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.



Just Have A Go: A Motto for a 21st-Century Education

I am sitting cross-legged on the living room floor surrounded by my sons, some tools, and the GroClock innards.

If you’ve never heard of the GroClock, it’s a special clock designed for young children that lights up and displays a yellow sun once it reaches a pre-set wake-up time. In theory, small children would stay quietly in bed until the sun appears. In practice, my youngest quickly figured out how to press enough buttons to make the sun appear at 4am before bursting into my room and brightly announcing, “The sun is on my clock!”

No, I did not disassemble the GroClock in a sleep-deprived fit of rage. Instead, I purposely took it apart with my sons after watching Gever Tulley’s Ted Talk, 5 Dangerous Thing You Should Let Your Kids Do. Tulley challenges parents to allow children to take apart the first household appliance that stops working.

Why would I accept such a challenge since tinkering with appliances is so far out of my comfort zone?

Because I recently embraced the motto, “Just have a go!

Just Have A Go

I have come to love this British expression as an American living in the U.K. It means to simply give something a try regardless of the outcome.

Don’t worry about failures, worry about the chances you miss when you don’t even try. -Jack Canfield

Our children are growing up in a rapidly changing world. Artificial intelligence and automation are replacing manual jobs.

Change is inevitable. You can’t ignore it. There’s a huge shift taking place right now and it’s disrupting entire industries, businesses and jobs around the world — and it’s called Digital Transformation.

Our children will need to adapt to these changes. Since the rate of change is so rapid, we cannot even begin to predict what their future will look like. What jobs will exist when they are adults? The only thing we can do is prepare them to embrace this change and see it as an opportunity to grow.

Many discussions around the nature of a 21st-century education focus on encouraging creativity, collaboration, critical thinking and communication. The 4 C’s will be critical in the future, but fostering a “have a go” attitude must underpin all of these other soft skills so our children won’t freeze up in the face of change.

The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” — Alvin Toffler

How do we as parents and educators foster a “have a go” attitude at home and in school?

10 Ways to Foster a Have a Go Attitude at Home:

  1. Make Mistakes– Don’t be afraid to admit you’ve made a mistake in front of your children. Model learning through these mistakes and trying again and again.
  2. Tinker– Enjoy taking things apart, manipulating objects, and putting them back together in new and different ways. If something breaks, take it apart with your children, see how it is made and even have a go fixing it. If you can’t fix it, don’t worry — just enjoy the process. Get a classic set of Lego and hide the instructions. Try to create your own original models. You will find that your children are far better at it than you are.
  3. Go Along With Your Child’s Interests– Give children the freedom to follow their interests whatever they may be. My youngest was obsessed with Halloween. When I finally stopped trying to get him interested in something more educational like dinosaurs and I just went along with his Halloween obsession, he really grew.
  4. Create Things– Create products and learn through the process. Encourage kids to create books, e-books, voice recordings, songs, plays, slow-motion, stop animation, and high speed videos, models out of recycled goods, art, dioramas, etc. Stop worrying about perfection and just let them do it however messy, ugly, or unusual it may be.
  5. Hold an Art and Design Reception At Home or in School – Invite grandparents, friends and neighbors over to eat some snacks and view some art, sculptures, and models made by your children. Hey, modern art isn’t always pretty!
  6. Play with Tech– Allow children supervised play with technology. When my youngest got a child’s version of a Go Pro video camera for Christmas I groaned and wondered how I would find the time to read the online manual and figure it all out. One day I just handed it over to him. Within minutes he had figured out how to do slow motion, stop animation, and fast motion videos simply by pushing buttons and playing around with it.
  7. Cook– Cook together. Try out recipes using the metric system. Look at the numbers for half of a liter, a quarter of a liter, etc. Your child’s math and science teachers will thank you. Let children create their own recipes as well. Maybe they will be the next celebrity chef or invent the food of the future.
  8. Try Out a New Learning Platform Together– My eldest and I are both trying out Khan Academy. He is doing the really amazing “Pixar in a Box” unit and I signed myself up for a refresher course in Algebra. Not only am I brushing up on my numeracy skills, but I am also learning how the program works so that I can help my son with it.
  9. Have a Creative Show and Tell– Designate a moment in the week where each family member can showcase something they have created. This includes the parents. Each evening, a different family member shares something he/she has created. The possibilities are endless. Parents might even share a problem they solved at work.
  10. Take the Pressure Off– This is the most important guideline for encouraging creativity and fostering a willingness to have a go. There is only so much time in the day. Do not beat yourself up if you are not doing all of these great things with your children. Work on adding one idea to your daily routine. It may just be creating a space with accessible art supplies or Lego blocks so that your children can have a go. If they know they will have the opportunity to share their creations with the family they will be far more motivated to create. Who knows — you may even find a new talent or interest in the process as well!