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Let's Learn about Earthquakes!

Updated on May 5, 2015

Experiencing an earthquake?

Have you ever felt an earthquake? The first earthquake I ever felt was in Vermont while preparing for a trip to Costa Rica. The next two were incredible 7.0 and 7.2 earthquakes in Costa Rica. The last was a minor 6.1 on the Panamanian boarder. Each of these earthquakes felt very different.

When I began to prepare my children for moving to Costa Rica I knew that we needed to learn about earthquakes in order to prepare for the inevitable possibility of experiencing one. In this unit study I will share with you resources, games, activities and projects for learning about earthquakes.

Come feel the trust, the rolling waves and shake with the earth as we learn about earthquakes...

Photo Credit: Earthquake Subduction Fault

by John Cl Lahr

Earthquake Animations

Earthquake in Alaska 1964 - The Earth opened up and Swallowed Houses in Alaska

Alaska 1964 Good Friday earthquake damage.
Alaska 1964 Good Friday earthquake damage. | Source

Experiencing an Earthquake

The first time I ever remember hearing of earthquakes was in 1964 at the time of the big earthquake in Alaska.

I remember hearing of the ground opening up and swallowing houses and people. I was in first grade so I believe we must have read about it in our Weekly Readers. That, then, became my image of earthquakes.

I grew up in Vermont so obviously I didn't feel this earthquake.

I didn't actually experience my first earthquake until nearly 20 years later.

Earthquake Felt in Vermont! - Epicenter in Upstate New York registered about 2.6 on the Richter Scale.

Epicenter of an Earthquake
Epicenter of an Earthquake

Earthquake in up state New York

The first earthquake I ever felt was in Vermont while preparing for a trip to Costa Rica. My dad and I were sitting on the couch watching the news when suddenly we felt a jolt as if a tractor trailer truck had just hit the house. We might have gone out to investigate except that the newscaster, reporting live from New Hampshire, at that same moments jumped, sat up and looked around, and said "What was that?"

We later found out that the epicenter was actually in upstate New York. Up until that point, I had thought that it would have been impossible for earthquakes to strike New England.

This happened sometime in the early 1980s about 1982.

Seismograph Simulator - Measuring an Earthquake

Place the Seismograph Simulator on the table. The pen is suspended and does not move. What this device does is record the movements of the table.

Pull gently on the paper and have someone else tap the table. Can you see the movements on the graph?

Now try drawing. Will the seismograph pick up the movement?

Earthquakes in Costa Rica 1983

7.0 and 7.2 earthquakes in Costa Rica

In 1983 I moved to Costa Rica to live with my Aunt and Uncle. One Sunday I sat in a large stone church. It had very high ceilings with huge arched doorways and enormous chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. Not long into the sermon the chandeliers began to sway. The minister turned white as a sheet. A lady in the front began to scream and run down the isle. Everyone looked to the minister for direction but he was too frightened to speak. My uncle grabbed the screaming lady and held her in the doorway, the safest place to be, and my aunt, who was assisting at the service, took over the role of the minister and instructed everyone in a calm voice to stand in a doorway.

In the meantime, the windows rattled, the chandeliers swung back and forth more violently and you could hear the stones of the church walls grate as they moved and rubbed against each other. The movement of the earth felt like waves or rather ripples like the ones on a frog pond as a frog slips into the water.

It was all over in about a minute. The stunned congregation ended the service with a quick prayer and all headed home to see how their homes had fared and to check on friends and neighbors.

As we passed shops we noticed shoes toppled over in the storefront windows but otherwise didn't see much damage.

Later we learned that the epicenter was about 100 miles south in San Isidro de General where the Cathedral collapsed as well as many other old homes.

Soon after that earthquake, possibly 2 weeks to a month later I was walking with my future husband along a country road when we heard dogs begin to bark and them felt the earth start to roll in waves possibly as high as a foot. These waves felt very different from the previous earthquake because of the height of the waves. The first felt like the waves were maybe an inch in height. These waves felt more like a foot.

Being outside did not feel scary to me. I had learned from hearing of the Alaskan Earthquake 20 years before that in a serious earthquake the ground opened up and swallowed buildings. I could not see that happening so I thought that this earthquake was not all that big. My fiancé, a native Costa Rican with lots of experience with earthquakes felt much differently. He knew it was a big one.

There was a small cathedral across the park from us. We could hear the rocks grating with the movement of the earth. People were screaming in the church there as well. We returned to my uncle's house to find my 16 year old cousin sitting on the living room floor crying in fear. The upright piano had nearly toppled over on her and she was not even able to crawl out of the way to the door. The china cupboard in the neighbor's house across the street had toppled over and broke antique dishes that had belonged to the family for over 200 years.

My fiancé quickly went home to his house to check on his family. His brother was working at a hospital on the 10th floor. The building had been built on rollers so that it wouldn't collapse but that meant that anything inside would roll back and forth as well. Patients in beds slammed from side to side in the rooms. Doctors and nurses too were thrown back and forth. This hospital was on the Pacific Coast.

The epicenter of this quake was also near San Isidro de General and continued the damage of the previous quake.

During one of these two quakes the fourth floor of the four story Toyota in San Jose building collapsed. San Jose is 100 miles from the Epicenter. Tourists from the Hotel Costa Rica, a very old, elegant hotel in the center of San Jose, came running naked out of the building in their fear. Part of the wall of a church in Bario Mexico, a neighborhood in San Jose separated from the building and that building had to be condemned. Many, many buildings suffered damage, cracked walls, etc.

These two earthquakes measured 7.0 and 7.2 on the Richter Scale. There were many aftershocks, some as high as 5.6 in the days to come. This experience has left me nervous of any movements in buildings, elevators and vibrations of large trucks. I am thankful not to have been at the epicenter.

What is Seismology? - What does a Seismologist do?

Graphic of earthquake epicenter and damage to man-made structures.
Graphic of earthquake epicenter and damage to man-made structures.

Earthquake Proof Building - Blocks Experiments in Seismology

Melissa & Doug Standard Unit Solid-Wood Building Blocks with Wooden Storage Crate (Developmental Toy, 60 pieces, 5.25" H x 12.5" W x 15" L)
Melissa & Doug Standard Unit Solid-Wood Building Blocks with Wooden Storage Crate (Developmental Toy, 60 pieces, 5.25" H x 12.5" W x 15" L)

First try building with wooden blocks. What shapes of buildings withstand the shaking of the earth for a longer period of time? Record your observations. Take digital photos of your buildings before and after.



Seismologists are engineers who study structures in order to prevent the destruction and collapse of buildings as a result of earthquakes. For children, this is one of the most enjoyable parts of studying earthquakes. Challenge your children to build structures that won't collapse when the table is shaken.

What makes one structure stay up or at least stay up longer than another?

Could you apply the knowledge you gained from an experiment with say, building blocks to another structure made from Legos? What about one made from newspapers?

Set up a table and provide building materials. Ask your children to build a structure that they believe will withstand an earthquake. Test your building by shaking the table. Were certain parts of the structure more able to withstand the earthquake than others? Why?

LEGO Education Wheels Set
LEGO Education Wheels Set

Next build a platform on wheels. Seismologists in Costa Rica believe that having a building on wheels will keep it from collapsing during an earthquake. Try building with the same wooden blocks as above. Did using a platform on wheels help?


The safest place to be ...

if a big earthquake strikes, is in the triangle formed by the floor, side of the bed and collapsed wall being held up by the bed according to experts in Costa Rica. In a large earthquake, there may not be time to get out of the house.

Normal Fault

"Oblique slip fault"
"Oblique slip fault" | Source

Earthquake Workbooks - Worksheets and Blackline Masters for Studying Earthquakes

These are workpages that can be used to learn, assess or demonstrate knowledge of earthquake science and understanding. Use these as homework, seatwork, components of lapbooks or literacy bags.

Earthquakes and Volcanoes
Earthquakes and Volcanoes

Product Features

This science activity book promotes scientific methods and critical-thinking skills and also provides information about geology that will fascinate your students.

Answer key included.

Grades 5 - 9, 64 pages


Making Earthquake Models

Hands-on Earthquake Experiments

Janice VanCleave's Earthquakes: Mind-boggling Experiments You Can Turn Into Science Fair Projects
Janice VanCleave's Earthquakes: Mind-boggling Experiments You Can Turn Into Science Fair Projects

20 simple experiments explaining earthquakes that kids can do with materials found around the home


Christmas Earthquake in Costa Rica

6.3 Earthquake on the Panamanian Costa Rican Boarder

The last earthquake I felt was a minor 6.3 on the Panamanian boarder. We were living between San Jose and Cartago in a large open concept modern house. The four bedrooms were well separated. The master bedroom was on the first floor to the right. There was one bedroom on the opposite side of the house and two more bedrooms just above each of these on the second floor. To reach the second floor you had to go up open stairs that stretched into the middle of the cathedral ceilinged open living space, not a safe place to be during an earthquake. My three children were asleep, each in their own rooms.

I was the only one to feel the beginning of the earthquake. I bolted out of bed and woke my husband who thought I was crazy. I am not sure what had woken me. Then the bed started to roll with the waves. I yelled to the kids to go to their doorways. It was terrifying not being able to go to them. As first they didn't hear me. It took screaming to get them up and helpless not to be able to hold them. This earthquake just kept rolling and rolling. It seemed to go on forever. When it finally stopped we met in the living room to watch the chandeliers sway.

In the morning we discovered that the epicenter was on the Panamanian border and that only one person was killed. Though the quake occurred on the Atlantic side of Panama, a surprising amount of damage was done to a town on the Pacific side of Costa Rica.

A strong earthquake shook the border of Costa Rica and Panama

Experiencing an Earthquake - What does an Earthquake feel like?

Please tell us about your experiences with earthquakes:

Costa Rica has a Childrens Museum Earthquake Model

Have you ever experienced an earthquake?

Have you experienced an earthquake? - How could you help your children understand about earthquakes?

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    • Gypzeerose profile image

      Rose Jones 

      7 years ago

      Really excellent lens: Angel Blessed! Now I just need to know what to do if they come, because one probably will come.

    • virtualboy profile image


      7 years ago

      provide them with information

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Informational. Please also check out this site ,,,,,,

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      I like this Lens, its so informative; full of fun filled and useful information!!

    • ajgodinho profile image

      Anthony Godinho 

      8 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      This is an excellent study of earthquakes. I think it's important to teach children about earthquakes in order to be as prepared as possible. I've experienced a few in my lifetime, but no significant damage. Sad to see the most recent one in's worst I've seen in recent memory.

    • KathyMcGraw2 profile image

      Kathy McGraw 

      8 years ago from California

      You have a lot of good info here for helping kids. We have an earthquake simulator that is also popular, and I think it does make an impression. Blessed.

    • Michey LM profile image

      Michey LM 

      8 years ago

      Great informational lens. 5*

      I am working on a lens now, and I lensroll when I am done.

    • RhondaAlbom profile image

      Rhonda Albom 

      8 years ago from New Zealand

      Great earthquake information. Lensrolling to my two earthquake lenses.

    • tandemonimom lm profile image

      tandemonimom lm 

      8 years ago

      Another excellent resource!

    • Teddi14 LM profile image

      Teddi14 LM 

      8 years ago

      This is useful information. Very helpful with all the recent earthquakes.

    • Becca Sanz profile image

      Becca Sanz 

      8 years ago

      Cool ideas!

    • Eevee LM profile image

      Eevee LM 

      8 years ago

      Thank you, Mom, for having taught us all about earthquakes. Went we felt the earthquake in Costa Rica it wasn't as scary because I knew what was happening.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Thankyou for creating such a great collated resource for helping children understand the process of earthquakes - very informative and great of you to share your personal experiences.


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