Google Earth is a fantastic, free app that is both fun to use and an excellent learning tool. Want to give your kid a huge playground to explore? How about the whole Earth in beautiful 3D, as well as other planets and stars! Google Earth gives your kid access to an almost unlimited amount of imagery and knowledge, and they’ll enjoy the serendipity of discovering new countries, cities, buildings and landmarks as they roam around the globe.
In this article you’ll get some brief tips on getting started with Google Earth, followed by 15 cool things that you and your kid can do with the app. I hope these ideas inspire your kid not only to explore our beautiful planet, but also to use the app as a starting point for learning about the natural world, geography, history, mathematics, space exploration and more!
Getting started with Google Earth
Google Earth is available in three different versions: a desktop app for Windows, Mac or Linux; a mobile app for iOS and Android; and a browser plugin. In this article I cover the desktop app, which is the most feature-rich (although the mobile app is easier to use).
You can download the desktop app here. Once you open it, you’ll see a 3D view of the globe in the main window:
The first thing you’ll want to learn is how to get around. You can use the mouse, various keys on the keyboard, or the controls in the top-right corner of the window, as follows:
- To pan: Click and drag with the mouse, use the arrow keys, or use the bottom circular control in the top-right corner.
- To rotate: Hold down Shift or Control/Command and use the left/right arrow keys, or drag the top outer circular control in the top-right corner.
- To tilt: Hold down Shift or Control/Command, then drag up and down with the mouse or use the up/down arrow keys.
- To zoom: Scroll up and down with your scroll wheel or trackpad, or use the top-right zoom slider. You can also double-left-click to zoom in quickly, or double-right-click to zoom out quickly.
To the left of the main 3D window is a panel with three more windows:
- The Search window lets you search for places, objects and other points of interest.
- The Places and Layers windows are quite similar, in that they both show additional content on top of the globe, such as labels, placemarks (bookmarks which mark a specific place on the globe), extra imagery, and guided tours. The main difference is that Layers contains a built-in collection of content created by Google and its partners, while Places contains content created by others. You usually add new content by downloading
.kmzfiles, then opening the files in Google Earth.
To show or hide an item in the Places or Layers window on the 3D globe, just click the checkbox to the left of the item. You can also often double-click an item to jump to it on the globe, or to begin a guided tour.
Find out more about using Google Earth on Google’s site.
Finally, here’s a tip for a great-looking Google Earth: Enable the “Use photorealistic atmospheric rendering” setting in the preferences. It looks amazing!
Now that you know how to use Google Earth, let’s start exploring!
Explore your neighbourhood
Google Earth is a great way to check out your local area. Type your address into the Search box, then click Search to jump to your home. You can click and drag the “yellow man” icon in the top right corner onto your home to enter Street View mode, then walk around your street with the arrow keys. Or zoom out and see what your neighbourhood looks like from the sky.
Can you spot shops and friends’ houses just from their roofs? How about spotting local landmarks?
Exploring your neighbourhood from the sky is also a great way to get a sense of distance, scale and proportion!
Check out the view from Mount Everest
One of the coolest things about Google Earth is the ground-level view. In cities this works like Google Maps’ Street View — giving you a high-resolution photographic view — but you can also use it in remote places such as the top of Mount Everest! In this case, the imagery is just the standard satellite view, but it still looks pretty cool.
Search for mount everest in Google Earth, which takes you to an aerial view of the mountain, then click and drag the little ‘yellow man’ icon in the top right corner onto the peak of the mountain. You just made the easiest ascent of Everest ever! Use the left and right arrow keys to turn around and admire the view from the top.
Make a giant leap for mankind
Follow in the footsteps of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin with Google Earth’s Moon setting! Choose View > Explore > Moon, then in the Layers window in the Sidebar, select Moon Gallery > Apollo Missions > Apollo 11. Double-click the Apollo 11 link, and you’ll zoom into the Apollo 11 landing site. Keep zooming in until Google Earth changes to ground-level view. You can now use the arrow keys to walk on the Moon!
You can see the complete Apollo 11 lander, the American flag, and lots of icons that bring up some fantastic panoramic photos and videos. Like Armstrong, you can take a little jog over to the rim of Little West Crater and check out the view!
Learn about distance
Google Earth includes a handy Ruler tool that you can use to measure the distance between two points, as well as find out the length of a path. To use it, choose Tools > Ruler. This pops up the Ruler window, where you can choose between Line (measure between two points) and Path (trace a path to find out the total distance).
Here are some things that your kid can try:
- Experiment with different units of length. The drop down menu in the Ruler window lets you change the units used for measurement. Find out which units are longer: metres or yards? Inches or centimetres? Miles or nautical miles? You can even measure in smoots! (No, I didn’t know what smoots were either!)
- Work out the area of your home. Use the Line ruler to measure each side of your house, yard or apartment, then calculate the area.
- How far is it to school? Use the Path ruler to measure the distance from home to school, using the roads or paths on the route. Then use the Line ruler to measure the distance from home to school “as the crow flies”. Which distance is smaller? Why?
- Learn about perimeters. Try using the Path ruler to measure the perimeters of various landmarks, such as your house, your city, or even a whole country or island.
Learn to fly a plane
Did you know Google Earth features a built-in flight simulator? Flying over a city or natural feature is a great way to get a feel for it. The simulator is pretty easy to use, and can help your kid learn about some basic flying concepts, including ailerons, rudders and flaps.
To start the simulator, choose Tools > Enter Flight Simulator. You can choose from two different planes — the F-16 is exciting to fly, but the SR22 is much easier! — and also choose whether to start in-flight at your current viewpoint, or start from an airport runway.
Once you’re flying, use the arrow keys to control the plane’s ailerons and elevators. Here’s a full list of keyboard controls for the flight sim.
Step back into the past
Google Earth features a fantastic “time slider” that you can use to jump back and forward in time and view historical imagery. This lets your kid see how cities and buildings have evolved over time, and learn some history too!
Whenever you view something in Google Earth that has historical imagery, you’ll see a little clock icon at the bottom of the screen, along with the year of the oldest imagery for that spot. Click the year, and Google Earth takes you back in time, showing you how the spot looked in that year. A time slider also appears that you can drag to move backward and forward in time. The light coloured bars on the slider show you the dates for which historical images are available, while the glowing bar shows you the date of the images you’re currently viewing.
Here are some interesting things to try:
- The Las Vegas Strip. Google Earth has aerial photography of Las Vegas going back to 1950. Zoom in on the strip, then drag the time slider and watch as all the hotels spring up!
- Downtown New York. Google Earth can be a good starting point for learning about the September 11, 2001 tragedy. The app includes historical imagery of the World Trade Center before and immediately after the attacks, and you can take a high-resolution virtual walk around the present-day memorial in Street View mode.
- Dubai. Dubai in the United Arab Emirates is one of the fastest-growing cities in the world, and with Google Earth it’s easy to see why! Try zooming into various landmarks such as the Palm Jumeirah, and watch them evolve over recent years.
Also, don’t forget to try the Time Slider on your own home and neighbourhood to see how they have changed over time!
Learn the constellations
Did you know that, with Google Earth, you can look up at the sky as well as down at the ground? Choose View > Explore > Sky to view the sky at night as it appears from your current location.
The Sky view can be a great way for your kid to learn about the constellations, and the stars and star systems that make them. In the Sky Database section in the Layers panel, open up the Backyard Astronomy section and select the Constellations layer. If you turn off the Imagery layer, you’ll see all the named constellations, with lines showing their shapes.
Find a constellation — you can use the top-left Search box if you like — then turn Imagery back on to view the individual stars in the constellation. It’s a good idea to turn on the Yale Bright Star Catalog layer (also under Backyard Astronomy) so that you can view each star’s name. Click a star to find out more about it.
(By the way, if you or your kids are interested in astronomy then you might also enjoy my article on stars.)
Find the planets
You can also use Google Earth to find the planets in the night sky. While in Sky mode, turn on just the Our Solar System layer. You’ll see each planet’s symbol appear in the sky. Zoom in to see each planet’s name. Turn on the Imagery layer, then double-click a planet’s name to view it.
Explore distant stars with the Hubble Telescope
Google Earth’s Sky mode includes tons of fantastic images of star clusters, nebulae and galaxies taken by the Hubble Telescope. A great way to explore these images is to download the Hubble tour. Double-click the
.kmz file to open it in Google Earth; the tour appears in the top-left Places window. You can the double-click the tour to begin.
See the world in night and day
By default, Google Earth displays everything as if it was the middle of the day, but by choosing View > Sun you can change the lighting based on the time of day.
Drag the top-left time slider left and right to change the time (you might want to click the “zoom in” icon in the slider if it’s moving too fast). You can watch the Sun move through the sky, the stars move in the heavens, and the light and shadows change on the ground. Quite mesmerising, and a great way to investigate the passing of time and the changing effects of sunlight throughout the day.
Explore the surface of Mars
As with the Moon, Google Earth has a fantastic Mars mode (View > Explore > Mars) that lets you travel around the entire Martian surface. Here are some of the great ways your kid can learn about Mars:
- Guided tours. There are two guided tours of Mars under the Mars Gallery section in the left-hand Layers window, narrated by Ira Flatow and Bill Nye. They show how mankind has mapped and explored Mars over the years, using telescopes, orbiters, landers and, finally, rovers.
- Historic maps. These show the maps made by various astronomers over the last century or so, including the famous map by Giovanni Schiaparelli, with its “canals”. Again, you can find these under the Mars Gallery section.
- Rovers and landers. The “Rovers and Landers” section in the Mars Gallery show you the locations of 12 landers and rovers that have made it to the Martian surface. You’ll also find 3D models of the spacecraft on the surface, and some amazing high-resolution panoramas taken by the probes that you can fly into, as if you were standing on the surface.
Investigate climate change
Google Earth is a great place to learn about climate change. You and your kid can view a series of 3D tours narrated by Al Gore and others, which demonstrate the effects of climate change on the globe, and explore the actions that we can take to mitigate those effects.
As with all Google Earth tours, your kid can pause the tour at any time if they want to explore an area in more depth.
Wade through Brazilian rainforest
Google Earth now features 3D trees in many places. A great spot to explore these is the rainforest near the city of Cacoal in Brazil. Just search for Cacoal in Google Earth, then travel northeast of the city until you hit the forest. Zoom right in, and the 3D trees will appear (make sure the Trees layer is selected, underneath 3D Buildings). Don’t get lost now!
Search for shapes in the Nazca Lines
The mysterious Nazca Lines in Peru, created around 1500 years ago, include all sorts of shapes, from simple lines through to spiders, birds, hands, monkeys and people. Google Earth’s imagery is detailed enough to reveal these lines, if you look closely.
Just search for Nazca Lines in Google Earth, then pan around and see what you can find. You can even turn it into a game for your kids: Who can find the most shapes? See if you can find all of these ones!
View famous buildings and landmarks
Google Earth is now chock full of 3D models that let you view buildings and other landmarks in full detail. Many of these provide good jumping-off points for learning about history or geography. To view the 3D models, make sure you turn on the 3D Buildings layer in the left-hand Layers window.
Here are some sights worth checking out (just search for them using the top-left Search box in Google Earth):
- The Eiffel Tower
- The London Eye
- The Burj Khalifa (tallest building in the world)
- Christ the Redeemer (and his view over Rio!)
- The Forbidden City in Beijing
- The Taj Mahal
- The Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge
- Buckingham Palace (includes British flag!)
- St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City
- The Pyramids and Sphinx in Egypt
Go forth and explore!
I hope this article has given you and your child some ideas for discovering the world using Google Earth. Don’t forget to try out the other layers in the Layers window, including 360Cities (amazing spherical panoramas), the European Space Agency layers (amazing photos from space), National Geographic Magazine (tons of great photos, videos and articles), and lots more!
For even more Google Earth fun, check out Weird Google Earth, which has hundreds of unusual and interesting features that you can find, including lat/long coordinates for each feature. The Google Maps Gallery is also worth a look, with lots of map overlays that you can view in both Google Maps and Google Earth.
Enjoy! If you know of any more cool things that kids can learn with Google Earth, I’d love to hear about them in the comments below. 🙂
[Image credits: All images by Google and its licensors.]