In the past couple of months, we witnessed how the nights became longer and longer with each passing day. Daylight is less intense and doesn’t last as long. Have you asked a kid whether they know why this happens? The curiosity inside them will open their ears, preparing them to listen to you explain the topic of the winter solstice.
But, how to teach kids about the winter solstice? Better yet, how to construct an insightful and easy-to-understand lesson plan that kids will remember? This article aims to answer these questions and more. Together, we’ll break down the basic principles that kids need to be introduced to in order to understand the concept of the solstice, how to introduce these concepts for the first time, and what the details are you should keep in mind. Before we say goodbye, we’ll leave you with some high-quality teaching resources and specific activities you can implement in your classroom or homeschool practice.
How to Explain Winter Solstice to Kids?
Explaining winter solstice to kids relies on preexisting knowledge about Earth, the Sun, the seasons, and a few other topics on natural phenomena, all of which you can find in our Earth Science section.
A few months back, we also published an article on the Autumnal Equinox, where we shared a lot of tips on how to explain the concept of an equinox, where the day and night have equal lengths. If you and your students celebrated the autumnal equinox, then explaining the solstice (longest or shortest day of the year) would come really naturally, as a nice, logical closure of the Earth’s trip around the Sun.
However, if this is not the case, don’t worry. Winter solstice is another excellent opportunity to introduce kids to Earth’s natural occurrences.
To Start: Stick to the Facts
A solstice is a natural event that occurs twice a year – once in the summer and once in the winter, hence the name of this phenomenon, the summer and the winter solstices. It’s a direct result of the way the Earth moves around the Sun.
By now kids should be familiar with the fact that the Earth revolves around the Sun and that the Earth is tilted on its own axis. However, for younger kids, you can start by asking “Have you noticed that in winter the days a longer? Well, in the northern hemisphere, on December 21, daylight is the shortest, while the night is the longest”. After this, try to show with visual aids how the Earth moves around the Sun and at which point it’s closest/furthest away from the Sun.
For kids that are familiar with the basics, you can explain that the winter solstice marks the exact moment when one of the Earth’s poles has its maximum tilt away from the Sun. This means that only half of the Earth is maximally distanced from the Sun. (the other pole is closer to the Sun because of Earth’s tilted axis). Use a globe, images, or videos, to show this to the students.
Slowly Get Into the Details
The implication of this difference between the hemispheres means that there must be another event that marks the maximal distance of the other pole from the Sun. Most of the students will come to this conclusion on their own if they can see the Earth’s tilted axis and its orbit.
For the Northern Hemisphere, the winter solstice happens annually, on the 21st or the 22nd of December. It marks the first day of winter, although from then on, the day only gets longer.
For the Southern Hemisphere, winter starts on the summer solstice that happens annually on the 20th or the 21st of June. Here, the winter solstice marks the beginning of summer.
As you may have noticed, the terms “winter” and “summer” solstice are coined in accordance with the events in the Northern Hemisphere, but it’s worth noting that in the Southern Hemisphere, winter starts on June 20th or 21st, and summer on December 21st or 22d. For them, the solstices have reversed names. If this is too confusing, simply ask kids to remember the solstices as the December and June solstices.
The winter solstice is also known as the Midwinter, Yule, the Longest Night, or Jól.
Seasons vs. Solstices
Another detail you can go over with your students is the difference between the astronomical and meteorological winter. At first glance, it might seem like there is some complex sciencey stuff behind these terms, but it’s actually really simple.
For many people, winter begins with the winter solstice (December 21), which is an astronomical phenomenon relating to the Earth’s position around the Sun. However, that doesn’t mean that the temperature on December 21 is the lowest (coldest weather) of the year. In fact, the lowest temperatures in America are usually observed in late January (depending on where you live). Meteorologists, the people who study the weather and climate, are interested in defining the seasons in relation to temperature because that has practical implications. According to them, in the United States, winter lasts about 90 days and is observed in December, January, and February (the winter months).
Before we move on to teaching resources and practical activities for celebrating the winter solstice with kids, make sure to point out that the knowledge about seasons and other astronomical phenomena is very relative to specific geographical locations. This means that the way we experience and commemorate winter solstice won’t be the same all around the world.
Teaching Resources About Winter Solstice for Kids
Do you want to make your lesson more interesting and diverse? Well, put the typical textbooks aside and implement the content of some of the following resources. You can watch breathtaking documentaries and teach through interactive worksheets, book illustrations, or virtual tools.
Documentaries About Solstices
It’s hard to find good movies and documentaries about the winter solstice for kids, as the event is almost always portrayed as mystic and dark, which is neither educational nor appropriate. However, we were able to find some documentaries and informative movies on the topic that you might find useful.
An astonishing nature documentary about the seasons’ cycle, Earth’s history, and humankind.
A 40-min documentary that explores the origins of Yule, a festival historically observed by the Germanic people. Some of the questions this documentary aims to answer are about Yule’s connections to the winter solstice and Christmas.
A documentary that takes on the findings of archaeologists who are still trying to understand the meaning of this ancient object.
3D Diagram: Solar System
Very neatly done, this 3D diagram of the Solar System does a wonderful job at visualizing how Earth orbits the Sun. Students can move the pointer where the months of the year are marked and the visualization below shows Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars’ location in relation to the Sun. Also, the months are drawn like a circle in the visualization itself, which means students can really see how the Earth moves as time passes.
Children’s Books About the Winter Solstice
Sometimes, what we can’t fully explain, we can leave to children’s books writers. Although documentaries and movies about the winter solstice for kids might fall short, there are many books and illustrations designed for the youngest readers. All the sciencey and more complex stuff are simplified and shown through images.
- The Shortest Day: Celebrating the Winter Solstice by Wendy Pfeffer (author) and Jesse Reisch (illustrator).
- Dear Rebecca, Winter Is Here by Jean Craighead George.
- The Solstice Badger by Robin McFadden.
- The Winter Solstice by Ellen Jackson (author) and Jan Davey Ellis (illustrator).
- The Shortest Day by Susan Cooper.
- The Return of the Light: Twelve Tales from Around the World for the Winter Solstice by Carolyn McVickar Edwards.
Facts and Worksheets About the Winter Solstice for Kids
Learning can be fun. On our website, you can find a lot of worksheets on this and similar topics that will help you construct your lesson plan. Students love worksheets because they’re visually stimulating, fun, and easy to complete, unlike some traditional exercises that can be stressful or overwhelming.
What worksheets would we recommend?
The main worksheet bundle for this topic is our Winter Solstice Facts & Worksheets. We also have a facts & worksheets bundle for the summer solstice, in case you want to add more context to your lesson plan.
If you want to go into more details, you might benefit from our Winter Facts & Worksheets bundle, where we share interesting facts, etymology, and ancient beliefs. The worksheet bundle about Stonehenge is also a great choice.
You can also use our Yule Facts & Worksheets bundle, which is about the ancient pagan holiday that takes place on the same day as the winter solstice.
Other worksheet bundles you can use to help kids understand the basic principles needed for grasping the concept of solstice include:
- Solar System Facts & Worksheets
- Weather Facts & Worksheets
- Northern Hemisphere Facts & Worksheets
- Southern Hemisphere Facts & Worksheets
Winter Solstice Activities for Kids
Many countries around the world celebrate the winter solstice in a variety of ways. This year, you can bring different rituals and traditions to the classroom by celebrating the winter solstice with kids through fun and meaningful activities.
Discovering Ancient Solstice Sites
Considering the current situation and the fact the ancient solstice sites are scattered all around the world, we’re not saying you should actually visit these sites. But, there are so many beautifully made documentaries, interactive sites, maps, and texts that explore the ancient solstice sites and their significance. Can you imagine what these people believe in or why they were motivated to construct such objects? We’re sure your students will love to find out.
Here are some interesting ancient solstice sites worth exploring:
- Stonehenge, England.
- Machu Picchu, Urubamba Valley, Peru.
- Chichen Itza, Mexico.
- Chaco Canyon, New Mexico.
- Newgrange, Ireland.
- Nasca Lines, Nazca Desert, Peru.
- Temple of Karnak, Luxor, Egypt.
- Angkor Wat, Cambodia.
- Petra, Jordan.
Divide students into small groups and give each group a task to research and present the story of one of the above-mentioned ancient solstice sites. Make sure that all the groups include information about the site’s significance with the astronomical phenomena.
Watch The Winter Solstice at Stonehenge
How cool would it be if you could watch the winter solstice at one of, if not the, most famous ancient and mysterious objects? And, no, you don’t need a ticket to England.
This year, you can watch the winter solstice early in the morning on the 21 December through a live stream on Youtube by English Heritage. You can find more details about the event on the link.
Every year people around the world gather around Stonehenge to watch the sunrise for the winter solstice. However, due to the pandemic, English Heritage is going to live-stream the event, which means you and your students might get a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to watch this amazing phenomenon, online, for free.
Art Challenge: Build a Replica of Stonehenge
There are many ways this art challenge can go depending on the students’ grade-level, your resources, and the time you have to spend on this topic.
The easiest way to organize this would be with a drawing block and color pencils, or even easier, if that’s possible, with dominos. Using dominos means that kids only need to arrange them in the form of a Stonehenge. These two variations are suitable for the youngest learners.
Older children can make a more realistic and complex replica of Stonehenge. You can use construction paper, oil colors, glue, and scissors. Finally, the most advanced students can build a Stonehenge replica by molding clay or other sculpting materials.
Burn a Yule Log
We didn’t mention it in the article, but the Yule Log has connections with the winter solstice. The burning of the Yule Log was an ancient Nordic tradition. In fact, Yule is actually the name of the old winter solstice festivals in Scandinavia. So, one way to celebrate the winter solstice would be a modern version of an old tradition.
To celebrate Yule, you can organize an outdoor fire pit in the school’s backyard or in your own home’s yard. Take a few logs to burn them, while the students roast S’mores and read stories about the winter solstice.
Take a Field Trip
Considering the situation, this activity might be only possible for homeschool families, or if you give it as an assignment for students to complete with their parents, then instruct them to write a report or an essay on the topic.
Just keep in mind that this is the shortest day in the year, so taking an early walk is a must, plus, it provides a unique experience because the daylight would be with very low intensity.
Decorate a Tree
Did you know that people from Eastern European countries decorate Christmas trees around the time when the winter solstice is observed? This is because their Christmas is celebrated after New Year’s Eve, so they start decorating a bit later. Your students’ Christmas trees at home are probably already up, but you can decorate a tree in the classroom. Every student can bring a decoration that reminds them of winter, or you can even make an art session where the students make the decorations.
Leave Food for Animals
Winter is harsh for the stray or wild animals that live around us. This is why it’s a great idea to have the students prepare treats for the animals that live in your area. Make sure to do a lot of research first on what animals live around you and their eating habits. This way children will become aware of the harsh conditions of winter and the need for everyone to help each other.
Before You Leave
Hopefully, our article will serve as a helpful guide for organizing an amazing lesson plan for your classroom or homeschool. We love writing about seasonal topics, as they’re very joyful and provide an excellent opportunity to have fun with practical activities.
The teaching resources we’ve provided might be enough for this topic, but in case you need anything else, you can simply head to our main website and browse through the large collection of worksheets, curriculums, and lesson plans. We regularly add new content and everything we share is produced by experienced teachers who understand exactly what you need.
Finally, as another way to support you, we write insightful articles on a variety of issues, dilemmas, myths, and trends in the field of children’s education over on our blog. So, don’t hesitate to check it out.
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Link will appear as Teach Kids About the Winter Solstice: https://kidskonnect.com - KidsKonnect, December 19, 2020