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Handy Earthquake Model

In this activity, students will explore the role of friction and the release of pressure as it relates to earthquakes and model tectonic plate action.

Just by looking at the Earth, it would appear that the surface was smooth and made of one piece. The opposite is true though — the surface (outermost layer of crust and the upper mantle) is made up of many large, flat pieces of rock called tectonic plates.

The tectonic plates are heated and cooled by the rocks underneath it. As a result, the plates move apart, collide, or slide under each other at a rate anywhere between 2 to 12 cm per year. If the accumulated stress exceeds the strength of the plates, the rocks crunch or break suddenly, resulting in features such as mountains, volcanoes, mid-ocean ridges, oceanic trenches, and, of course, earthquakes.


  • Model tectonic plate action.

  • Describe the role of friction and the release of pressure as it relates to earthquakes.


  • pairs of hands!

Key Questions

  • How hard was it to move your hand?
  • When it broke free did you feel the sudden release of energy? This is a little like an earthquake!

What To Do

  1. Hold up your hands, palms together.
  2. Press your hands together as hard as you can. Your hands represent two of the Earth’s plates.
  3. Continue pressing very hard, but now try to slide one hand up and along the other one.
  4. Keep trying to slide it until one hand breaks free.


  • Try using one of your hands and one of someone else’s hands. Do different hand sizes make it easier or harder to slide your hand?

Other Resources

Government of British Columbia | Earthquake Preparedness and Response

Government of British Columbia | Master of Disaster Youth Education

Government of Canada | Natural Resources Canada |  Earthquakes Canada

U.S. Geological Survey | Earthquake Hazards Program | Earthquakes for Kids

Cybersleuth Kids | Earthquake Resources