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Anytime Lesson Plan: What Happens in an Earthquake?


In this activity, students will learn what to expect during an earthquake and practice the actions to take during an earthquake.


In this activity, students will:

  1. learn what to expect during an earthquake.
  2. practice the actions to take during an earthquake.


  • timers (one for the class or enough for pairs/groups of students to each have one)
  • student worksheet
  • supplies for sound effects (optional)



  1. Print one worksheet for each student.
  2. If you want to make an earthquake sound scape (optional), collect materials that will make appropriate sound effects.


Discuss what students already know about earthquakes.  Ask questions such as:

  • How many of you have felt an earthquake? 
  • Have you ever heard stories of earthquakes?
  • What types of things do you think you would feel (senses and emotions) during an earthquake?
  • If it hasn’t already been discussed, introduce the idea that some earthquakes are minor and can barely be felt, while other earthquakes are intense, with very strong shaking and a lot of resulting damage. 

Other earthquake lessons, like Plotting Earthquakes or Memories of the 1989 Loma Prieta Quake make a good introduction to earthquake preparedness.  This activity also correlates to the Earthquake exhibit at the Academy, but can easily be done before or after your visit.


  1. Describe what a more intense earthquake would feel like.  Have students imagine they are standing on a raft on the ocean or a waterbed.  Ask them to show what it might be like to try to stand.  Describe how in an earthquake, the ground moves in waves. Get all the students moving as if they were trying to stand during a large earthquake.
  2. How long does an earthquake last?  Have students predict on their own how long they think earthquakes last and write their guess on the worksheet.  You can have them practice converting between seconds, minutes, and hours or just write in their one guess with the correct units.  Ask students to share out their predictions.
  3. Explain to students that in most earthquakes shaking rarely lasts for over a minute in any one area. Strong shaking from a major quake usually lasts from 30 to 60 seconds. The 1906 San Francisco earthquake lasted about 60 seconds. In the 1964 Alaskan earthquake, the shaking lasted 3 to 4 minutes - an extremely long time. This does not happen very often.
  4. Break the class into pairs. Explain that students will be estimating how long a minute lasts and will take turns being the shaker and the recorder.  First, have them practice shaking.  Remind them that the earth moves in waves and that they can shake in waves as well.
  5. If you have enough timers for each pair to have one, make sure they know how to use them and how to record the time.  (If you only have one timer, you will write the time elapsed on the board every 5 seconds with the shakers turned so they cannot read the time.)
  6. When you give the signal, the first shaker should start shaking with their eyes closed or turned away from all clocks and continue until they think a minute is up.  The timer should record how much time their partner spent shaking, without giving them clues about how much time has elapsed. 
  7. After the timer has shared how close the shaker was to a minute, students should switch roles and repeat the process.
  8. After all students have had a chance to be shaker and timer, discuss with the class how close they were to a minute, who had the shortest earthquake, the longest, etc.  Also make sure to ask if the second group come closer to one minute than the first and if so, why? (perhaps because the second pair of students had the advantage of observing the first pair)
  9. Have everyone shake together one last time, queuing them when to start and stop, but telling them not to watch a clock.  After the minute of shaking, discuss how long the shaking felt like. Discuss what feelings they might experience if the ground were shaking for the whole minute.
  10. Finally, wrap up the discussion with what might happen to other objects in the room after the ground shakes for a minute. Write these on the board – you will be adding to the list later.
  11. Know what to do during a quake.  Explain that you are going to talk through an imaginary earthquake to help students understand what they should do during a real one - “Drop, Cover, and Hold.” Direct students to practice the following actions:
    • Drop: Get under the table or desk.
    • Cover: Turn away from the windows.
    • Hold on: Put both hands on the back of your neck.
    • Hold on: If your desk or table moves, hold onto the legs and move with it.
  12. Talk through a script of an earthquake while they practice getting under desks or tables.  Use your imagination or this example script from FEMA: 
    “Imagine that you hear a low, rumbling, roaring sound. The noise builds, getting louder and louder, for a few seconds. Then, Wham! There’s a terrific jolt. You feel like someone suddenly slammed on the brakes in the car, or like a truck just rammed into the side of the building.
    The floor seems to be moving beneath you. It’s hard to stand up, or even stay in your seat. If you do stand up, you might feel like you’re riding a raft down a fast river. When you walk, it’s like trying to walk on a trampoline or a waterbed.
    You hear someone say, “Earthquake! Drop, Cover, and Hold!”  I want all of you at your desks to take cover as quickly and quietly as you can, right now.  
    The building is creaking and rattling. Books are falling from the bookcase. Hanging lamps and plants are swaying. Suddenly a pot falls to the floor and smashes, and the plant spills. A window pane just shattered, and glass is falling to the floor. The table is sliding, too. Be sure to stay in the drop, cover, and hold position under your desk. If your desk is moving, grab the legs and move with it.  
    You hear noises outside. Dogs are barking. Cats are meowing. A baby is crying. People are shouting and screaming. The shaking is making church bells ring. You hear crashing sounds, from brick chimneys and other loose parts of the building falling to the ground. Trees outside are swaying and scraping against the walls.
    Inside the room, pictures are moving on their nails. Oh! That one just fell off the wall and crashed to the floor. The desk drawers are sliding open. The lights begin to flicker on and off... they just went out! Now the door swings back and forth on its hinges. Bang! It slams shut. There’s silence now. Just as suddenly as the noise and shaking began, the room grows quiet.” (HELP: Hands-on Earthquake Learning Package, California Edition (1983) California Seismic Safety Commission, FEMA)
  13. While reading the script, you can assign students to help make the noises described in the story.  You can even provide them with props to make the sounds (pencils, books, or other objects to drop; chairs to rattle and slide; pencils in a cup to rattle). Read through the script a few times to help students have a strong mental image of what things might happen during an earthquake.
  14. After they have experienced the earthquake reenactment a few times, add to your list on the board, objects that fell or moved in the script.  (hanging lamps, potted plants, window shattered, door swinging, pictures on the wall, drawers and cabinets).  Discuss why “drop, cover, and hold” might protect them from the things that fall during the quake.
  15. Being prepared for what to do during an earthquake. Have students review the drop, cover, and hold on procedure one more time by drawing their own cartoons on the worksheet.
  16. Assign each pair of students a place where they might be when an earthquake occurs.  Use the suggestions on the worksheet (in the classroom, in the schoolyard, eating dinner at home, watching television, in bed, or in the car) or make up your own.  Have them write down their ideas of what they should do during the shaking, including a specific place they might go to find cover. (Most of the answers should contain drop, cover, and hold on then wait for adult instructions, for specific suggestions see the teacher background.)  This also would make a great take home assignment to be done with their family.


  • We suggest you follow this lesson with our other earthquake preparedness lesson, Thinking Ahead, which addresses steps to take before an earthquake occurs.
  • Test students’ knowledge online.  Play “Quake Quiz SF” (http://quakequizsf.org/).  Players are given 6 different locations in which an earthquake might take place and then are asked what they should do in each situation.
  • Connecting to the Earthquake exhibit  If you will be bringing your class to the Academy, you can reinforce both what the experience of an earthquake is like and how to prepare for one in our new earthquake exhibit. 
    • San Francisco Shake Experience: Students can experience what an earthquake actually feels like in the shake experience.  This short simulation will provide students with an opportunity to experience the 1989 Loma Prieta and 1906 San Francisco earthquakes.  The shake experience links nicely to what students learned about how long earthquakes last and the sounds that they might hear during an intense earthquake. Though children 3-6 years old are allowed on the shake table in small chaperoned groups, there are a few things of which to be aware:   (1) though allowed, this experience can be frightening, so make sure to properly prepare your students; (2) for safety's sake, everyone must be able to grip the railing securely; (3) wheelchairs are accommodated in the Shake House exhibit; and (4) children ages 3 years or younger are not permitted in the Shake House.
    • Earthquake preparedness: One section of the exhibition highlights the steps that you can take to prepare for an earthquake. Have students explore this section of the exhibit and report what they learned about the safety steps that they should take before, during, or after an earthquake.



California Content Standards

Grade 4

Earth Sciences

  • 5a.  Students know some changes in the earth are due to slow processes, such as erosion, and some changes are due to rapid processes, such as landslides, volcanic eruptions, and earthquakes.

Health Education

  • 1.5.S.  Identify basic safety guidelines associated with weather-related emergencies and natural disasters (e.g., floods, earthquakes, and tsunamis).
  • 1.6.S.  Identify disaster preparedness procedures at home, at school, and in the community.



There is a 62% probability that at least one earthquake of magnitude 6.7 or greater will occur on a San Francisco Bay region fault before 2032.  The 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake measured 6.9 on the moment magnitude scale (Mw), while the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake measured 7.8. The United States Geological Survey has a superb description of many of the possible hazards during and as a consequence of a large earthquake in the Bay Area (http://pubs.usgs.gov/gip/2005/15/).

Before doing this lesson with your students, make sure to familiarize yourself with the 6 steps to take to prepare for an earthquake: make a plan, secure your home, get a kit, “drop, cover, hold on”, check for hazards, and stay connected.  The attached file, “Get Quake Ready” and the San Francisco Dept of Emergency Management (http://72hours.org/) website have a lot of great information on how to prepare for an earthquake. 


What to Do During an Earthquake from FEMA

  • Stay as safe as possible during an earthquake. Be aware that some earthquakes are actually foreshocks and a larger earthquake might occur. Minimize your movements to a few steps to a nearby safe place and if you are indoors, stay there until the shaking has stopped and you are sure exiting is safe.

If indoors

  • DROP to the ground; take COVER by getting under a sturdy table or other piece of furniture; and HOLD ON until the shaking stops. If there isn’t a table or desk near you, cover your face and head with your arms and crouch in an inside corner of the building.
  • Stay away from glass, windows, outside doors and walls, and anything that could fall, such as lighting fixtures or furniture.
  • Stay in bed if you are there when the earthquake strikes. Hold on and protect your head with a pillow, unless you are under a heavy light fixture that could fall. In that case, move to the nearest safe place.
  • Use a doorway for shelter only if it is in close proximity to you and if you know it is a strongly supported, load bearing doorway.
  • Stay inside until the shaking stops and it is safe to go outside. Research has shown that most injuries occur when people inside buildings attempt to move to a different location inside the building or try to leave.
  • Be aware that the electricity may go out or the sprinkler systems or fire alarms may turn on.
  • DO NOT use the elevators.

If outdoors

  • Stay there.
  • Move away from buildings, streetlights, and utility wires.
  • Once in the open, stay there until the shaking stops. The greatest danger exists directly outside buildings, at exits and alongside exterior walls. Many of the 120 fatalities from the 1933 Long Beach earthquake occurred when people ran outside of buildings only to be killed by falling debris from collapsing walls. Ground movement during an earthquake is seldom the direct cause of death or injury. Most earthquake-related casualties result from collapsing walls, flying glass, and falling objects.

If in a moving vehicle

  • Stop as quickly as safety permits and stay in the vehicle. Avoid stopping near or under buildings, trees, overpasses, and utility wires.
  • Proceed cautiously once the earthquake has stopped. Avoid roads, bridges, or ramps that might have been damaged by the earthquake.

If trapped under debris

  • Do not light a match.
  • Do not move about or kick up dust.
  • Cover your mouth with a handkerchief or clothing.
  • Tap on a pipe or wall so rescuers can locate you. Use a whistle if one is available. Shout only as a last resort. Shouting can cause you to inhale dangerous amounts of dust.


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