Catch a Wave: How Waves are Formed

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In this three-part activity, learners explore how waves are formed and why some waves are bigger than others. First, learners observe waves of water in a pan generated by an electric fan. Learners predict how the waves will change at low, medium, and high settings and compare their predictions to their observations. Then, learners drop a toothpick in the pan and turn on the fan to simulate how water particles spin in the direction of the wind. In the final activity, learners create a beach model to study wave size and patterns. This detailed lesson plan includes reflection questions, extension/simplification suggestions, web resources, and a blackline master.

Quick Guide

Preparation Time:
Under 5 minutes

Learning Time:
45 to 60 minutes

Estimated Materials Cost:
$10 - $20 per group of students

Age Range:
Ages 8 - 11

Resource Types:
Activity, Lesson/Lesson Plan, Model, Simulation


Materials List (per group of students)

  • 1 shallow, rectangular tray or pan (2-3 inches deep and at least 14 inches long) – preferably a glass baking dish or another see- through container
  • 1 gallon jug of water
  • 1 electric desk fan (with low, medium and high settings)
  • 1 small bag of rocks or sand
  • Catch a Wave handout
  • Handful of toothpicks
  • Pens or pencils
  • Globe or world map
  • Blue food coloring (optional)
  • 5 large marbles (optional)
  • Some water sounds or surf rock music (optional)


  • Earth and Space Science
    • Earth Processes
      • Weather and Climate
    • Earth Structure
      • Oceans and Water
      • Atmosphere
  • Mathematics
    • Data Analysis and Probability
      • Data Analysis
      • Data Collection
      • Data Representation
  • Physical Sciences
    • Energy
    • States of Matter
      • Liquids
    • Vibration and Waves
      • Wave Properties
      • Wave Motion
  • The Nature of Science
    • The Scientific Process
      • Conducting Investigations
      • Gathering Data
      • Formulating Explanations
      • Communicating Results

Informal Categories

  • Model Building
  • Nature and Environment


To use this activity, learners need to:

  • see
  • read
  • touch

Learning styles supported:

  • Involves teamwork and communication skills
  • Involves hands-on or lab activities


Components that are part of this resource:

Includes alignment to state and/or national standards:

This resource is part of:

Access Rights:

  • Free access


  • Daniels, Eve ; Dunham, Trudy


  • All rights reserved, Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System, 2008