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What are 3D shapes?

  • 3D shapes are solid shapes that have three dimensions – length, depth, and width.
  • 3D shapes look like objects that you could pick up. They are different from 2D shapes which are flat.
  • 3D shapes have edges and corners (called vertices) where the edges meet.
  • 3d shapes also have sides or surfaces which are called faces. These faces are often 2D shapes.


Teacher notes

Introduce 3D shapes to your students. The list above may be helpful to introduce the main properties of 3D shapes. It would also be helpful to have examples of 3D shapes in the classroom so that students can more easily understand their properties as you explain them.

If you don't have fabricated 3D shapes as a classroom resource, you could use everyday objects: e.g. dice, boxes, or books as examples of cubes and cuboid shapes; a ball or an orange as an example of a sphere; and a tin can as an example of a cylinder. (Other 3D shapes may be harder to find!)

  • Point out the length, depth and width of 3D shapes using an object.
  • Show students where the edges, vertices, and faces of 3D shapes are.


Knowing 1996

Michael Craig-Martin (b.1941)




Compare the shapes in these two pictures.

  • What shapes can you see?
  • How are the shapes different?

Shape comparison

The first picture shows a painting of an orange square (with smaller squares inside it).

There are also some squares in the second picture. Can you find them?

These squares are joined at the edges to become a 3D shape. This shape is called a cube.

The cube in this picture is a sculpture and the artist has decorated its faces with patterns.


Now for some detective work…

  • Can you work out how many faces a cube has?
  • Can you work out how many edges a cube has?
  • Can you work out how many vertices (or corners) a cube has?


Properties of a cube

A cube has 6 faces, 12 edges, and 8 vertices

All of the faces of a cube are squares.




Look at this picture. It shows a stone sculpture that is also a bench.

  • Describe the shape of the bench.
  • Can you see any 2D shapes?



unknown artist

The bench looks a bit like a stretched cube. This 3D shape is called a cuboid. A cuboid is different from a cube because not all of its faces are squares.

  • Did you spot the rectangles?


Properties of a cuboid

Like a cube, a cuboid has 6 faces, 12 edges, and 8 vertices.

2 of the faces of the cuboid bench are square and the other 4 faces are rectangles. But sometimes all the faces of a cuboid are rectangles.

The opposite faces of a cuboid are always the same size and shape.



Cuboids are all around us...

  • Look around your classroom, can you see any cuboids?
  • Look out of the window, can you see any cuboids?


You see an office building. 3

You see an office building. 3 1996

Julian Opie (b.1958)


Teacher notes

It might be helpful to have examples of different types of cuboids to show your students. (E.g. books and boxes with different dimensions.)

  • Point out the faces of a cuboid, its vertices, and its edges.
  • Point out the opposite faces to demonstrate that these are the same size and shape.



This 3D shape looks like a ball. It is called a sphere.

The Globe

The Globe 1995

unknown artist

36 The Calls, Leeds, West Yorkshire

  • Think of some words to describe a sphere.
  • Can you think of any objects that are shaped like a sphere?



Oranges 2003

Robert Anderson

Clare Hall, University of Cambridge

Now let's investigate spheres...

  • Does a sphere have any vertices?
  • How many faces does a sphere have?
  • Where are its edges? (The edges of 3D shapes are where two faces meet.)


Woodberry Water Sphere

Woodberry Water Sphere c.2017

In-Ex Landscapes

New River Path, Woodberry Grove, Hackney

Properties of a sphere

A sphere has 1 curved face and no vertices. It doesn't have any edges because it only has 1 face.


Teacher notes

Encourage students to think of descriptive words to describe a sphere. This will help them in understanding its properties. Possible words might be 'round', 'curved', 'smooth' or 'rolling'.

  • Use a ball or an orange to point out that the surface of a sphere is its one curved face.
  • Explain that edges are where two faces meet, so a sphere doesn't have any edges


Pyramids and cones

Here is another 3D shape. This shape is called a pyramid. 

Pyramid and Canopies

Pyramid and Canopies 1985–1986

Stan Bonnar (b.1948)

West Port, City of Dundee, Dundee

  • How many faces do you think it has?
  • How many vertices do you think it has?


About the pyramid

This pyramid has 1 square face at the bottom and 4 triangular faces that meet at the top.


Pyramid variations

Not all pyramids are the same. Some pyramids have a triangular face at the bottom and 3 triangular faces that meet at the top.

Other pyramids have pentagonal or hexagonal or octagonal faces at one end… with 5, 6 or 8 triangular faces that come to a point opposite!



Properties of a pyramid

A pyramid always has a 2D shape with 3 or more straight sides at one end and a point or vertex at the opposite end.

The number of faces, sides, and vertices it has depends on the shape at its base.


Teacher notes

If you don't have a pyramid-shaped object to explain the properties of a pyramid, use the diagrams above.

Show students where the faces, edges, and vertices are, and how pyramids have a vertex at one end and a shape with three or more sides (a polygon) opposite.


Did you know...?

The Ancient Egyptians built pyramid-shaped tombs where they buried their kings (pharaohs).

The tallest pyramid was 146.5 metres high when it was built – that's one and a half times taller than Big Ben!

The Water of the Nile

The Water of the Nile 1893

Frederick Goodall (1822–1904)

Manchester Art Gallery



Look at this picture. It shows a sculpture made from 3D shapes.

  • Do you know what this shape is called?



Cones 1981

William Brotherston (b.1943)

Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums

This sculpture is made of 2 cones.

A cone looks a little bit like a pyramid because it comes to a point (or vertex) at one end. But instead of a square, triangle or another straight-sided shape at the other end, it has a circle.


Spot the difference!

  • Can you spot the differences between a cone and a pyramid?
  • Compare the edges faces and vertices of the shapes in this picture.

Cone vs. pyramid

Cone vs. pyramid

Pyramid vs. cones

A cone has a circle at its base, the pyramid has a shape with straight sides. Do you know what this shape is called? (It might help to count its sides.)

A cone only has 1 edge. This pyramid has 12 edges.

The edge of a cone is curved. All the edges of a pyramid are straight.

A cone only has 2 faces – the circular face and the curved face that rises to a point (or vertex). This pyramid has 7 faces.

Cones are all around us...

This is a painting by Scottish artist Alexander Guy.

  • What does the painting show?
  • Can you see any cones?

The Ice-Cream Van

The Ice-Cream Van 1984

Alexander Guy (b.1962)

Glasgow Life Museums

What does the picture below show? Can you spot the cone?

Equestrian Monument to the Duke of Wellington

Equestrian Monument to the Duke of Wellington 1840–1844

Carlo Marochetti (1805–1867) and Soyer and De Braux and James Smith (1808–1863)

Royal Exchange Square, Glasgow

This sculpture shows the Duke of Wellington on a horse. The Duke of Wellington was a famous soldier and was also prime minister of the United Kingdom 200 years ago.

The statue stands outside the Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow. The Duke is not meant to have a traffic cone on his head – but people keep putting it there!



This 3D shape is called a cylinder. 

Cylinder 3D shape

Cylinder 3D shape

  • How many faces does a cylinder have?
  • Does it have any vertices?
  • Can you see any 2D shapes in this cylinder?


Properties of a cylinder

A cylinder has 2 circles at opposite ends. It has 3 faces altogether – the 2 circles and the curved face that joins them.

A cylinder has 2 edges and no vertices.


Teacher notes

You could use a tin can to point out the properties of a cylinder. 

Show students where the faces of a cylinder are, and explain that because a cylinder is formed of 2 circles and a longer curved face, it has no vertices.


Cylinders are all around us...

  • Can you see any cylinders in these paintings?
  • Can you think of anything else that is shaped like a cylinder?


Activity suggestion: 3D modelling challenge

Challenge your students to make 3D shapes from modelling material (such as Plasticine) in response to descriptions of 3D shapes and their properties.

3D shapes modelled from Plasticine

3D shapes modelled from Plasticine

Students could work in groups or pairs so that they can discuss the descriptions and clues.

Descriptions could be, for example:

  • This shape has 5 faces and 5 vertices. One of the faces is a square and the other faces are triangles. (Extra clue: The Egyptians built these for their Pharaohs)
  • This 3D shape has no vertices and no edges. (Extra clue: this 3D shape can roll really well!)
  • This 3D shape has one vertex and a circle shape opposite the vertex. (Extra clue: In the summer you might enjoy an ice cream that is this shape!)



For older or more able students use the descriptions of the shapes' properties only. For younger and less able students, you may need to provide extra clues. 

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