Just a few days ago, on the 9th of January, the scientific community marked 80 years from the death of Nikola Tesla, one of the scientists who “invented” electricity, along with Thomas Edison. Thanks to these geniuses, our world was transformed beyond imagination, enabling the emergence of the information age and all the subsequent technological advances.
Because of this, children are exposed to electricity even before they can realize what electricity is. They watch cartoons on TVs, they play with electric toys, and they play games on computers and smart devices. In their daily interaction with electricity, kids will no doubt pick up some basic understanding of the concept of electricity. For instance, they might realize that tablets or phones or electric toys need to be charged before they can work again. Or, they might realize that some things don’t work unless they’re plugged in the electricity socket.
While these intuitions are a great starting point, they’re merely scratching the surface of the science of electricity. And, since kids are incredibly curious about the world around them, as a homeschooling parent or a teacher, you should be prepared to introduce the topic of electricity for kids in a fun and meaningful way.
In this article, we’ll discuss some basic notions of electricity, share more comprehensive teaching resources, and focus on fun and exciting electricity experiments for kids.
What Is Electricity?
Let’s start from the very basics. How to explain what electricity is to kids?
Adapt the explanation to the child’s age. For very young kids, like preschoolers, keep it very short and simple. There’s no need to go into the details and use specific terminology. Older kids, on the other hand, start associating the scientific terminology with daily examples and more simple explanations.
You need to take into consideration the child’s educational background and start from there. It’s useful if the child is familiar with basic concepts in physics, such as atoms and different forms of energy.
A good definition for K-12 students would be: “Electricity is one form of energy that gets its power from the flow of electric charges (electrons and protons), also called electric currents (if the child has a background in atoms, they’ll be familiar with the concept of electrical charges).” This flow of electric charges is what keeps our computers running, including the lightbulbs in our homes at night and every other electrical device. Also, a very powerful flow of charges (electrons) sometimes flows through the air and toward the Earth, which we see as a lightning bolt struck.
The next question you should answer is “How do we make or find electricity?” Here, you can explain that electricity is a secondary source of energy because we can’t really make it, but get it from natural sources like coal, natural gas, fossil fuels, and solar thermal energy.
How is Electricity Generated?
Telling kids that electricity is generated from natural sources is not enough. They’re curious and they’ll want to know how exactly that happens. Saying that electricity is generated at a power plant by electromechanical generators is not suitable for kids. Instead, choose a renewable or non-renewable source and in simple terms explain the process.
A good example of a non-renewable source of generating electricity is coal. We take coal from the Earth and we burn it. When the coal burns it releases heat. The heat then turns water into steam under high pressure which is able to move a special device called a turbine. When the turbine spins, it causes friction which produces electricity.
Another distinction kids should learn is that there are two types of electricity – static and dynamic electricity. What we’ve talked about so far was mainly about dynamic electricity or electrical current. But, here’s a good way to explain these two types of electricity to kids.
Dynamic Electricity or Electric Current
Dynamic electricity is what we’ve discussed above and what the general definition of electricity refers to. This is because, in everyday life, we mostly use dynamic electricity. The electricity we use to light and heat our homes or to run appliances is dynamic electricity, which works just like we described in the previous paragraph. It’s characterized by a steady flow of electric charges (protons or electrons) from one place to another.
However, not all electricity flows, and kids most likely have been exposed to static electricity in some way. The most obvious, everyday example is when we pull our hat off and we see our hair stand on end. You can easily demonstrate this in the classroom or at the comfort of your home, especially in winter when everyone is wearing hats. Kids will be very amused, which is a wonderful opportunity to explain the concept of static electricity, by telling kids why that happens.
Static electricity refers to a charged surface of a material. In everyday life, most objects have a neutral charge, meaning their protons and electrons are balanced in number. However, sometimes, the surface of some objects, due to friction or other interaction, can gain or lose electrons. This will make them unbalanced and they’ll begin to push or pull other objects in their surrounding. This attraction or rejection of two objects is called static electricity and it causes some very interesting phenomena in daily lives.
For this reason, we made sure to include both attraction and rejection experiments when it comes to static electricity for kids. We also included some cool dynamic electricity experiments you can use to make your lesson more fun and memorable.
There’s so much more to talk about on the topic of electricity, which is why we have you covered with an in-depth curriculum, lesson plans, and worksheet bundles on the topic of electricity for kids. Moreover, if your students are familiar with the basics, we also offer more in-depth topics in the field of electricity. Our worksheet bundle on Michael Faraday, another brilliant scientist who demystified static electricity and discovered electromagnetic induction, can come in handy when building a lesson plan for more advanced or upper-grade students. Simply follow the links to get all the teaching resources for creating a bullet-proof lesson that’s easy to understand.
6 Fun Electricity Experiments and Activities for Kids
Complex science topics like electricity for kids are best learned when you introduce amusing and memorable activities and experiments. All of these activities include a “wow” moment that plants the seeds for future scientists as it makes kids excited about the things they can control or do.
Here are some kid-friendly electricity experiments that are very easy to implement and follow in different settings – a classroom or a homeschooling setting.
The Balloon Experiments with Static Electricity
Children have interacted with water countless times, which means they’re familiar with its properties. In any case, start the experiment by turning your faucet on very low to get a small stream of water. Then, allow the child to interact with the water flow. Ask them if it’s possible to change the shape of the water flow without touching it? Actually, we can’t do anything to the water without touching it, or so it seems.
Prompt the child to think about the things they’ve learned on static electricity and try to see how the water will react when it interacts with a charged object. You can use a balloon for this and the next two experiments since they’re very easy to be charged and also very inexpensive if you want to try this experiment in the classroom.
To be charged, the balloon needs to be dry, so make sure the child’s hands are also dry. Then, slowly, bring the balloon close to the water flow and see what happens. The charged balloon will attract the water molecules, which will bend the shape of the flow a little.
Be careful, if the flow of the water is too big, the charged particles won’t be strong enough to attract the whole flow and most likely nothing will happen.
You can also do this experiment with a comb, a paper pipe, or anything else that you can easily charge.
“Magically” Separate Salt from Pepper
Again, start by challenging your child to find a solution to this impossible problem – separating salt and pepper. On a black piece of paper (so your child can see better), pour a little bit of salt and pepper and mix them together. Ask your child if there’s a way to separate the pepper from the salt. Since the individual pieces of salt and pepper are so small, it’s impossible to separate them by hand. However, with the power of static electricity, this impossible task becomes possible.
Again, charge a balloon, a plastic spoon, or anything else you find more practical, and bring it one inch above the salt and pepper mixture. Just like magic, your child will observe how the pepper particles jump around and stick to the surface of the balloon.
This is because the balloon is negatively charged and the pepper is positively charged, and we know that the law of attraction states that the opposites attract.
Move Bubbles With a Balloon
To make this experiment, you’ll need a flat surface, like a plastic or glass table.
Give your child a straw and some bubbling solution so they can make bubbles. First, observe them together and talk about their properties. How fast do they fall, how they move, what happens if we touch them? Try to change the direction of how a bubble moves. If we gently blow, they’ll move away or break. But how can we make the bubbles move toward us? Static electricity!
First, make a bubble by blowing gently with the straw on the flat surface. This way a half bubble will form on the surface and it can move if the surface is wet. Then, charge a balloon and bring it close to the bubble. The bubble will start to move toward the balloon. Just be careful, if the balloon gets too close to the bubble, the bubble will burst.
Make a Clock Work With a Potato
It’s no secret that potatoes are the ultimate science fair project resource. This is because the liquid in the potato acts as an electrolyte and generates electricity between two electrodes.
To make a clock work, you’ll need two potatoes (or simply cut one in half), two copper wires, two galvanized nails, three alligator clip wire units (they need to be connected with each other with the wire), and one low-voltage clock (those that usually require 1 or 2 voltage batteries).
First, remove the batteries from the clock, and explain to the child why a clock doesn’t work without the batteries with the knowledge from dynamic electricity. Then, explain why potatoes can work as a substitute for batteries, and discuss the process.
Insert the galvanized nails in one side of each potato (or in each half) and then insert a copper wire on the other side of each potato (far away from the nail). With the alligator clip, connect the wire that’s inserted in one of the potatoes with the positive side of the battery terminal in the clock. The second alligator clip should connect the nail from the other potato to the negative terminal of the clock’s battery compartment. Finally, the third alligator clip should connect the free nail and the copper wire between the potatoes.
After you do all this, your clock will work again.
Create DIY flashlights
Another great exercise to introduce kids to the concept of dynamic electricity is by teaching them how to make a flashlight in case the power goes down or simply as a fun tool to carry around with them.
To make this experiment, you’ll need a craft stick (jumbo edition is best), a binder clip, coin cell battery, one light-emitting diode (LED), aluminum foil, and transparent tape.
Together with your child or students, begin by cutting the end of the stick on one side, so you have a straight edge and you can secure the end with the binder clip. Then, place the battery on the uncut end of the craft stick in a way that one prong of the battery is touching the stick on one side and the other prong on the other side. After this, create a strip of the aluminum foil (slightly shorter than the length of the craft stick) and place it completely over the prong of the LED (secure it with the transparent tape), toward the end of the craft stick – repeat this on both sides.
Secure the aluminum foil at that end with the binder clip. Then, place the battery over the aluminum foil, where the metal ends of the clip are (with them you’re going to press on the battery to make the LED light-up). Cover half of the battery with transparent tape so you can secure it, but still leave space so that the binder clip can touch it.
Now, try it out. You may need to adjust the position of the battery a few times before it works.
Create a Harry Potter Magical Wand
Another variation of the DIY flashlight idea is to take it to the next level in terms of creativity and let kids create wizard wands.
You’ll need a battery pack with switch, a wire (red and black), copper tape, wire strippers, coin cell battery, a LED, and a thin wooden stick that’s about the same size as a wizard wand.
Begin by cutting the red and black wires. The length should be just a little more than the length of the stick. Then, strip the ends of the wires with the wire strippers. After this, connect the prongs of the LED with the exposed wires. Usually, the red wire should be attached to the longer prong (positive) of the LED and the shorter with the black wire. Make sure the connection is secure by wrapping the wires around the LED’s prongs and then cover them with the electrical tape. It’s a good idea to test the connections by touching the battery to the unconnected ends of the exposed wires. If the LED lights up, you can continue.
Usually, battery packs with switches are made for two batteries, but here’s a link to Amazon where you buy a single coin cell battery holder case with an on and off switch. Connect the wires from the case holder with the red and black exposed wires and secure them with tape.
Place the battery inside the holder and check if the connections work and you can light the LED.
Now, tape the LED to one side of the wooden stick and continue down by taping the wires to the stick. Tape the case holder in a way that the switch is exposed on the bottom of the stick. If you have an excess wire, trim them and then connect them again. Cover the connections with electrical tape and cover the whole stick with brown tape to secure everything and to make it look more like a wand. Finally, you can draw over the tape if you want to make the wand even more realistic.
Let your child aim with the wand, press the switch, and have lots of fun all while having learned a valuable lesson.
Note: Before you do the experiments, make sure you test the LEDs with the coin cell batteries to see if they work in the first place.
Before You Leave
As you can see, with very little effort you can make your child excited about science and turn the topic of electricity from boring and hard into an interesting uncovering of how the world works. Best of all, by knowing how to explain electricity, most children will be impressed by your knowledge!
But, teaching electricity to kids is more than that. Knowing how electricity works is an essential skill for kids that needs to be taken seriously. This is why we have you covered with multiple worksheet bundles as well as 7 ready-to-use electricity activities that cover conductors, insulators, circuits, electricity symbols, conversation, safety, and so much more. And, in case you need to teach more basic physics topics before covering the topic of electricity, simply browse through our worksheet library in our physics section and we’re sure you’ll find what you’re looking for.
Finally, don’t forget to check our blog where we regularly share educational content for both teachers and homeschooling parents in many aspects of a child’s education.
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