Mapping the Polar Regions

(Pesaro, Italy) building the world. Image courtesy of batintherain, Flickr.

Did you know that while the Arctic is an ocean surrounded by continents, Antarctica is a continent surrounded by oceans? While this sounds like a simple play on words, it represents a profound difference in the geography, climate, and ecology of the two regions.

Did you know that the polar regions are more than just the North Pole and South Pole? The regions actually encompass the areas north of Arctic Circle and south of the Antarctic Circle, respectively. The Arctic thus encompasses the Arctic Ocean as well as portions of eight countries: Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, the United States, Canada, Denmark (the territory of Greenland), and Iceland. In comparison, the Antarctic encompasses the continent of Antarctica and portions of the South Atlantic, South Pacific, and Indian Oceans.

Did you know that some maps display a distorted representation of the polar regions? For example, the commonly used Mercator projection presents an accurate view of the equatorial regions but is distorted at both poles. On this type of map, Greenland is about the size of Africa. In reality, Africa is 14 times the size of Greenland! Additionally, the world map commonly used in textbooks and classrooms shows only a portion of Antarctica and does not represent the continent’s true shape. Viewing more accurate representations is the first step in teaching and learning about these two dramatically different, yet often confused areas.

Why teach about the polar regions, their geography, and maps?

These concepts seem to belong in a social studies unit, and, indeed, they do fit within the National Council for the Social Studies strand of People, Places and Environment. But science educators place great importance on recognizing, challenging, and correcting student misconceptions. Any incorrect ideas about the basic size, shape, and location of the Arctic and Antarctic will definitely impact students’ understanding of the science of the two regions. These concepts are best viewed as part of an interdisciplinary unit that integrates basic science, geography skills, and literature.

Lessons about the North and South Poles can also be extended to include the concept of magnetism. The Earth’s magnetic field is the basis for natural phenomena such as the aurora borealis, is believed to play a role in animal migrations, and is used to aid travel and communication. According to the Physical Science content standard of the National Science Education Standards, K-4 students should develop an understanding of light, heat, electricity, and magnetism. Hands-on experiments with magnets in the primary grades lead to an understanding of magnetic fields and compasses in the upper grades. Although most elementary students will not understand the difference between the magnetic poles and geographic poles, they can be introduced to the idea that the Earth has a magnetic field, which has been used in exploration throughout history. (Read the entire National Science Education Standards online for free or register to download the free PDF. The content standards are found in Chapter 6.)

Teaching the Concepts


Students in grades K-2 should first be introduced to globes and maps. A literature-based lesson that introduces the need for maps is based on the book I Hate English by Ellen Levine. Although this book does not discuss the polar regions, it does present the idea of using maps to show direction. Following this lesson, students can use globes and maps to locate the North Pole and South Pole and learn the four cardinal directions. The National Geographic lesson “Getting Lost” can be modified to include the poles and provides additional practice in using cardinal directions. Although transitioning from a globe to a map can be challenging, it is important for students to practice using both representations. Teacher-led discussions can assist students in understanding the differences between maps and globes, as well as the advantages and disadvantages for each.

Once students have developed a basic geographical understanding of the poles, they can begin to learn about each region’s characteristics. The book North Pole, South Pole will help students compare and contrast the two poles. Characteristics of the poles can be recorded on a T-chart as a class, in small groups, or individually.

Students in grades 3-5 should be familiar with globes and maps. In addition to locating the poles and reviewing cardinal directions, students are ready to use latitude and longitude and explore the differences between maps and globes. The lesson plan “Yarning About Latitude and Longitude” uses a whole-class, kinesthetic activity to introduce the concepts of latitude and longitude as well as the Equator, Arctic Circle, and Antarctic Circle. Two original songs (sung to the tune of “The Wheels on the Bus”) can help students remember the difference between latitude and longitude.

Students at the upper elementary level can also begin to explore map projections. Peeling an orange is a simple way to demonstrate the challenges of showing a curved surface on a flat map. Students can also begin to understand the distortion of map projections by creating a globe and a map with a tennis ball covered with paper. Both of these activities can be challenging and may frustrate your students. It may be helpful to perform these as a demonstration instead of a hands-on activity. Follow these activities or demonstrations with a comparison of a traditional Mercator projection and a polar map. National Geographic has a downloadable map for Antarctica, or you can use a globe. Have students record the similarities and differences in a graphic organizer such as a Venn diagram or T-chart.

The book Poles Apart: Why Penguins and Polar Bears Will Never Be Neighbors is an appropriate introduction to the polar regions for upper elementary students. Students can record information on a T-chart, or compare and contrast using a Venn diagram. Use a single chapter as a read aloud, as the text is dense! Less proficient readers will still benefit from the information in North Pole, South Pole.


Students in grades K-2 should be given time to explore magnets and their properties. Students can test a variety of materials, classifying them into “Magnetic” and “Non-magnetic” groups. Through experimentation, students will begin to notice patterns in magnetic and non-magnetic materials. Students may also notice a magnet’s polarity. Encourage students to record their observations, and ask questions.

An introductory lesson on polarity for students in grades 3-5 involves identifying and describing the poles of a magnet as well as demonstrating how the poles interact with one another. Students can also explore Earth’s magnetic field through the Exploratorium’s Science Snack: Magnetic Lines of Force. In this activity, a bar magnet is suspended inside a clear soda bottle. Iron filings inside the bottle form a 3-D magnetic field. This mess-free activity is a great way to introduce and visualize the Earth’s magnetic field. Students can then create their own compass. The web site “How Stuff Works” provides background information on Earth’s magnetic field and instructions for creating a simple magnetic compass.

Suggested Readings

Our highlighted books use physics, geography, and biology to explore some of the properties shared by the two ends of the Earth’s axis and other ways in which they are poles apart.

North Pole South Pole. Nancy Smiler Levinson. 2002. Picture book. Recommended ages: K-2.

Poles Apart: Why Penguins and Polar Bears Will Never Be Neighbors. Elaine Scott. Penguin Young Readers Group. 2004. Picture book. Notable Social Studies Trade Books (2005). Recommended Ages: Upper Elementary, Middle School.

Literacy Connection

Many of the activities described above include the skill of comparing and contrasting. Appropriate for all students in grades K-5, this is a crucial skill used in almost every content area. Many resources exist for using this strategy at developmentally appropriate levels. We’ve chosen to highlight a few here.

ReadWriteThink provides a lesson plan for introducing Venn Diagrams in the Kindergarten classroom. Students could use the Venn Diagram to sort magnetic and non-magnetic materials. The web site also provides an interactive Venn Diagram. Students type their concepts and drag them into the appropriate part of the diagram. Please note that you must print the diagram to see all of the student’s text!

Houghton Mifflin’s Education Place provides a printable T-chart. Students can use this to record characteristics of the Arctic and Antarctic, rather than phrasing them as similarities and differences. This type of chart is a useful note-taking tool and can be used before completing a Venn diagram.

This article was written by Jessica Fries-Gaither. For more information, see the Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears Contributors page. Email Jessica at

Copyright August 2011 – The Ohio State University. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0733024. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. This work is licensed under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported Creative Commons license.