Lessons with Augmented Reality Sandbox

Database of free to use lesson plans and ideas.

The Augmented Reality Sandbox has great potential to provide much more than just entertainment. It can be used to discuss various subjects with students form elementary schools to universities. A number of research have been conducted, including ones that actually used an AR sandbox, showing that introducing active participation boosts the learning process. The hands-on experience makes it more interesting and real-time visualisation helps to better undestand the subject. Active learning through the use of multisensory techniques can also help with retention of knowledge, as activity in different parts of the brain allows to encode information and store memories more deeply. Last, but not least, using the Sandbox can enhance students’ activity during the lesson, for example having them cooperate to reach a common goal.

That being said, we present You with few lesson samples covering various subjects. They have been organised from the most basic ones, addressed to elementary students, to more complex, requiring some knowledge about the subject. Of course they can be mixed together, all depending on Your audience and time available.

All resources are listed at the bottom of this page.

Basic Topography


Topographic maps provide a way of showing a 3-dimensional landscape on a 2-dimensional surface. The main feature of these maps are the contour lines. Every point on a single contour line represents the same elevation or height above a reference point. The contour interval represents the vertical distance between two adjacent contour lines. The closer together the lines, the steeper the terrain. Some maps also use a colouring pattern called hypsometric scale to better illustrate elevation changes.

Basic Activities

A great way to start the discussion about topography maps is to show a conventional 2-d map first. Build a landscape in the Sandbox, then use Pause function and place a lid (e.g. piece of cardboard) over the sandpit. This way after removing the lid the discussed map will line up perfectly with the actual terrain shape in the sandbox. Also it will prevent the younger kids from getting distracted and let You introduce them to the topic first. Start with some general questions, like:

  • Have you ever seen a map before?
  • What types of maps are there?
  • What do you see on the maps?

Then move on to the Sandbox and talk about the map shown on the lid. Ask the students if what they see on the cover looks like a map. What is it showing? Try to ask questions that will get them to start thinking about topography specifically. For instance, what does the blue represent? They will probably guess water. From there You can start to ask questions related to the direction water flows, where to find water (tops of mountains or bottoms of valleys). Once the students know that blue is low, You can start asking what that means about the height of everything around the blue (must be higher).This is a good moment to introduce the concept of contour lines. Ask the students to follow the path of one contour line. Does the line cross any other lines? Why not? Why they think some of the lines are closer to each other and other are far apart? To summarize make some hypotheses togehther with the students about where the high points on the map are, where the low points are, where the terrain will be steep, and where it will be flat. Then take the lid off end reveal the actual terrain shape. Make sure to verify the students’ hypotheses before You unfreeze the simulation and the inevitable fun with the sand starts.

After some time You can ask students to work together to build various landforms like a tall, steep mountain, low, gentle hill or a lake. Then review what they’ve learned about colours, contour lines, and elevations. Use questions like:

  • What color is the top of the mountain?
  • Which area is steep and which is flat? What happens to the contour lines in that areas?
  • Discuss walking across a flat area vs. a steep area. Which is easier? Which takes more effort?

Extra Activities

Show students a simplified contour map (without colours or labels) on a piece of paper (You will have to prepare it ahead) and ask them how to tell if the map shows a hill or a depression (of course this is not possible without labeling the lines). Ask the students what they should do so it becomes obvious which is which? Then label the lines and ask them to build the presented terrain in the Sandbox, using gained knowledge. Works best if You use a map of a region they are familiar with, as it makes it easier to connect the 2-d map with a landscape they built and a real one. You can also use the Overlay Image feature, and project contour lines straight onto the sand. The students’ task would be to merge the resultant contour lines with the preexisting ones.

Alternatively, let students form some landforms inside the Sandbox and then have them draw them from above (bird’s eye view), based on the projected contour lines. This will tell them much about actual projection of the real world on a flat surface. However, this particular task will work best for older audiences.


This lesson may work well in combination with the previous one, as the two topics overlap each other.


The science that studies landforms is called geomorphology. The Augmented Reality Sandbox can be used to model the varied landforms found on the planet, explore the processes that create them and think about how the shape of the earth’s surface affects humans and ecosystems. Geomorphic processes are generally considered to be either erosional or depositional. An erosional process is one in which the earth’s surface is worn down by wind, water, and/or ice. A depositional process involves the laying down of material (soil, rock, or organic matter) on the surface of the earth.

Basic Activities

Model a variety of landforms with the students and ask to name them. Kids often name and create a variety of landforms on their own. You may suggest landforms to make: mountains, volcanoes, islands, hills, cliffs, dunes, peninsulas, valleys, deltas, flood plains, meandering rivers, dams, etc. You can find a detailed list of landforms with their descriptions on Wikipedia. It is a good practice to have a set of photographs/topographic maps of the landforms You want to talk about. Often students are more keen to model geographic features they know, e.g. a big lake near their city or the country’s highest mountain. This is where the Overlay Image feature of the Augmented Reality Sandbox Software comes in handy. Project the desired shape of the contour lines onto the sand and ask the students to merge the ones they build with the preexisting shape. While building a river You may want to, especially for the older kids, teach the rule of Vs (the contour lines appear to form the letter ‘v’ which always points upstream like an arrow).

Introduce erosion and make connections between erosional processes and landform shape. Make it rain on the landscape by extending your arm over the sand. Observe how the water flows. Ask students to predict on which landform erosion would be the strongest and help them discuss their logic. Steeper slopes result in faster flowing water which has more energy and can carry larger loads of material increasing the amount of erosion and deposition. Use questions like:

  • When water flows downhill, does anything else flow with it?
  • How does erosion relate to the landforms we have explored?
  • Where will the sediment be deposited?

Deposition happens when the energy needed for sediment transport is too little and no longer sufficient to overcome the force of friction. The soil or sediment is left on the earth’s surface, often while the transporting force moves elsewhere. Relate the concept of deposition back to the landforms created by the students. Ask about the creation of dunes or canyons. Discuss different forces that take part, like waterflow, wind, gravity, glacial and tectonic activity.

Extra Activities

Ask students to think about how human activities affect erosion and deposition. Construction, road building, and other activities can increase the amount of erosion by exposing sediment that was protected under the soil surface. You can talk about different phenomena like climate change and how are they going to impact erosion. Use props (e.g. Lego bricks) to build human settlement and see how that affects waterflow and consequently erosion and deposition.




The science of water on earth is called hydrology. It examines how water moves and is distributed in the atmosphere, on and under the earth’s surface. Water on land is organized in regions called watersheds – areas of land that drain into a lake, river or other body of water. Watersheds are separated from one another by higher parts of the landscape: ridges, hills, mountains, etc. The Sandbox can be used to visually demonstrate and describe what a watershed is and discuss how human activity impacts watersheds.

Basic Activities

Build various landforms inside the sandpit: hills, valleys and plais. Ask the students to make virtual rain in different parts of the sandbox. Ask questions that will make them think about the movement of water on the earth’s surface.

  • What happens to the water when it rains on higher parts of the terrain?
  • Where the water stays?
  • Where it flows fast and where rather slowly?

Explore the concept of a watershed. You may ask the students if they know what a watershed is. Instruct them to build a long ridge that divides the sandbox into two separate regions. Once they’ve made their predictions, ask a volunteer to make it rain above the ridge. Explain that the water that flows into the first region is part of one watershed, while all the water that flows into the second region is part of a separate watershed. Describe that some watersheds involve very steep terrain while others are part of very subtle topography. In all cases, water always flows to reach the lowest point – an ocean, lake, river, stream, or groundwater source.

It is always a good idea to refer to real-life topography features that will be well known to students. Ask them to model their local watershed (You may want to print a map before the lesson). Challenge them to keep high level of accuracy. Using props like Lego bricks model houses and roads. Let the students observe where the water flows in the watershed. Ask questions like:

  • Where does water falling on <a certain location in the sanbox> flow?
  • Where do you think the water you are using comes from?
  • Are there any sources of pollution along the water’s way and where can they be moved to prevent it?

Discuss water cycle. Ask students what they think happens to the water once it reaches the lowest parts of terrain and bodies of water. You can use the WaterSinking feature to show where groundwater reservoirs can occur. Ask them where they think the rain that they are modeling with their hands comes from. Explain that water is involved in a neverending cycle.

Build a dam (Lego bricks come in handy again). This activity is always fun, yet very informative at the same time. Instruct students how to build a dam: make a large sand wall next to a discrete depression. Make a pass in the sand wall and place bricks there. Fill up the depression with water. Ask students to place buildings around the sand wall, based on their presumption if it’s a floodprone area or not. Once the bricks of the dam are taken away, the water will flood the surrounding terrain. Check the student’s hypotheses and discuss what defines a floodfree terrain. How does that affect the way where and how cities are build? How will the flood water act on heavily built-up surfaces versus ones that have lots of permeable grounds?

Talking flooding, You can ask students to dig a large water basin representing the sea and then see what happens to the coastline when water level rises. Tell students about the importance of careful planning but also our impact on the environment and sea levels. These are important topics and it’s always good to raise awarness amongst the youngest.

Extra Activities

Ask the students to build two contrasting watersheds, divided by a ridge. On one side of the ridge make the watershed simple and structured – one main river bed with regular channels going straight to the lowest floodplains. Let that resemble a man-made landscape. Put some Lego brick houses in the lowest part of the watershed. The other watershed should be more natural looking – with meandering river and some catchment areas in the upper parts representing upland water storage (run-off attenuation features) like rough terrain, trees and leaky dams. Then make the same amount of rain fall on the upper regions of both watersheds. Observe what happens. In the first watershed the water will reach the lowest regions much quicker, while in the second it will flow much slower and some will probably remain in the upper catchments. Ask the students what can be done to decrease the floodrisk in the first watershed. Introduce engineered flood defenses like dams in the main river channel, barriers protecting the houses in the lower regions and maybe some trees planted along the river (these can also be Lego bricks). Repeat the experiment. Tell the students about the importance of flood management and preserving natural environmental features to better control flooding risks.


Advanced Geomorphology

This lesson idea is based on an university course and therefore requires some degree of knowledge in earth sciences.

The objective of this lesson is for students to understand how the earth’s surface changes through natural processes including erosion and deposition and how landform, landscape position, and elevation influence soil genesis.

Firstly let students become familiar with the Sandbox and it’s features. Show them how to induce rainfall. Experiment with flooding and draining, test their knowledge about erosion and deposition. Ask them to model and name few landforms, before moving on to the main task. Give students time to play with the sand and trust us, even adults will appreciate that 🙂

For the main task, have students recreate a model of a real-world landscape with different landforms. It can be something local, or perhaps a particular area you were learning about. The important thing is the landscape has to contain at least 4-5 different soil types. Hand labels with photos/names of the soil orders and ask students to identify where those soils would form in the landscape. Use the labels as markers to indicate where a certain type of soil can be found. Encourage students to discuss and work together to develop their best theory of soil formation across the landscape. Due to the nature of this task it will work best when students are divided into small groups of 2-5. After all groups finish locating the soils, ask them to justify their reasoning. Refer to erosional and depositional processes you were talking about earlier and encourage group discussion.

Useful questions:

  • What did you notice about the flow of water?
  • What areas on the land surface that you created are more likely to erode? How do you know this?
  • What types of soil would you expect to form in these easily erodible areas?
  • Where would this eroded material accumulate?
  • What types of soils would you expect to form in this zone of accumulation?

Additionally You can ask students to draw a cross-section of the landscape they built and label the location of soils.

Links to External Resources

There are lots of lesson ideas with Augmented Reality Sandbox available in the Internet. We list some of them below for You to use.

https://arsandbox.ucdavis.edu/technical-resources-2/ – Educator resources from the original creators of the AR-Sandbox – Oliver Kreylos and his team form the University of California. Includes a comprehensive guide for educators and users – detailed background information, FAQs, learning goals, materials and tools, user tips, etc. Apart from these resources, on their page You will find manufacturing instructions and a forum for idea exchange.

http://gislab.utk.edu/outreach/ar-sandbox/teaching-with-the-ar-sandbox/ – A complete topography/landforms lesson plan for primary/secondary school students. Includes photos and advice on how to approach the teaching process. Credit to the University of Tennessee.

https://capecodstemnetwork.org/school/systems-in-a-sandbox – Topography and watershed/flood management lesson on exapmle of the Buzzards Bay. Included are worksheets in .pdf format for both teacher and the students. Credit to Rob Reynolds from Zephyr Education Foundation.

https://www.alaska.edu/files/epscor/Sandbox/Basic-Topography.pdf – A comprehensive topography lesson, with use of the Google Earth software. Student worksheets icluded. Credit to the University of Alaska.

https://www.usgs.gov/media/files/augmented-reality-ar-sandbox-lesson – Lesson ideas with simple activities and questions for students listed. Covering four subjects: topography, landforms, watersheds and volcanic hazards. Credit to the U.S. Geological Survey.

https://www.jbatrust.org/how-we-help/physical-models/ar-sandbox/ – Great ideas for watershed lessons presented in short, informative videos. Credit to the JBA Trust Charity.

https://acsess.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.4195/nse2016.11.0031 – A study on the implementation of an AR-Sandbox in teaching soils to undergraduate students. Includes helpful ideas on how to use the Sandbox in teaching soil science.

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/327753528_IMPLEMENTING_AUGMENTED_REALITY_SANDBOX_IN_GEODESIGN_A_FUTURE – Scientific paper covering the effectiveness of implementing an AR-Sandbox in professional work, on example of a geodesign workshop in Sydney, Australia.

https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/Augmented-Reality-Sandbox-Teaching-Tools-Activities-2925032 – Augmented Reality Sandbox teaching tools and activities for younger students. Includes worksheets, build-it challenges, etc. *Not Free*