Explore! Earth's Climate

Polar Bears or Penguins?


In this 60-minute companion activity to Know Your Poles, Arctic and Antarctic teams of children, ages 8 to13, become familiar with the geography of, and amount of ice in, Earth's polar regions. Children create a Polar Geographic Features Map with an ice overlay. In teams, they play a fast-action matching game that challenges them to use their knowledge of North and South pole facts.

What's the Point?

Children become acquainted with the physical characteristics of Earth's polar regions and the organisms that live there.


For each child:

For the group:

  • At least 2 sets of Pole Cards on different colors of card stock (one for each team, with a minimum of two teams)

For the facilitator:


  • Prepare an area large enough for each team to work separately to view their Pole Cards and hemisphere maps together, and for you to meet together as a larger group.
  • Plan to have access to a six-foot or larger section of wall or dry erase/chalk board for the race to the poles.
  • Label three posters, one with "North Polar Region," one with "South Polar Region," and one with "Both." Use these posters to designate three different areas on the wall where the teams will tape their polar cards during the game. "Both" should come between the north and south polar regions.
  • If you did not do the activity, Know Your Poles, with the children, review information about the Arctic and Antarctic prior to Polar Bears or Penguins? Be sure to include information from the Pole Cards.
  • Make a set of Pole Cards for each team on different colored card stock and cut out the cards.
  • Review the background information.


  1. Gear up for Polar Bears or Penguins? by distributing the Arctic and Antarctic geographic maps to the children. Give each child pencils or crayons. Invite the children to use their blue and green pencils or crayons to color the land (green) and water (blue) portions of their polar region.
    • What geographic features do they observe on their maps? Can they find the Arctic Ocean? Greenland? Canada? Alaska? The North Pole? Antarctica? The Antarctic Peninsula? The South Pole?
    • What are the differences they note between the Arctic and Antarctic regions? The Arctic is mostly ocean and the Antarctic is mostly land.
    • Does the shape of the land in Antarctica surprise them? Does it look like the shape of the continent they are used to seeing? The children may note that there are more "islands" and not one piece of land.
    • Why might Antarctica have this shape on this map?
  2. Ask the children to examine their maps.
    • What do they think their Arctic or Antarctic maps are missing? They are both missing ice!
  3. Invite the children to discuss the two polar regions and to make a prediction about how much of their pole is covered with ice. You may ask older children to give their prediction as a percentage. Younger children may simply express how much of the pole is covered in terms like "a lot," or "a little."
  4. Distribute the Arctic and Antarctic ice overlays to each child.
    • What does the overlay show? The overlay shows the area of their polar region — both land and sea — that is covered by ice. There are different types of ice: land ice and floating sea ice.
    Have the children color the ice with markers; they can color the different types of ice different colors or color it the same color. Have them tape one edge to their Arctic or Antarctic region map so that they can lift the ice to see the land and ocean below.
    • Were their predictions correct? About 98% of the Antarctic continent is covered by thick sheets of ice. In the winter, the extent of the ice doubles as sea ice forms around the continent. This thin floating sea ice melts back every summer. Currently less than 30% of the Arctic ocean region is covered with ice permanently. This is a decrease from over 50% in the mid-1980's. In the winter, an average of 1.7 million square miles (4.5 million square kilometers) of sea ice is added.
  5. Revisit the Know Your Poles "Know"/"Want To Know" posters to address any questions remaining open about the geography of the two polar regions or to identify new questions.
  6. Prepare the children to play Polar Bears or Penguins? Divide the children into two (or more) teams and provide each with a different color of Pole Cards (turned face-down to conceal the facts). Invite them to play a game in which they will work with their teams to determine which cards describe conditions that are unique to the Arctic or Antarctic and which are true for both. Before they turn over their cards, explain the rules of the game:
    • Each team has received an identical set of Pole Cards. On each card is a fact about the north polar region or the south polar region or both.
    • Each team will work to determine to which region the fact applies.
    • Once they have determined the region, they will take the fact and tape it on the wall in the appropriate space: "North Pole", "South Pole", or "Both".
    • The team that gets all the facts — in the correct locations — first, wins.
  7. Start the game!


Regroup with the children and review the card area.

  • Are all the cards in the right spaces?
  • Are there any that need to be changed? If so, which ones?
  • What are the things that both the Arctic and Antarctic have in common?

Share with the children that, in the next activities, they will learn how our polar regions are changing and how what happens at the poles impacts everyone on the globe!

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