if these concepts concern areas of the world your students have never seen or heard of before.

The best way to teach geography is to design lessons that help children relate to the material.

Salt Dough Fun

Salt dough is a fun, versatile medium that allows students to create and explore many aspects of natural geography.

Creating a Salt Dough River Scene

My son suggested using clay to create his river scene. I didn’t have clay, but I did have all three of the ingredients required to make salt dough. So, we went with salt dough.

Calling my youngest in to help, we followed this recipe to make the salt dough.

My eldest decided to turn his shoebox upside down so it was in the shape of a waterfall. Initially, I protested thinking that the salt dough would need the box sides for support, but in the end, I let him do it his way. When he finished, I realized that his way looked great.

I love that he still has original ideas. My adult mind is more inclined to copy internet projects because I can’t think of original ways to do them.

I gave my eldest a bowlful of salt dough and let him construct his river and waterfall. In the meantime, I made Easter egg ornaments out of the remaining salt dough with my youngest. I love it when I find activities that I can do with both children at the same time.

When he finished shaping the hills, rocks, and river bank, my son put his salt dough model out in the sun to dry.

When it was fully dry, he painted it using some of the techniques we learned from the Luke Towan video.

Next, my son added sand to the riverside to make it look more realistic. Finally, he attached some plants.

When his model was complete, my son typed up some river vocabulary words to label it. He enjoyed playing with the font and colors of the background. Even though his blue was a bit dark and his font a little small, I let it go. I was busy with my youngest.

He typed up the words bank, waterfall, mouth, source, rapidsox-bow lake and debris.

My son stuck these words to toothpicks and I supervised him while he used the hot glue gun to attach the labels to his model.

Finally, he researched the River Severn and typed up a Severn facts page. He even printed a map showing the Severn’s journey. We found a fantastic resource for the River Severn. My son was able to take a virtual tour of the river with a stuffed Winnie-the-Pooh and friends on the website.

One of the largest waterfalls of the Severn River is called: Severn-Break-its-Neck waterfall.

Of course, my son loved the name so his waterfall model became the Severn-Break-its-Neck falls.

Here is just some of the river vocabulary we learned through this project. Yes, I say ‘we’ because I learned many new terms as well.

peat bog, infant river, u-shaped valley, v-shaped valley, rapids, waterfalls, confluence, meanders, ox-bow lake, tributaries, plunge pools, Severn Bore, erosion, transportation, and deposition.

I had no idea there was so much to learn about rivers.

My son loved this project and was proud that he did all of the work. Clean-up still seems to involve me at this point.

Here are some other ways to use salt dough to help children understand physical geography:

  1. Make relief maps
  2. Create salt dough islands and peninsulas to teach the difference between the terms
  3. Glaciers, volcanoes, mesas, buttes, mountains, valleys, and hills
  4. Linda Kamp has a fantastic Learning About Landforms until on her website for teachers or homeschool parents.

Let me know if you try out any of these ideas. I would love to learn from your experiences as well.



Author: beckygrantstr

Writer. Teacher. Coffee-loving, car singing American mother of boys living in the U.K. Learning right along with my children at www.learn2gether.co.uk.

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