Weather is a topic of conversation we have with our friends, relatives, co-workers and even strangers. Your child is both aware of these conversations and likely to express her own ideas about the weather. Here is a terrific opportunity to capitalize on her interest and start an ongoing conversation about and exploration of something obvious and readily sensed. Understanding weather has important consequences for daily decisions about what to wear and choosing play activities. It also has important implications for health and safety.
We experience weather daily, so on one hand it is familiar. On the other hand, the concepts can be abstract and weather is not constant or it changes making it harder for young children to make predictions or understand causes and consequences. Patience is in order.
Persistence also will help to keep interest engaged and to enhance understanding. The following suggestions for discussion and activities are meant to occur over days, weeks and years to allow for these ideas to be easily comprehended. Repeat as often as necessary, or repeat with slight variations. Mix and match, but keeping records (including drawing pictures) or collecting data may be helpful in detecting patterns and promoting learning. Remember that you do not have to have all the answers. Let your child ask, explore, and think for herself. Listen more than talk and certainly do not correct her thinking immediately. Gently nudge in the right direction in terms of discovering an answer. Model your own curiosity about weather. The statement, “I wonder what will happen when…..” Is a perfect starting place.
There are a number of suggestions in the remainder of this post. Before you are overwhelmed, begin with a strategy. If you are not already familiar with the Guiding approach, please take a look at the “What is Guiding Curiosity Page.” Start with an observation of your child’s interest in what is going on outdoors weather wise. Build on that interest with questions, experiments, measurement, or a good story. The following are ideas for how to explore this topic, but not prescriptions for exactly how to proceed. Be flexible, using what appeals to you or what you think will work for your child.
This is a great place to start! Is someone wondering about something?
What is happening outside today?
What is a hurricane (or tornado)?
Where does rain/snow come from?
How does the weather today compare with the weather yesterday, or the weather at grandma’s house now?
What’s in the wind?
Where do rainbows come from?
How much did it rain today?
It’s easy to invite your child to identify what the current weather is outside (raining, sunny, partly cloudy). So begin with a simple cue, “I wonder what is going on outside?” and go from there. At first, responses may include only one or two words, but with time, observational skills will grow and descriptions will become more elaborate.
Be sure to help your child find the language to label weather conditions accurately. In observing weather conditions, invite your child to begin to differentiate types of precipitation, such as rain, drizzle, sleet, hail, snow, or ice storms. The sky can be clear or not. In the latter instance, there are several different climatic conditions contributing to low visibility, or mist, fog, smoke, dust, sand, or haze.
Observations can become more precise over time including measurements to be discussed shortly. Better yet would be to record (keep charts or ask your child to draw pictures that are kept in sequence) the weather over several hours of a single day, once a day at the same time over multiple days, or once a week over several seasons.
Look at raindrops, snowflakes, or hail with a magnifying glass or hand lens. Encourage descriptions or recording observations by drawing a picture. To collect snowflakes or hail, it helps to have a piece of cardboard or black construction paper that has been frozen and held out to capture an example. If landing on a frozen surface the snowflake or chunk of hail will melt more slowly.
Observe animal behavior during different weather conditions. What does your dog do during a thunderstorm? Can you hear birds chirping or frogs croaking during a rainstorm?
Observe sunsets or sunrises. Can you make predictions about the day’s or next day’s weather based on the color of the sky? (Red sky at night, sailors delight. Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning).
Observe where the weather seems to come from. What direction do clouds move across the sky? Can you identify a storm front?
Observe the night sky. Can you detect a ring around the moon? If observed, what is the weather the next day? (Hint: Usually a ring will forecast rain or snow. The ring is the result of clouds in the atmosphere that cause the moonlight to extend or spread).
Always be on the lookout for rainbows. How many colors of the spectrum can you see? Where does it start and end?
Observe the arc of the sun in the sky over different seasons.
Take a walk looking for morning dew on spider webs or leaves and the grass. Where does it come from? Take a walk in the afternoon. Is it still there? (Hint: Dew forms when moisture in the air comes into contact with cool objects. You are more likely to see dew in some areas than in others, particularly coastal areas).
These are suggestions you can make to your child based on his questions about the weather or demonstrated interests. Comparing and classifying come naturally to kids so build on those inclinations when possible.
Examine weather maps to determine how temperatures or rainfall varies at your house, across parts of your town, your state or the nation. (Start simple, or at home, extending these comparisons over time).
Call a friend or relative and ask them to report on the weather at their location and the temperature. Compare their weather with the weather your child has noticed and described. If you do this regularly, you can ask your child to guess or predict what the weather will be like at grandma’s house and then call to check on his prediction.
If keeping a weather record, compare over many hours in a day, or many days.
Examine how weather varies when an ecosystem is a desert, a rain forest, at high altitudes (mountain tops), near mountain ranges, or in the Polar Regions. (This can be done on the internet or with books from the library).
Find information on the rainiest place in the nation or the world. What is the hottest or coldest place in the nation or the world? How do those conditions affect the ecosystems? That is, what does that place look like? Can people live there, or how do they cope with extreme weather conditions? What other animals or insects live there? (This can be done on the internet or with books from the library).
Compare your child’s measurements of weather conditions with those on a smart phone, listed in the newspaper, or found on- line for your area.
Compare types of clouds. Initially, you can make up names or just find good descriptive words to describe types of clouds (fluffy, wispy, think, spread out). Your child will feel like he owns more of the discussion if he is determining the names. You can add the real names later. Once there is interest in the scientific names for clouds, consider creating a chart with images including the proper names. Make a chart that is easy to read and carry around on a walk or can be looked at while riding in the car. Discuss what different clouds mean for different weather conditions. What does a rain cloud look like? Which clouds are associated with a thunderstorm?
Lie on your backs in the grass looking up at the clouds and describe what they look like or who they look like.
Compare how rain or snow falls (fast or slow, straight down or sideways).
Invite your child to cut out the weather maps in your newspaper. If the paper is too flimsy they can be pasted onto cardboard or index cards. Are there patterns, or can the maps be sorted into different categories?
Make math and measures a daily habit. The following are suggestions for ideas on how to do this, have some fun, and learn at the same time.
Counting is always a first step in measurement. Place a piece of construction paper outside during a rainstorm. Leave it out only briefly (seconds). Pull it inside and count the number of raindrops that fell on that surface during a time interval (5 seconds versus 10 seconds).
Count lighting strikes or cracks of thunder during a storm over a 10 – 15 minute period or for however long your child is interested.
Start with tracking daily high and low temperatures. This is easy as the information is accessible on most of our phones, but it would be more informative for your child if he or she had to read a thermometer at a particular time each day (in the morning and right before bed). You may need to introduce how a thermometer works. Keep this simple, or as the mercury goes up the temperature is hotter. If the mercury goes down, it is getting cooler. Young children are also not initially comfortable with two digit numbers, but with time and practice, they will come to understand that 85 degrees is hotter than 75 degrees. This understanding will be enhanced when you can use the thermometer and point out that 85 degrees is higher than 75 degrees. Higher versus lower should be a comparison that is familiar. Consider keeping records on a piece of paper in a prominent place (on the refrigerator). A large sheet of poster size paper would be great! Alternatively, draw the thermometer and the level of the mercury for comparative purposes, or a visual representation of the temperature versus the number representing degrees Fahrenheit.
Another way to introduce measurement concepts with young children is to let them first guess. Ask your child if she knows what the temperature is. Allow her to guess and then check the thermometer. Expect early guesses to be way off but improve over time. If your child is not comfortable with numbers, try guessing whether a day is hotter or cooler than the day before and then check the correctness of the guess.
Consider measuring levels of precipitation (amounts of rain or snow). Find a container that has a wide mouth and straight sides. Leave it outside during a rainstorm. Either after the storm is over, or during intervals, measure the amount of precipitation by sticking a ruler into the jar and identifying the level in inches (or fractions of inches). Again with younger children you may have to read the numbers off the ruler and help record them. If a standard ruler is confusing, use another nonstandard form of measurement, or it rained as much as a pasta noodle, a Lego piece, or up to the first joint on my pointing finger.
Alternatively, leave the jar out for over a week or month, measuring the amount of precipitation over that period. Levels of snow can be measured directly by sticking the ruler in (you may need a yard stick). Take several measurements considering snow under trees, or out in the open, or on a street versus a lawn. What are the differences in levels and why? Your child can measure puddles after a rainstorm and then as they evaporate.
Measure the size of raindrops. Place a piece of cardboard on the ground when it is raining. Quickly measure the size of the drop before it soaks in. It can also be fun to measure rain splatter, or if a raindrop hits a surface does it bounce and break up into smaller parts?
Determining wind directions involves learning how to read a weather vane, or better yet build one with cardboard and a straw. You can figure out direction using a compass, but initially, it is fine to discuss this concept in terms such as the wind is coming from down the street, or from the direction that we head when going to school.
If you and your child have measured temperatures over a period of time, consider helping him chart them graphically.
With older children you can even introduce the concept of averages. Add the temperatures recorded and divide by the number summed together.
Take a cup of snow indoors. Scoop up snow in a measuring cup and level it off as you would if measuring flour for a recipe. Let the snow melt. How much water remains in the cup? Why? (Hint: Snow crystals contain air).
Count how far away is a lightning strike. You can see the lightning before you hear the thunder because light waves travel faster than sound waves. Count (or use a stopwatch) the seconds between a flash of lightning and a boom of thunder, then divide by 5. You use 5 because it takes sound about 5 seconds to travel 1 mile. The resulting number is how far away the lightning strike was.
If you have a barometer handy, discuss barometric pressure. If your child gets into discussions of weather, this may be an interesting measurement tool to have as inexpensive versions are available. Readings of barometric pressure are numbers that can also be recorded over a period of time. A barometer measures air pressure and readings can be used to predict the weather. High air pressure is associated with clear days. When the air pressure goes down a storm is probably on the way.
If you have a thermometer that is long enough, measure soil temperatures at the surface on a sunny day. Then dig down a couple inches and measure the temperature again. Try this with sand at the beach, or water in a pool or the ocean. Measure surface temperatures and temperatures further down. Which is warmer and why? Thermometers can be used to measure water temperature in bathtubs, swimming pools, birdbaths, and puddles. So many measurements, so little time.
The following experiments can be suggested to your child based on his demonstrated interests. Here are ideas that you can suggest to follow up on a question or observation. These “experiments” are not intended to be used at random, or at times when your child is not interested in weather related topics. Experimentation should flow organically from questions.
As adults guessing is not the first thing that comes to mind when conducting science, but for young children a guess represents a rudimentary hypothesis. So encourage guessing or predictions, and then find ways to help your child check whether or not she was right. For example, you can wonder with your child what is the hottest place outside in the yard. Then she can measure the temperature of that place (put the thermometer down for a couple of minutes), as compared to other areas (in the shade, or where there is grass versus dirt). Compare the results. Was the guess correct?
How does the sun heat things up? Find two identical cups or containers. Fill one about half way full with water. Fill the other about half way full with potting soil or soil from your yard. Insert a thermometer in each and record the temperature. Next place the two containers in the sun. Make sure each gets an equal amount of sunlight, and that one is not in the shade. Wait an hour (this is the hard part) and measure the temperature of each. Which heats up more? (Hint: Water heats more slowly than soil. That is why the air is cooler near bodies of water during the summer).
Reflecting heat versus absorbing it, light and dark surfaces respond differently to sunlight. This is easy. On a hot day touch the surfaces of cars painted different colors, or white versus black. Which is hotter? Why?
Make your own rain. Fill a jar with water (not too much because it will take too long). Place it in the sun (inside on a window sill or outside). What happens? Fill the same jar again with the same amount of water and put a lid on it. Place it in the sun. What happens (or doesn’t happen)? Alternatively, place water in a small plastic bag and tape it to a window so it gets some sun. What happens? This is a great way to see the whole water cycle or the water evaporates, then condenses on the inside of the bag. These droplets, in turn, find their way back to the original water source by sliding down the side of the container. This can take some time, so younger children may loose interest, but leave it up for a couple of days and they may find it interesting at a later point in time.
Hint: This experiment involves state changes in water, so overlaps with a basic principle in chemistry. Water goes through state changes or from liquid to vapor, or liquid to solids (snow or hail and ice). Water evaporates from the ocean, lakes, rivers, and puddles. As the water vapor rises in the atmosphere it cools, resulting in clouds. When the air gets too cool to hold all the vapor, rain or snow results which then falls back to earth in the ocean, lakes, rivers, and even puddles. After experimenting and creating vapor and rain, try drawing this cycle.
Create rain by placing two inches of hot water in a jar. Cover the jar with a plate and wait a few minutes. Next, place some ice cubes on the plate. What happens?
Collect rainwater and check the acid content with litmus strips. Litmus strips are inexpensive and can be purchased on-line. They can be used to measure all kinds of things around the house and out of doors. Look for more on litmus paper in an upcoming post on acids and bases.
Blow bubbles on warm days and take a video, picture, or make a picture of what they look like. Blow bubbles outside on a cold day and again record what they look like. What is the difference? (Hint: On a cold day the bubbles should float upwards because the air inside the bubble – we blew it out from our warm lungs – is warmer and therefore lighter than the cold air outside).
Set up series of demonstrations that will allow your child to experience the sensation of moving air, or wind. Use a hand held fan or sheet of cardboard to move the air. Stand in front of an electric fan. What does he feel? Place objects such as pieces of tissue paper or a feather in front of a fan. What happens? Place light weighing objects (versus heavy) on a table top. Point a straw at those objects and blow. What happens and why? Which objects can be blown the farthest? Why?
Ask your child what sorts of things get blown by the wind outside. Clouds are blown by the wind. Closer to earth, birds, leaves, bugs, dirt and seeds can be blown around.
Could there be other things in the air, perhaps things we cannot see? Check for particulate matter in the air. You may not have to look further than your windshield for examples of stuff in the air. Ask your child has she ever noticed particles in the air, such as when looking at light coming in through a window and seeing dust particles floating (or better yet wait until this can be observed as your starting point). Next, take white tissues outside and wipe surfaces such as outdoor furniture, the outside of windows, or toys left outside. What does your child see? Where is that “dirt” coming from? What makes up the smudge on the tissue? There are naturally small particles of soil or pollen in that dirt, so some portion of it is organic. Some of that “dirt” will also contain particles from burning matter and other pollutants. This is a good jump off for talking about pollution.
Fly a kite. On what days does it work best? Discuss wind direction and strength. Flight patterns should tell you something about the nature of wind (its not constant).
Discuss the meaning of a sunburn and the importance of protecting skin. Discuss what happens when we are hot or cold. How do our bodies respond to temperatures? How is sunlight good for us (vitamin D)? How are heat or cold a risk to us, and in what ways can we stay safe?
Discuss the importance of sunlight and water for plants and animal life. Discuss the effect of weather on growing our food (droughts mean plants have insufficient water, or excessive heat or cold can prevent plants from growing).
Discuss how weather may have changed in your area over time. Consider talking to people who have lived in your neighborhood and asking them about their impressions of changes in weather.
Find and discuss a map of the predominant wind patterns around the globe. What directions do winds blow in the Northern Hemisphere versus the Southern Hemisphere?
Discuss how icicles form.
Who are meteorologists and what do they do? Can you find one on television?
Use the sun as a cooking source. Place ingredients in aluminum foil muffin baking cups. Ingredients can include chocolate. If placed in the sun what happens and why?
Evaporation was a construct discussed in relation to water. Extend the conversation to evaporation in other aspects of our lives. Your child may use watercolors or tempera to paint with. The paint goes on wet, but then what happens to it? Where do puddles go? If we hang wet clothes outside on a clothesline, what happens to them? Evaporation can be experienced directly with hand sanitizer. Place a small amount on your child’s hand and ask her to rub them together. Initially they feel wet, but that sensation lasts only a short time as her hands will quickly feel dry. What happened?
If you live in an area that can get hot during the summer months, you have a chance to discuss thermals, or observable heat rising. Think of what you see when parking lots are covered with black asphalt and the sun has been blasting down on that surface.
Create art with weather in mind, drawing or painting clouds, weather events, or the effects of wind on trees, other plants, and animals.
Make wind chimes from unused silverware, shells, or items that can be hung and will clink if blown together.
Use the sun’s light to create art. Place purple or navy construction paper on the ground in bright sun. Arrange objects on the paper and let the sun do the rest!
Extreme weather events can be very scary if watched on television (or experienced first hand!). Tackle these topics with sensitivity, or when your child is ready to consider tornedoes, hurricanes, or major dust storms. There are many good books on weather appropriate for children with great pictures and good explanations of the phenomena.
Comparative weather (local, national, global)
Measurement (thermometers, wind strength and direction, amounts of precipitation, averages).
Tornedoes, hurricanes, blizzards
Evaporation and condensation
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