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Young Sprouts: Solar Energy

Activities and Play

2/25/2022 | Emily Jaeger

It’s never too early to learn about solar energy. According to the EPA, the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States is from burning fossil fuels--for electricity, heat, and transportation. Our young ones will be inheriting our world in its current state of environmental crisis. They will also be the ones developing potential solutions. 

Whether they’ve fully articulated it or not, young children already have a growing awareness of how the sun works in their world: changes from night to day, in the weather, and in the seasons. Most likely you already have some of these themes embedded in your current curricula. Exploring how the sun works and how it can be a source of renewable energy fosters awareness of each person’s daily impact on the environment. And most importantly, it empowers young learners to change their world for the better.

How Does the Sun Produce Energy?

Try out some fun and easy experiments to demonstrate how solar energy works. At its most basic, solar energy or solar fuel can replace traditional methods of heating. While learners may have a sense that the sun is hot (on a summer day, against their skin when they are on the playground), being able to manipulate that heat is the first step to creating solar energy. 

Test out what colors attract the sun

Bring a couple of pieces of construction paper outside during playground time--make sure you have at least one white one and one black one. Have learners touch the papers and see what temperature they are to start with. Then leave the paper in a sunny spot, taped to the ground or weighed down with pebbles so they don’t blow away. 

At the end of the play session, have your learners observe/poke the paper to see the difference in temperature. Which one is the hottest--the black one! This is because dark colors slurp up the heat of the sun. Which is the coldest--the white one! Because white tells the heat of the sun to go away. You might ask kids what color shirt they would want to wear to stay cool on a hot day or warm on a cold day.

What melts in the sun?

This is a great follow-up experiment to demonstrate how to harness solar energy. Select (and/or have learners select) some small items to test whether or not they can be melted by the sun and arrange them in a muffin tin. Place the muffin tin in a sunny spot and return at intervals to see what melts. Some choices for meltables include a square of chocolate, ice cubes, cheese, butter, crayons, and bar soap pieces. You can also add pieces of black or white paper to the bottom of the muffin cup to see how different colors affect melt speed. 

Solar Oven

This activity takes “what melts in the sun” to the next level by demonstrating how to cook with solar energy. Instead of using electricity or gas, this basic solar oven can be made from a shoebox or pizza box, tin foil, tape, plastic wrap, and black paper or paint. Just add sunlight! While learners will be too young to make solar ovens independently, you can divide up tasks and make one together as a class. Place your solar oven in a sunny spot on the playground and try making some ‘smores, grilled cheese, quesadilla, or even cookies.

Connect the Dots with Story Time

Storytime is a great tool both to introduce solar energy and examine the broader effects of renewable energy in a way that is fun and age-appropriate: 

Solar Story by Allan Drummond (3+). Drummond describes the environmental impact of the world’s largest solar farm, the Noor Solar Power Plant in Morocco's Sahara Desert, through the eyes of a young girl who lives in the neighboring village. 

Why Should I Save Energy? by Jen Green (3+). This book definitely entertains and shows how using less electricity helps to protect nature. 

Next Steps

Solar power is not the only type of renewable energy for younger learners to discover. Don’t forget wind turbines and hydropower! Check out the Young Sprouts series for great ideas on how to explore wind and water.

Emily Jaeger is a professional writer with a background in education (she's taught every age group from preschool to retirement). Her writing has been featured on Parents Magazine, Kveller, Motherfigure and more. You can connect with Emily via her website emilyjaeger.com, or on instagram @soulinparaphrase. 

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