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Make a Salt Dough Map (In 7 Straightforward Steps!)

August 2, 2023
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Easy and fun to make, salt dough maps are a great visual aid for learning the geography of a country and a fun, hands-on tool for making history come alive.

Why Make a Salt Dough Map

We’re very much the hands-on learner types at my house. Anything that lets us build, create, or bake (or play educational games!) captures our attention and helps us retain what we’re learning. And, there’s really no better hands-on projects for learning about places than a salt dough map. (Except maybe food. Food is always a highly-recommended learning activity.)

Creating their own three dimensional map helps students visualize places and events in ways no other project does. I still remember way back in our early days of homeschooling when we were learning about Ancient Egypt. Lower Egypt and Upper Egypt made no sense on a flat map. Why on earth was Lower Egypt at the top of the map? Because those designations reflect the flow of the Nile, that’s why! 

Salt dough is a great medium because it’s inexpensive and easy to make, simple to work with, and very sturdy once it’s dried. 

Salt dough paints very well, too. Depending on how long you bake your completed map, you may need to use two coats of paint. We found that a softer dough absorbs more paint. We allowed the map for this article to air dry for two or three days, then baked it for about 20 minutes. It only needed one coat of paint. 

Because it’s very much like molding with Play-doh or clay, kids of all ages can easily make a salt dough map. Younger kids may need a little help with the finer details, but this project is a suitable hands-on project for middle and high school students, as well. They can add more detail than a younger student and create a very sophisticated project for their history or geography lessons. 

How to Make a Salt Dough Map

You’ll need a cardboard base for your salt dough map. Any sturdy piece of cardboard will do, but we really like to make our maps on pizza boxes. These boxes are sturdy, easily accessible (most pizza places are happy to give you one if you just ask) and the perfect size. Plus the lid keeps your creation safe while it dries and the box makes it easy to transport.

How to Make a Salt Dough Map

  • Flour
  • Salt
  • Water
  • Blank outline map of the country or state of your choice
  • Sturdy piece of cardboard or pizza box
  • Pencil
  • Sharpie marker
  • Tape
  • Paint

Step 1

  • Print your map. I usually just search “free printable outline map of {insert country or state name.}”

  • Printing on regular letter paper works fine, but sometimes it’s helpful to print a larger size, such as 11x17, so that it’s easier to capture more detail on your map. You can usually get these sizes printed at an office supply store if you don’t have the equipment to do so at home.

Step 2

  • Transfer the outline map to your piece of cardboard. First, lightly tape the outline map to your box. Then, trace the map in pencil, bearing down hard enough to make an impression of the outline on your box.

  • You might want to heavily shade the entire back of your map with a lead pencil before taping it to the box. Sometimes this makes it easier to see the transferred lines once you remove the map.

  • Gently lift one side to make sure you can see all of your transferred lines before removing the taped map.

Step 3

  • Remove the map to reveal the transferred outline. Trace over the outline with a Sharpie marker.

  • At this point, you can lightly spray paint the cardboard if you’d like. Use blue to depict water and tan or green to indicate land. As long as you don't paint heavily, the outline will still be visible.

  • Alternately, your kids may opt to paint around their country or state once the salt dough portion is completed.

Step 4

  • Prepare the salt dough. In a large bowl, mix equal parts flour and salt together to make the salt dough. You’ll probably want two to four cups of dough, depending on the size of your map.

  • Tip: One 26 ounce box of salt contains about two cups.

  • Mix in just enough water to create a dough that is a Play-doh-like consistency. While the dough may be slightly sticky, you don’t want the dough to be wet. Because of the salt, the perfect consistency won’t be sticky like plain flour dough. Instead, it should leave more of a gritty feel on your hands rather than a sticky dough.

Step 5

  • Place the dough on your cardboard base and shape it into the outline. We found it helpful to push the dough slightly past the outline, then gently push it back with a fingertip. This helped achieve more detailed edges.

  • After you’ve filled in the outline map, you can add more dough to build up areas to depict mountains and valleys, using a topographical map as a guide. You may also want to use your fingers to indent areas showing lakes or a toothpick to trace out rivers.

  • You can also insert toothpicks or straight pins with the ball tops into areas showing the country or state’s capital, large cities, states or territories, and landmarks. After the dough dries, you can add labels to the toothpick (or pin) flags.

  • While most of your map should be basically to scale, having traced a printed map as your guide, it's fun to add not-so-scaled highlights. For example, Brianna added The Leaning Tower of Pisa to our map of Italy and Mt. Fuji to Japan in years past. And I suspect that Uluru is not quite to scale in this map of Australia.

Step 6

  • Let your map dry. You can either leave it in the sun for several hours or place it in the oven at 200 degrees (F). If you use the oven, be sure to supervise carefully, especially if you’re baking a painted pizza box! The dough should become hard enough that it doesn’t "give" when you press on it.

Step 7

  • Paint your map (we use tempera or acrylic paint). And complete your toothpick labels. We just used address label stickers. We cut them in half lengthwise so they weren’t so big in comparison to the map. (We probably could have cut the toothpicks down smaller, as well.) Then, we wrote the city or landmark name close to the right end of the label. Finally, we folded the label around the top of the toothpick, stuck it to the empty space we’d left on the left side, and cut off any excess.

  • You can also use paint or a Sharpie marker to mark the country’s physical and political boundaries, states or territories, landmarks or any other features relevant to your studies that you didn’t label with pins. (Or instead of using pins altogether.)

How to Use a Salt Dough Map

That’s it! You now have a wonderful tool for studying your country of choice and a really awesome keepsake of your studies. 

Leave your map out while you’re reading out the country or doing your history lesson. You can stop periodically and discuss how the country’s geography and other physical attributes has affected its history and the development of ancient civilizations or modern cities. 

We’ve also used our maps as part of our homeschool group’s annual spring fair Around the World Day event in which each family chooses a country to represent. We’d bake some tasty treats for our country of choice and create some related artifacts to display (such as musical instruments or landmark replicas related to the country). Then, we’d design a fun stamp (usually something printed on printable address labels) to add to everyone’s homemade passport when they visited our table. It was such a fun way to get together and learn about other countries!

If you wound up with extra salt dough, consider letting your kids create miniature man made landmarks associated with your country or state – maybe the Sydney Opera House for Australia, the Eiffel Tower for France, or the Statue of Liberty for New York. Or you could make replicas of the traditional currency or the state or country’s seal or other national emblems. The possibilities are limited only by your imagination. What other suggestions would you add?

Have you and your kids ever made a salt dough map? If so, which country or state? If not, what place will you create first?

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Kris Bales is a newly-retired homeschool mom and the quirky, Christ-following, painfully honest founder (and former owner) of Weird, Unsocialized Homeschoolers. She has a pretty serious addiction to sweet tea and Words with Friends. Kris and her husband of over 30 years are parents to three amazing homeschool grads. They share their home with three dogs, two cats, a ball python, a bearded dragon, and seven birds.

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