50 mins
Photo: A river bend.

Students review what they have learned about physical features and their importance. Then they read a brief description of major physical features in Europe, locate them on a map, and compare them to country borders.


1. Review physical features and their importance.

Ask students to think back to Lesson 1 of this unit, in which they created borders based on the information given on several maps. The features on those maps included religions, mountains, rivers, and languages. Ask: Which of the features on those maps were physical features? (mountains, rivers) Students may understand this distinction, or they might need some clarification about the difference between physical and cultural features. Point out that in the next three lessons of this unit, students will focus on physical features, and that cultural, or human, features will be addressed later in the unit. Ask: How would physical features be important for defining countries? Do you think country borders should line up with physical features? Why or why not? If students have difficulty answering, prompt them with questions about travel, communication, growing food, and other things that people in every region would need to do.


2. Introduce key vocabulary in the reading passage.

Use the Background and Vocabulary tab in this activity to do some vocabulary pre-work. Read aloud terms and definitions that are critical to understanding the reading passage. Ask students to use them in complete sentences and/or to provide examples of them in order to demonstrate understanding.


3. Have pairs read a passage about mountains, rivers, and vegetation in Europe.

Divide the class into pairs and give each pair a copy of the reading passage Interactions of Land and Water in Europe. Have partners read the passage, underlining or highlighting each proper name of a physical feature of Europe as they read. If students need additional support, project the worksheet and model underlining physical features in the first paragraph.


4. Have small groups locate features from the reading on maps and label them.

Combine pairs to form small groups. Distribute copies of the worksheet Analyzing Interactions of Land and Water, and the maps Natural Vegetation of Europe and Physical Map of Europe, to each small group. Have groups complete Part 1 of the worksheet by locating and labeling features from the reading passage on the maps.


5. As a whole class, compare maps and answer questions about the reading.

Distribute copies of the map Country Borders in Europe to each group. Work together as a whole class to complete Part 2 of the worksheet. Compare the map Country Borders in Europe to the Physical Map of Europe and Natural Vegetation of Europe maps. Then discuss the questions and have students write their answers. Finally, use the map transparencies to show the class how borders and physical features do or do not line up.


6. Have small groups complete a writing assignment.

Have students return to their small groups to complete Part 3 of the worksheet. Ask each group to choose one of the three scenarios and work cooperatively to write a paragraph. Ask each group to present their writing, supporting their points with maps, as needed.

Informal Assessment

Check for student understanding by observing discussion and presentation contributions, and by evaluating completed worksheets and writing. Students should refer to factual information in the reading and to specific geographic locations, features, and borders in their discussions and writing.

Extending the Learning

Have students make connections to mountains, rivers, and vegetation in your local area.

50 mins
Photo: A drainage basin at the base of a mountain.

Students read about and trace drainage basins in Europe. They discuss issues around physical features, borders, and conflicts.


1. Activate students' prior knowledge and introduce the activity.

Ask: What is a watershed? Explain to students that another name for a watershed is drainage basin—an entire river system or an area drained by a river and its tributaries. Drainage basins can serve as a type of regional boundary or border. Tell students that they will explore connections among countries within a drainage basin to extend and develop the concept of region by establishing the shared characteristics that make this a region.

2. Have students read and discuss a passage about drainage basins.

Distribute the worksheet Drainage Basins and How Rivers Flow. Have students read the passage independently and use it to sketch a drainage basin in the space at the bottom of the worksheet. Then invite volunteers to restate what a drainage basin is in their own words, while sharing the sketch. Elicit student ideas about why rivers are important, and how countries that share a drainage basin might need to cooperate. Discuss any questions they may have. If possible, have students make connections to drainage systems in your local area.

3. Have small groups identify and discuss drainage basins.

Divide students into small groups and distribute a copy of the worksheet Mapping Drainage Basins and Rivers and the maps Physical Map of Europe and Country Borders in Europe to each group. Assign each group a river to explore: Rhine, Oder, Dnieper, Danube, Volga, or Pechora. Then have students complete the worksheet for their assigned river. Encourage students to include in their descriptions the shape of the river on the map, what the scenery is likely to be on its banks, and what types of human activity may be found there. Provide support, as needed. If students have difficulty, you may choose to demonstrate the process of delineating a drainage basin on one river and then ask groups to complete their own. Students may have difficulty with rivers in northern Europe that flow “up” the map, or may mistakenly believe that south is downhill.

4. Have students present their work to the class.

Have each group present their work by showing and describing their basin on their map and answering questions from classmates.

5. Have a whole-class discussion about physical features, borders, and conflicts.

Conduct a whole-class discussion. Remind students that they explored four different physical features in Lesson 3 of this unit: rivers, mountains, vegetation, and drainage basins. All of these features cross country borders in different ways across Europe. Ask: Which borders, if any, would make sense to use as a border between countries? Why? Encourage students to consider the following:

  • Mountains and some rivers used to form natural barriers between people because they were difficult to cross. Ask: Is that the case anymore? Why or why not?
  • Because of how water moves through drainage basins, countries within that basin will be affected by each other’s water use, pollution, and use of the river. Ask: How can countries best cooperate to use rivers and drainage basins in a way that benefits everyone? Why might this be difficult?
  • Different types of natural vegetation offer different resources to the people who live there. Ask: What benefits might there be to having a variety of different vegetation types in the same country? What problems might this cause?

6. Have students complete a writing assignment.

Distribute copies of the worksheet A River’s Role in the History of Europe and the map Natural Vegetation of Europe to each student. Have students complete the worksheet by writing a brief essay, either in class or as a homework assignment.

Informal Assessment

Have students transfer and apply their knowledge to another continent, such as North America, by following the same steps on a map:

  • tracing the length of a river from beginning to end
  • tracing the area defined by surrounding mountains
  • shading the drainage basin
  • listing the countries, states, territories, and/or provinces within the basin
  • identifying countries, states, territories, and/or provinces outside the basin that may be linked to it through trade at a port

Ask: How might a city near the mouth of a river and a city 200 miles inland be connected by a river?

Extending the Learning

Students can use the maps that they drew of drainage basins as a basis to research how people have handled sharing the water resources in a particular area. Have students conduct research that answers the following questions:

  • Which countries have been able to work together to share natural resources?
  • Which countries have encountered conflict because of the intersection between their borders and physical features?
  • Why do you think some groups can cooperate while others cannot?

Subjects & Disciplines


Students will:

  • learn the locations of major rivers, mountain ranges, and vegetation of Europe
  • explore how these physical features line up with country borders in Europe
  • delineate major drainage basins in Europe
  • explore how countries within a drainage basin are connected by trade, transportation, and water use
  • consider how country borders can intersect physical features in different ways and discuss how this intersection can lead to cooperation or conflict

Teaching Approach

  • Learning-for-use

Teaching Methods

  • Cooperative learning
  • Discussions
  • Hands-on learning
  • Reading
  • Writing

Skills Summary

This lesson targets the following skills:

Connections to National Standards, Principles, and Practices

IRA/NCTE Standards for the English Language Arts Standard 1: Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works. Standard 5: Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.National Geography Standards Standard 1: How to use maps and other geographic representations, geospatial technologies, and spatial thinking to understand and communicate information Standard 3: How to analyze the spatial organization of people, places, and environments on Earth's surface Standard 4: The physical and human characteristics of places Standard 7: The physical processes that shape the patterns of Earth's surfaceISTE Standards for Students (ISTE Standards*S) Standard 2: Communication and Collaboration

What You’ll Need

Required Technology

  • Internet Access: Required
  • Internet access: Required
  • Tech Setup: 1 computer per classroom, Projector

Physical Space

  • Classroom


  • None


  • Large-group instruction
  • Small-group instruction

Accessibility Notes

  • None

Other Notes

Before starting the activity, make transparencies of key maps. Print the following maps on transparency paper: Physical Map of Europe, Natural Vegetation of Europe, and Country Borders in Europe.

Background Information

The physical environment provides the habitats to support life on Earth, including natural resources to support human activities. The elements of the physical environment are grouped into regions, generally based on similar characteristics. The boundaries of these physical regions are defined by assigning a particular value to the characteristics, such as topography. For example, the Alps mountain range forms part of France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia, and Albania. The Alpine peaks separate European regions and are the source of many of Europe’s major rivers, such as the Rhône, Rhine, Po, and many tributaries of the Danube.


A drainage basin, or watershed, is a land area from which all precipitation is drained by a stream system consisting of a single, or main, stream and all its tributaries. Drainage basins serve as functional regions. Individual drainage basins are separated by higher terrain or divides. Rivers have an organized channel flow from source to mouth. Water flows down a surface gradient from high elevations to lower elevations, independently of cardinal direction. For example, the Rhine River flows from its source in the Alps downstream in a generally northerly direction to its mouth in the North Sea. The drainage basins of most European rivers lie in mountainous areas that receive heavy precipitation, including snow. Drainage is directly, or via the Baltic and the Mediterranean seas, to the Atlantic and Arctic oceans and to the enclosed Caspian Sea.

Prior Knowledge

  • None

Recommended Prior Lessons

  • None



the art and science of cultivating land for growing crops (farming) or raising livestock (ranching).


area of the planet which can be classified according to the plant and animal life in it.


natural or artificial line separating two pieces of land.

boreal forest

land covered by evergreen trees in cool, northern latitudes. Also called taiga.


all weather conditions for a given location over a period of time.


edge of land along the sea or other large body of water.


one of the seven main land masses on Earth.


geographic territory with a distinct name, flag, population, boundaries, and government.


agricultural produce.


area of land that receives no more than 25 centimeters (10 inches) of precipitation a year.

drainage basin

an entire river system or an area drained by a river and its tributaries. Also called a watershed.


long, narrow ocean inlet between steep slopes.


ecosystem filled with trees and underbrush.


study of places and the relationships between people and their environments.


mass of ice that moves slowly over land.

Plural Noun

plateau or elevated region of land.

hydroelectric power

usable energy generated by moving water converted to electricity.


distance north or south of the Equator, measured in degrees.


slow-flowing river ecosystem usually found in lower altitudes.


symbolic representation of selected characteristics of a place, usually drawn on a flat surface.


landmass that forms as tectonic plates interact with each other.

mountain range

series or chain of mountains that are close together.

natural resource

a material that humans take from the natural environment to survive, to satisfy their needs, or to trade with others.


large body of salt water that covers most of the Earth.


piece of land jutting into a body of water.

physical features

naturally occurring geographic characteristics.


flat, smooth area at a low elevation.


introduction of harmful materials into the environment.


all forms in which water falls to Earth from the atmosphere.


any area on Earth with one or more common characteristics. Regions are the basic units of geography.


large stream of flowing fresh water.


base level for measuring elevations. Sea level is determined by measurements taken over a 19-year cycle.


dry, flat grassland with no trees and a cool climate.


land an animal, human, or government protects from intruders.


buying, selling, or exchanging of goods and services.


movement of people or goods from one place to another.


stream that feeds, or flows, into a larger stream.


cold, treeless region in Arctic and Antarctic climates.


all the plant life of a specific place.


entire river system or an area drained by a river and its tributaries.