Google Earth is our Paper – Part 1: Find a location, Begin a journey

This is a series of posts about the use of Google Earth as a platform for my students to write. It was first inspired by the 21 Steps by Charles Cumming highlighted by Ewan McIntosh in a seminar at the Scottish Learning Festival.

For a while I have been keen to take advantage of, and further explore, Google Earth for writing and this series of posts will document the unit we are currently running in our classes which is a piece of a wider digital narrative jigsaw.

Be a Location Scout

I wanted to dispense with the written plan for this unit and begin with a location and journey that could be plotted on Google Earth. For a while I thought about coming up with a fictional context for our work but in the end I decided that the amount of work we had already done on Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach would give the children comfort and confidence. 

The first step is to find a suitable location in Google Earth for your writing context. I was looking for a house on a hill, near to the sea, that in the story was owned by Aunt Sponge and Spiker. It may feel like a needle in a haystack but really you are spoilt for choice! You have to become a location scout for your upcoming writing, and spending a little time finding the right place will pay dividends.


I soon decided that we were going to write the story of James escaping from his Aunts’ house and the surrounding area needed to provide a location for the story. I found a location with a small town at the foot of the hill and realised this was ideal. Take a look at the house in this Google Earth file.

This is the file I shared with my class – they opened it and explored the surrounding area for possible escape routes. We discussed as a class suitable hiding places: old buildings, bushes, cattle sheds. The children highlighted these on the SMARTBoard so we could share them as a class. With more built up areas the layers of information you can add in Google Earth could aid the children’s discovery of plot ideas.

It was important for me to continually bring it back to the fact that we are going to tell the story here, in Google Earth, this was our planning. We were exploring possible plot lines together and I would discuss possible sentences with the class – this helped them to focus on the escape story. The children responded really well to the visual, spatial idea for planning a story.

Plot Your Story’s Journey

The next step for us was to plot the escape route for James and I wanted the children to explore this themselves. After a brief demonstration of how to use the path tool in Google Earth the children went off and plotted ideas for escape routes on their laptops. It was liberating for the children to be planning their story in this way – I witnessed lots of speaking and listening as they talked through escape ideas and situations that might arise as the Aunts give chase.

To maintain a clear class focus we worked together to plot a journey from the house to James’ eventual escape. As we plotted the journey James would take on foot away from the house we made decisions on the fly about which way he would turn and which places he may stop and hide – all of the time picking up on ideas or locations the children recognised. The location was helping us define the story – the children were not just trying to dream something up.

A building site in the town offered us a great opportunity for escape and we even stopped and hunkered down between two parked lorries. I zoomed in and talked to the class about what they could imagine seeing and hearing – we spoke of the dust and mud on the large tyres and the sound of workmen nearby. All of which I hope will enrich their writing.

The building site led to an idea for his escape and as a class we decided that he would not continue on foot but conceal himself in a nearby lorry, which would eventually drive away from the Aunts and take him to safety in the next town. You can see the journey we plotted in this Google Earth file.

The children will now be adding audio to the journey and begin to talk through their escape stories. It is clear from this example that the opportunities for children’s fiction being inspired by and driven by a location is huge. It should be an interesting week of work with the class.

5 thoughts on “Google Earth is our Paper – Part 1: Find a location, Begin a journey

  1. I’m glad you are sharing. I, too, am moving into Google Earth with my kids (an imaginary Heroic Journey) on a project that should soon be wrapping up (crossing fingers). It’s been interesting and I will reflect a bit later when all the pieces are in place. But, the kids love seeing their project superimposed on Google Earth.
    And I love the layers of learning that goes on.

  2. I just found this post through a Google Alert I have on the terms ‘Google Earth.’ I’m currently studying and writing about applications of Google Earth in the classroom and I think this is a fantastic example! I’m particularly interested to see examples from non-science/geography classes because that’s where the application has been used the most and it’s good to see how much further it can go! Thanks for this post.

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  4. Hi Tom – this is fantastic – it’s so good to be able to follow the story like this and to read about how much your class have got out of it. Amazing geography!

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