Physical World: Study Action Areas


Each of the nine MAC themes is divided into four study action areas. This page sets out specimen content for the study action areas that form part of the Physical World theme. Much work is needed to develop this study action area.

The four study action areas in this theme are:

  1. All about our planet
  • Earth and space (science)
  • The physical makeup of the Earth (geography)
  • The physical properties of the Earth (science)
  1. All about Britain
  • The physical make-up of the United Kingdom (geography)
  • The physical make-up of the locality (geography
  • The United Kingdom’s climate and weather (geography)
  1. Human adaptability
  • Human use of the non-living world — a global perspective (geography)
  • Human use of the non-living world — a UK perspective (geography)
  • The impact of the environment on humans — a global perspective:
  • The impact of the environment on humans — a UK perspective
  1. The human footprint
  • The human impact on the physical world
  • Human responses to living sustainably

This page also includes the following:

This page makes many references to National Curriculum in England content, exemplifying how a life-based approach supplements a subject-based curriculum. MAC brings together disparate National Curriculum materials and adds important material, aiming to organise children’s learning in a focused and determined way.

Human adaptability to the environment and the human footprint on the environment are added dimensions not part of the subject-based approach.

There is no suggestion that the content set out below is in any sense definitive. It is intended merely for discussion and debate, a starting point for the detailed programmes of learning that will be required for each year group.

The aims of this learning domain are to increase children’s understanding and sensitivity to the physical world as central to their own well-being, to the well-being of others and the survival of humankind; and to prepare the next generations to tackle the urgent environmental problems facing the planet.

Study Action Area 1: All about our planet

Children learn to look beyond their immediate surroundings to take in the vastness of the solar system and the wider universe, and the Earth’s place in the cosmos.

Children explore the wonders of the physical world — bright sunny vistas, raging volcanoes, the frozen icecaps, the magnificence of the mountains and the depths of the mysterious oceans — and use scientific techniques and skills to explore its properties.

Specimen content — Earth and space:

  • The Solar System: Know the position of the Earth in space; know and describe the characteristics of the Sun, the planets and their moons, making up the Solar System.
  • The movement of planets: ‘Describe the movement of the Earth, and other planets, relative to the Sun in the solar system’ (Science NC 170 yr 5).
  • Moon movement: ‘Describe the movement of the Moon relative to the Earth’ (Science NC 170 yr 5).
  • The shape of celestial bodies: ‘Describe the Sun, Earth and Moon as approximately spherical bodies’ (Science NC 170 yr 5).
  • Night and day: ‘Use the idea of the Earth’s rotation to explain day and night and the apparent movement of the sun across the sky.’ (Science NC 170 yr 5).
  • Development of the Solar System: ‘Find out about the way that ideas about the solar system have developed, understanding how the geocentric model of the solar system gave way to the heliocentric model by considering the work of scientists such as Ptolemy, Alhazen and Copernicus’ (Science NC 171 yr 5).
  •  Working scientifically. ‘[Compare] the time of day at different places on the Earth through internet links and direct communication; creating simple models of the solar system; constructing simple shadow clocks and sundials, calibrated to show midday and the start and end of the school day; finding out why some people think that structures such as Stonehenge might have been used as astronomical clocks’ (Science NC 171 yr 5).

Specimen content — The physical make-up of the Earth:

  • Continents and oceans: ‘Name and locate the world’s seven continents and five oceans’ (Geography NC 185 KS1). Identify the ocean currents, the major winds, tectonic plates, volcanoes, earthquakes and tsunamis.
  • Water on the planet: Find out how much of the planet is covered by water; whether the water is fresh, or salty.
  • Know how to describe planet Earth using shared language: ‘Identify the position and significance of latitude, longitude, Equator, Northern Hemisphere, Southern Hemisphere, the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, Arctic and Antarctic Circle, the Prime/Greenwich Meridian’ (Geography NC 186 KS2).
  • Impact of temperature: ‘Identify … the location of hot and cold areas of the world in relation to the Equator and the North and South Poles’ (Geography NC 185 KS1). Identify and describe the characteristics of the main land masses on planet earth.
  • Key physical characteristics: ‘Describe and understand key aspects of physical geography, including: climate zones, biomes and vegetation belts, rivers, mountains, volcanoes and earthquakes, and the water cycle’ (Geography NC 186 KS2)
  • Key physical features: Explore ‘the location and characteristics of a range of the world’s most significant physical features’ (Geography NC 186 KS2). Identify and describe the key characteristics of the great rivers and mountains of the world.
  • Physical characteristics: ‘Pupils should extend their knowledge and understanding beyond the local area to include the United Kingdom and Europe, North and South America. This will include the location and characteristics of a range of the world’s most significant … physical features (Geography NC 186 KS2)

Specimen content — The appliance of science to the non-living world:

  • Everyday materials: ‘Distinguish between an object and the material from which it is made; identify and name a variety of everyday materials, including wood, plastic, glass, metal, water, and rock; describe the simple physical properties of a variety of everyday materials; compare and group together a variety of everyday materials on the basis of their simple physical properties’ (Science NC 149 yr 1).
  •  Properties of materials: ‘Identify and compare the suitability of a variety of everyday materials, including wood, metal, plastic, glass, brick, rock, paper and cardboard for particular uses; find out how the shapes of solid objects made from some materials can be changed by squashing, bending, twisting and stretching.’ (Science NC 153 yr 2)
  • Solids, liquids and gases: ‘Explore, compare and group materials as solids, liquids or gases, developing simple descriptions of their properties; create, observe and measure changes of state of some materials and of water; explore evaporation and condensation in the rain cycle’ (Science NC 171 yr 5); explore the importance of water in everyday living; find examples of how solids, liquids and gases are used in everyday life.
  • More on the properties of materials: ‘Compare and group together everyday materials on the basis of their properties, including their hardness, solubility, transparency, conductivity (electrical and thermal), and response to magnets; know that some materials will dissolve in liquid to form a solution, and describe how to recover a substance from a solution; use knowledge of solids, liquids and gases to decide how mixtures might be separated, including through filtering, sieving and evaporating; give reasons, based on evidence from comparative and fair tests, for the particular uses of everyday materials, including metals, wood and plastic; demonstrate that dissolving, mixing and changes of state are reversible changes; explain that some changes result in the formation of new materials, and that this kind of change is not usually reversible, including changes associated with burning and the action of acid on bicarbonate of soda. (Science NC 169 yr 5). Give examples in everyday life.
  • Magnets: ‘Observe how magnets attract or repel each other and attract some materials and not others; compare and group together a variety of everyday materials on the basis of whether they are attracted to a magnet, and identify some magnetic materials; describe magnets as having two poles; predict whether two magnets will attract or repel each other, depending on which poles are facing. (Science NC 160 yr 3). Research examples of practical uses of magnetic forces.
  •  Gravity (Forces): ‘Explain that unsupported objects fall towards the Earth because of the force of gravity acting between the Earth and the falling object; identify the effects of air resistance, water resistance and friction, that act between moving surfaces; recognise that some mechanisms, including levers, pulleys and gears, allow a smaller force to have a greater effect’ (Science NC 171 yr 5). Share practical examples of how the above forces are used.
  • Light: ‘Recognise that they need light in order to see things and that dark is the opposite of light; notice that light is reflected…; light from the sun can be dangerous …; …shadows are formed when the light from a light source is blocked by an opaque object; find patterns in the way that the size of shadows change’ (Science NC 159 yr 3). Make connections to how light is received differently in different parts of the planet and the impact this has on the lives of people living there. Make connections to the movement of the Earth around the sun. Explore how light is used by humans in different ways.
  •  Sound: ‘Identify how sounds are made …; recognise that vibrations from sounds travel through a medium to the ear; find patterns between the pitch of a sound and features of the object; find patterns between the volume of a sound and the strength of the vibrations that produced it; recognise that sounds get fainter as the distance from the sound source increases’ (Science NC 163 yr 4). Explore the relevance of sound to  all life, identifying the different purposes of sound; identify the difference between silence and not being able to hear.
  • Electricity: ‘Identify common appliances that run on electricity; construct a simple series electrical circuit, identifying and naming its basic parts, including cells, wires, bulbs, switches and buzzers; identify whether or not a lamp will light in a simple series circuit, based on whether or not the lamp is part of a complete loop with a battery; recognise that a switch opens and closes a circuit and associate this with whether or not a lamp lights in a simple series circuit; recognise some common conductors and insulators, and associate metals with being good conductors (Science NC 164 yr 3). ‘Associate the brightness of a lamp or the volume of a buzzer with the number and voltage of cells used in the circuit; compare and give reasons for variations in how components function, including the brightness of bulbs, the loudness of buzzers and the on/off position of switches; use recognised symbols when representing a simple circuit in a diagram.’ (Science 175 yr 6) Explore the role and importance of electricity to human life and living.
  • Rocks: ‘Compare and group together different kinds of rocks … describe in simple terms how fossils are formed; recognise that soils are made from rocks and organic matter’ (Science NC 158 yr 3). Explore what rocks are used for and their importance to human life and living.

Study Action Area 2: All about Britain

Children learn about Britain’s weather and climate and the wonderful diversity of Britain’s landscape — mountains, lakes and lochs, wild expanses, farmland, built-up areas, rural areas, coasts and shores, high ground and low ground, bogs, marshes and fens, forests and islands.

Specimen content — The physical make-up of the United Kingdom:

  • Location of the United Kingdom: ‘Use world maps, atlases and globes to identify the United Kingdom and its countries’ (Geography NC 185 KS1).
  • The British Isles land mass: Find out how big the British Isles is (comparable to other countries) and how many islands are included in its makeup.
  • Key physical characteristics: ‘Name and locate ….. geographical [physical] regions [of the United Kingdom] and their identifying ….. physical characteristics [and] key topographical features (including hills, mountains, coasts and rivers) (Geography, NC 186 KS2). Identify the location and characteristics of main mountains and lakes/lochs, wild places, farmland, built up (urban) areas, rural areas, coasts and shores, high ground and low ground, bogs, marshes and fens, forests and islands making up the United Kingdom; Use ‘basic geographical vocabulary to refer to key physical features including: beach, cliff, coast, forest, hill, mountain, sea, ocean, river, soil, valley, vegetation, season and weather’ (Geography NC 185 KS1).
  • Contrast the United Kingdom: ‘Understand geographical similarities and differences through studying the physical geography of a small area of the United Kingdom, and of a small area in a contrasting non-European country’ (Geography NC 185 KS1).

Specimen content — The physical make-up of the locality:

  • Field study: Children experience the local physical features through field study visits. They use ‘simple fieldwork and observational skills to study the geography of their school and its grounds and the key human and physical features of its surrounding environment.’ (Geography, NC 185 KS1).

Specimen content — The United Kingdom’s climate and weather:

  • Climate: Know what is meant by climate, the kind of climate there is in Britain (include the importance of the Gulf Stream),
  • The four seasons: ‘Observe changes in the four seasons; observe and describe weather associated with the four seasons and how day length varies’ (NC p150). Know what causes the four seasons, night and day, and the changes in daylight time (the movement of the Earth on its axis and around the Sun); ‘observe changes across the four seasons; observe and describe weather associated with the seasons and how day length varies’ (Science NC 174).
  • The weather: Describe the weather associated with each of the four seasons (wind, sun, rain snow and frost), ‘Identify seasonal and daily weather patterns in the United Kingdom’ (Geography NC 185 KS1)
  • Weather impact: Describe the impact the weather and seasons have on the land, hills, mountains and sea (erosion, landslides, drought, flood).
  • Weather differences: Recognise weather patterns are different in different parts of the United Kingdom due to location (North, South, East, West) and height above sea level

Study Action Area 3: Human adaptability

Children learn about how people survive in different environments globally and how natural disasters impact on survival. They learn how communities in Britain adapt to our temperate maritime climate.

They learn how risks to health and safety are managed and that not all environments are habitable.

Specimen content — Human use of the non-living world — a global perspective:

  • Population: Find out how many people inhabit the Earth; which countries have the greatest population; compare to the population of Britain.
  • Significant human features: [Explore] ‘the location and characteristics of a range of the world’s most significant human …..features’ (Geography NC 186 KS2).
  • Countries of the world: ‘Locate the world’s countries, using maps to focus on Europe (including the location of Russia) and North and South America, concentrating on their environmental regions, key physical and human characteristics, countries, and major cities (Geography NC 186).
  • Europe: Explore and report on key ‘human characteristics, countries and major cities’ of ‘Europe (including the location of Russia)’ (Geography NC  186).
  • Contrasting a region in the Americas: ‘Understand geographical similarities and differences through the study of human and physical geography of a region of the United Kingdom and a region within North or South America’ (Geography NC 186 KS2).
  • Space: Find out what the 5000 satellites orbiting the Earth are used for.

Specimen content — Human use of the non-living world — a UK perspective:

  • Key human features: ‘Use basic geographical vocabulary to refer to …. key human features, including: city, town, village, factory, farm, house, office, port, harbour and shop’ (Geography NC 185 KS1)
  • Four countries key facts: ‘Name, locate and identify characteristics of the four countries and capital cities of the United Kingdom and its surrounding seas’ (Geography NC 185 KS1).
  • Counties and cities: ‘Name and locate counties and cities of the United Kingdom’ (Geography NC 186 KS1).
  • Human activity: ‘Describe and understand key aspects of human geography, including: types of settlement and land use, economic activity including trade links, and the distribution of natural resources including energy, food, minerals and water’ (Geography NC 186 KS2).
  • Land use: ‘Name and locate …. land-use patterns and understand how some of these aspects have changed over time’ [urbanisation, farming methods, upland farming, population clearances, afforestation, conservation] (Geography NC 186 KS2).
  • Contrasting a non European country: ‘Understand geographical similarities and differences through studying the human geography of a small area of the United Kingdom, and of a small area in a contrasting non-European country’ (Geography NC 185 KS1).
  • Applying of geographical skills: ‘Use simple fieldwork and observational skills to study the geography of their school and its grounds and the key human and physical features of its surrounding environment’ (Geography NC 185 KS1).

Specimen content — The impact of the environment on humans — a global perspective:

  • Survival: Describe ways in which people survive differently around the world in contrasting localities.
  • Impact on lifestyle: Describe how people live differently in different climates.
  • Natural disasters: Identify different types of natural disasters and research recent examples of each.
  • Low lying settlements: Describe the dangers to communities and societies living at and below sea level and the measures taken to keep the sea at bay.
  • Impact on house building: Explore where it is safe to build houses and the reasons houses are built differently around the world.
  • Environments hostile to human habitation: Identify and describe areas of the world where it is not possible, or difficult, for humans to life and give reasons.

Specimen content — The impact of the environment on humans — a UK perspective:

  • Why people live where they live: Describe where people live and do not live in Britain and the environmental reasons for this. Identify and describe the physical characteristics of areas of the United Kingdom not lived on, or farmed.
  • Location of capital cities: Give reasons why capital cities, and the city nearest you, are where they are.
  • Impact of the weather on people: Describe the impact the weather has on the way people live through each of the four seasons (clothes, transport, types of holiday, survival needs).
  • Weather risks to people: Describe the risks the weather in the United Kingdom brings to health and safety; describe the impact of weather on health and well-being.
  • Impact on human life of living on an island: Explore what it means to be an island people (living on, or near the sea;  sea and water sports [Olympics]; swimming; fishing; sea storms; tides; tidal races; spring and autumn tides, rising tides, coastal erosion [Thames Barrier]).

Study Action Area 4: The human footprint

“[Pupils] can discover how we, as humans, have shaped the world, which in turn should help them to
develop decision-making skills and gain a sense of personal responsibility.”

NAEE The Environmental Curriculum p13

Children learn that humankind has spread to inhabit to all corners of the planet, fundamentally altering environments in the process.

They explore human activity across Britain, with particular attention given to the impact on their locality.

They explore damage to the world’s physical resources by human activity and the impact this is having on life and living.

Specimen content — The human impact on the physical world:

  • Disasters caused by humans: Identify recent and historical disasters caused by humans and describe the nature of the disaster.
  • Resources depletion: Research and describe the depletion of the planet’s resources with reference to tropical forests, open land, rivers and lakes, coral reefs and oceans; give reasons.
  • Pollution: Identify different types of pollution and research examples of each (gases released into the atmosphere, air, acid rain, noise, light, toxic chemical waste from industry and agriculture, domestic household waste, non bio-degradable waste (plastics),  human sewage, intensive animal factory farming, black carbon particles).
  • Population explosion: Describe what is meant by ‘population explosion’, ‘too many mouths to feed’, crowded cities and slums; chart the largest populations on the planet; illustrate your description with images.
  • Global warming: Recognise and describe what global warming is and the impact it has on the climate, land, ice, fresh water and the seas;
  • Consumer society: Know what is meant by ‘the consumer (throw away) society’; identify links to  birthdays, festivals, present giving, fashion, perfect vegetables, all year round vegetables, take away food and packaging; and understand the impact consumerism has on the world’s physical resources.
  • Impact on land: Explore the United Kingdom and the local area for land that is untouched by human activity; describe how the land of the school and the local area is changed by human activity including any farming in your area.

Specimen content — Human responses to living sustainably

  • Sustainable resources: Understand what is meant by sustainable resources; find examples of products which are made from sustainable resources; look for products which audit where their materials come from.
  • Renewable energy: Identify ways of making renewable energy (wind, solar, hydro, tidal); explain the advantage of renewable energy over non renewable energies.
  • Recycling: Describe how household and shop waste, in your local area, is managed to reduce pollution.
  • Ways individuals can help sustainable living: Identify practical everyday ways in which you, your families and friends can reduce harm to the environment.

Teaching notes

The traditional curriculum content of science and geography need to be re-framed to successfully teach children about sustainable living.

Planning of learning programmes needs to reflect the overlapping of, and common threads connecting, the three Living Sustainably learning domains.

Learning must also be embedded in real-world issues, giving children an understanding of the world they will inherit. They need hands-on experience of what living sustainably means in practice.

Further information

Websites contributing ideas and information to the action areas are listed on the links page.

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