Homeschool families are constantly looking for great tools to help make learning come alive. Every once in a while, a tool with remarkable potential comes along. Google Earth is a very interesting atlas, but it is capable of much more than basic geography. Learn how you can use this powerful free tool to explore shipwrecks, follow weather patterns in real time, watch wild animals in Africa, explore ancient Rome, and fly over your neighborhood in a jet aircraft. 

Google Earth is a free application available at earth.google.com. The application is available for all major operating systems and is absolutely free. (There is a professional version you can purchase, but everything I describe in this article refers to the free version.) As of this writing, Google Earth 6.0 is the most recent version; please get that version to enjoy all the examples. 

You do not need an exceptionally powerful computer to run Google Earth, but some features (3D buildings and the flight simulator, for example) take advantage of powerful newer machines when they are available. You will need an active Internet connection, as the image data is pulled from the Internet as needed.

As I describe Google Earth throughout this article, you should really get in front of your computer and play along. It’s great to explore these features with your family, as you will all be amazed at what you can do together.

Basic Navigation

Basic usage of Google Earth is relatively simple. It’s just a virtual globe. When you start the program, you’ll see the earth in a large central panel. Drag the mouse to spin the globe. If you have a wheel on your mouse, you can use it to zoom closer or farther away. You can zoom all the way down to your street and look at your house! (More on street view in a moment.) While navigating in the main window, you can press the middle mouse button to change your rotation. 

The main screen has three primary controls on it. Use the top control (with the eyeball) to rotate your view. You can also drag the “N” to change the overall orientation if you get confused. The middle controller (with a hand on it) controls the rotation as well. Personally, I do not use this control scheme, as it’s more natural to simply grab and rotate the globe itself, which works in the same way. The bottom controller, which looks like a scroll bar, allows you to adjust the zoom. When you’re zoomed in closely, you’ll sometimes also see a little human figure icon, which you can use to enable ground level or street view for the current location.

You may see various icons on the map. You can usually double-click an icon to get more information about whatever you’re looking at. Often in a very detailed area (like a city) you’ll see various objects or buildings highlighted in blue when your mouse is hovering over them. If this happens, you can click on the item to get a popup window explaining what the item is, with links to web pages that can provide additional information.

Just looking around the globe this way is amazing. You can locate islands, towns, and even individual buildings. Depending on the settings, you can have Google Earth display all kinds of features, but first, let’s explore the ground view.

Ground Level and Street View

Note that if you zoom in very closely, you go to a ground-level view, which shows the view as if you’re standing at that spot. Ground-level view shows the general landscape. There’s often a button on the screen that allows you to switch between ground-level view and something called “street view.”

Street view shows actual panoramic photos of your current area. (I can tell it’s really my house, because the street view shows our van door wide open.) Street view is not available in all parts of the world, by the way. You can drag the mouse to change your viewpoint and double-click anywhere on the screen within street view to move the viewpoint to a new spot. If you’re pointing down a street, you can use the mouse wheel to “drive” down the street. Use the “exit ground-level view” or “exit street view” button (the button text changes depending on the current mode) to return to the normal globe mode.