This is part 5 of a 5 part hands-on unit on inventions and simple machines. Watch static electricity lift hair and separate salt and pepper, build and test circuits and switches using household materials, play an electron game to demonstrate how they cause electricity, and more! My lessons are geared toward 3rd-4th grade level children and their siblings. These are lessons I created to do with a weekly homeschool co-op. We meet each week for 2 1/2 hours and have 14 children between the ages of 1-13. Use these fun lessons with your classroom, family, after school program, camp, or co-op!
1. Pray. Read and discuss Col. 1:16-17. God created everything -- even all the forms of energy.
2. Review simple machines.
3. a. Ask:
• What do you think of when you hear the word energy?
• What is energy? (Energy is anything that can do work. – Have kids repeat that definition.)
• Does work require energy? (Yes)
• What things create energy? (sun/solar, wind, water, steam, food, electricity, etc.).
• What kind of energy is most plentiful in this room? (electrical)
• What in this room is powered by electricity? (lights & a/c)
b. Read "Switch On, Switch Off" by Melvin Berger.
YOU WILL NEED: Book: "Switch On, Switch Off" by Melvin Berger
This was our favorite picture book to read aloud to a group. It was written in a story format of what happens when you turn on a switch, this book explains generators, wires, circuits and how electricity reaches our home. There are a number of other great books on electricity as well that I have listed toward the bottom of this page.
Static Electricity and Atoms
4. Discuss Static electricity.
a. (Hold two socks up and pretend they're stuck together.) Ask the children if any of them help with the laundry. When unloading clothes from a dryer, have they ever had clothes stick to each other and crackle when they are pulled apart? Ask if they have ever walked across a carpet, touched a doorknob and experienced a slight electric shock. Tell them that in both instances they were experiencing the power of electrons in something called static electricity. What causes static electricity? (the buildup of an electrical charge) What produces an electrical charge? (friction)
b. Explain that all things are made up of atoms. Atoms are made up of 3 parts. (Hold up 3 small balls of play-doh.) The protons and neutrons are held tightly together in the middle. (Push 2 of the balls of play-doh together.) Electrons, which are negatively charged, are held loosely. (Have the 3rd ball of play-doh circle around the nucleus/proton ball.) They move around from atom to atom easily. (Grab a sock and have electron play-doh ball "fly" off with the sock.)
c. By tumbling together in the dryer, electrons from some of the clothing rub off onto other clothing. (Crumble the shirt and sock around.) By rubbing together in the dryer, a sock may pick up extra electrons from a shirt. Ask: "What do you think happens to the charge of the sock when it picks up extra electrons?" [The sock builds up a negative charge.] "What do you think happens to the charge of the shirt when it loses electrons to the sock?" [The shirt becomes positively charged.] Positive and negative are attracted to each other. "What do you think might happen to the positively charged shirt and the negatively charged sock in the dryer?" [They would be attracted to each other and stick together.] (Hold up 2 socks.) "What do you think happens when there are two objects with like charges such as two negatively charged objects or two positively charged objects? Are they attracted to one another?" [No, like charges repel each other.] (Have the 2 socks "repel" each other.)
d. 2,500 years ago a Greek mathematician and astronomer named Thales (TAY-less) first noticed the effects of static electricity. He was polishing a piece of amber. Amber is hardened sap or tree resin that looks like yellow stone. (Pass around amber if you have any. I used a necklace that has amber-looking beads.) Thales discovered that after he rubbed the amber that it attracted dust particles. Ask: "Knowing what you do about static electricity, why do you think dust stuck to the amber?" [Loose electrons were rubbed off the amber so it became positively charged. Negatively charged dust particles were attracted to the amber.] The Greeks' word for amber was elecktron. This is where we get our word electricity.
e. What causes static electricity? (the buildup of an electrical charge) What produces an electrical charge? (friction)
YOU WILL NEED: 2 socks, 1 shirt, 3 small pieces of different colored play-doh & amber (optional)
5. Static electricity is just really fun to play with! Let’s see what you already know and what you can figure out!
-Hand each child a balloon. Ask, “What can you do with this balloon to demonstrate static electricity?” Allow children to propose options and try them out.
-If children need ideas, tell them to rub the balloons on their clothing for about thirty seconds and then holding the balloon over his/her head, someone else’s head, or the hair on their arm. They could also have it stick to a wall after rubbing it in their hair or on a carpet.
YOU WILL NEED: 1 balloon per child plus a few extras
Static and Salt and Pepper
6. (Prep: While the kids are playing with the balloons, lay a small piece of paper at each place. Shake some salt and pepper on each sheet of paper.)
-Ask them to make a hypothesis: What do you think will happen if static electricity gets near this salt and pepper?
-Let’s find out if your hypothesis was correct! Have them rub the balloon in their hair several times. Then have them bring the balloon a few inches from the salt and pepper mixture. Have them slowly lower it until the mixture starts to move.
-Ask, “What happens? Which starts to move first?” [Both pepper and salt are attracted to the negatively charged balloon, but the pepper goes up first.]
-Ask, “Why do you think that happened?” [Because the pepper particles are lighter, they jump onto the balloon first. As the balloon is brought closer to the mixture, the force of attraction increases. Eventually, the force overcomes the greater weight of the salt grains. Like the pepper, the salt now jumps onto the balloon.]
-Ask, “Do you think a mixture of pepper and salt be separated by static charges? Why?”
-Ask, “What have you learned about static electricity so far?”
YOU WILL NEED: 1 square of paper (can be ¼ of a sheet) per child and salt and pepper
Magic Rolling Cans
7. Move to a different area and rub off the balloons. (The salt and pepper interfered with the cans rolling well.) Place an aluminum can on the table. Ask, “Who can move this can without blowing on it, touching it, or touching the table?” (Allow children a few moments to see if they can figure out how to do it.) Follow the directions at, ask the questions from, and explain using the explanation from the Remote Control Roller .
YOU WILL NEED: 1 aluminum can per person and balloons from above activity
Circuits: Pass the Electron Game
8. Introduce the term circuit and have the children play "Pass the Electron" Game:
a. Tell the children that an electric current is a flow of electrons. This flow of electrons or electric current is energy. Show a length of copper wire and tell them that electric current can flow through wire like this.
b. Have everyone stand up in 2 straight lines so they might illustrate the flow of electrons through copper wire in a game called "Pass-the-Electron." Arrange everyone in a line to represent the wire. Say: "Each of you is an atom of copper in a length of copper wire." We have 2 lines, so each line represents a wire. Give each child a ball/item to represent an electron. They are all now balanced atoms. Each atom has the same number of electrons -- that number cannot be changed. If an extra electron is added to the first atom at the end of the wire, it must push an electron away. That electron jumps to the next atom.
c. Tell the children that you are the starter. As the starter, you give a ball/item to the first person in the line on your right. (The current must always move to the right.) This ball/item is an extra electron. S/he is now negatively charged. Tell this first atom that he or she cannot have two electrons. He or she must push the extra electron off to the next atom. Have the child pass a ball/item. Tell the next child in line that s/he now has too many electrons and is negatively charged and must push an extra electron off to the next atom, and so on. At the end of the line, the extra electron is discharged/dropped and the electrical current stops. Race to see which "wire" (line) can get that electron fastests through their wire. They have just illustrated a flow of electrons -- an electric current.
d. Ask: "How could you arrange yourselves so that the flow of electrons does not end, so that the electrons are not discharged at the end of the line?" [Let them try to figure it out, but they should conclude they need to get into a circle.] Have the children rearrange themselves in a circle. As starter, give an electron item to one of the atoms in the circle. Have the children play Pass-the-Electron again, seeing how quickly they can make the flow of electrons move.
e. Ask: "What if there is a gap in the wire?" Separate two atoms in a circle so the electron cannot be passed. You now have a short circuit. Ask: "What happens to the flow of electrons?” (It stops.)
f. Tell the children that there are 2 types of currents, and AC and a DC current. We've been demonstrating a DC current, which stands for direct current. Ask, “What type of current have we been demonstration?” DC current always flows in the same direction, to the right. Ask, “What direction do DC currents always flow?”
g. AC means "alternating circuit." Ask, “What does AC stand for?” AC current can change the direction of its flow. Ask, “What happens with an AC current?” Now when you call out "AC," they need to reverse the direction of the flow.
h. When the game is finished, tell the children that another name for a circular journey like the one the electrons made in Pass-the-Electron is circuit. Ask, “What is a circuit?” As they illustrated, in order for a flow of electrons to keep moving, the electrons must travel in a loop or circuit. A circuit is the path electric current takes as it flows.
YOU WILL NEED: 1 item per child - all the same type of item -- that can be held in a child's hand but are large enough to be passed quickly (tennis balls, stuffed animals, etc. – NOT something small like a paper clip or penny) & copper wire that will be used with the below activity
Lighting a Light Bulb
9. Review electric current. Make observations about batteries, copper wire, and light bulbs. Each group will get a D cell battery, a piece of 8" insulated copper wire with ends stripped 1/2 - 1 inch at each end, electrical tape, & 1 threaded flashlight bulb. They will work together to devise a way to light a light bulb.
- Show the children a D cell battery. Ask what it is. The battery is also called a dry cell. Energy stored in a battery serves as a starter -- it pushes electrons into the wire to get the flow of electrons started. The battery is like the starter in the game we just played. It will begin passing along the extra electron.
- Divide the children into groups of 4. Give each group a D cell battery. Ask them to look carefully at the batteries and describe some things about them. Have someone read the warning on the label aloud. Point out that there are chemicals in the battery that store energy.
- Point out that in tiny writing on the side it says, AD size, 1.5 volts. The amount of pressure or force a battery has to push electrons is measured in volts. 1.5 volts is very little force. Even though we'll be working with electricity using these batteries, it won't hurt us. The number of volts from a wall socket is 120 volts. That is enough force to give a very bad electric shock and do injury to a person.
- Pass out 2 pieces of wire to each group. Ask the children to describe what they notice about the wire. Point out that the copper wire inside contains the atoms that pass electrons and carry the current. In the game we just played, who represented the copper wire? [They did.]
- Distribute a light bulb to each group. Ask the children to describe what they notice about the bulb. Tell them to look very closely inside the bulb. Ask if they can see a very, very thin thread of wire connecting the two wires sticking up. When a bulb lights up, this thread of wire called a filament is what glows bright. The filament is a coil of very thin wire made up of the metal tungsten. The coiled wire slows the flow of electricity and creates resistance for the electricity. When electricity flows through the wire it gets very hot-as hot as 2,700 degrees Celsius. It glows white and gives out heat. The light bulb is a device that uses the flow of electrons to produce light.
- Everyone now gets to become electrical engineers. Their first assignment is to use what they know about the flow of electrons to design an electrical circuit that will light up a light bulb. The circuit will contain a starter (battery), a device that uses electricity (a light bulb) and wire to carry the electric current. There is more than one way to arrange the bulb, battery and wire to make the circuit. (For students who need leading: In some circuits the button on the bottom of the bulb is in direct contact with the positive button on the battery. On others, a wire may connect the bulb and battery.)
- After all groups have succeeded in lighting the light bulb, ask what all the circuits have in common. [The wires make contact with the battery and light bulb, and there are no interruptions in the circuit.] With no gaps between the battery, wires and bulb, the flow of electrons is uninterrupted. The electrons can move through the wires, light the bulb, and complete their circular journey or circuit. Ask: "What happens when you disconnect one of the wires?" [The light bulb goes out.] "Why does the light go out?" [The flow of electrons is interrupted in the circuit.]
- Inform children that they have just created a simple circuit.
NOTE: Supplies not used in this activity are listed below because they will be used for the next activity.
YOU WILL NEED PER GROUP OF 3-4 CHILDREN: 2 D cell batteries (MUST be name brand like Duracell or Energizer -- cheaper ones from stores like Dollar General don't work), 2 pieces of 8" insulated copper wire with ends stripped 1/2 - 1 inch at each end, electrical tape, & 1 flashlight bulb (rated 1.5-6 volts)
Series and Parallel Circuits
10. Give each group an additional battery, 3 pieces of wire, and a flashlight bulb and have them figure out how to light up 2 light bulbs. Then point out the features of series and parallel circuits.
- The next challenge for all our electrical engineers is to assemble a circuit that lights up two light bulbs. Give each group an additional battery, light bulb, and 3 pieces of wire.
- After children have finished, lay 12 items (whatever item was used in the "Pass the Electron" game) in a straight line. Tell them that this is a series circuit. Then take the same 12 items and place them in 2 parallel lines. This is a parallel circuit.
- Ask, "Which kind of circuit did your group assemble: parallel or series?"Ask a group that has assembled a series circuit to unscrew one of the light bulbs and see what happens. [Both light bulbs go out.] "Why did both bulbs go out when only one was unscrewed?" [It made a gap in the circuit.] "What else did you notice about the light bulbs in the series circuit?" [They were dimmer than with only one bulb in the circuit.] "In a series circuit, current goes through 1 light bulb and then the other. What do you think would happen to the brightness of these bulbs if you added another bulb to the series circuit?" [All the bulbs would get dimmer.]
- Ask a group that has wired a parallel circuit to unscrew one of the bulbs. (None of our groups made a parallel circuit, so we rearranged the wires on one group's to show a parallel circuit.) Ask, "What happens to the other bulb? Does it go out?" [No, it stays lit.] "Why do you think the other bulb does not go out?" [The current can still flow through to it.] "The path the electricity travels when one bulb is out. Are the bulbs dimmer in a parallel circuit?" [No, they are both bright.] A parallel circuit draws more energy from the battery than a series circuit, so batteries do not last as long in a parallel circuit.
- Mention that Christmas tree lights used to often be wired in series circuit. Why do you think they stopped designing them this way? [If one bulb burned out, the entire string went dark. The bad bulb had to be changed. In order to find the bad bulb you would have to change every single bulb in turn until the entire string would light up again.] If you have a strand of Christmas lights that are wired in a series circuit, demonstrate this. We don't own any, so we couldn't. Now they are usually wired with parallel circuits.
- Suppose as an electrical engineer your project was to design a wiring diagram for street lights in a neighborhood. Would you wire the street lights in a series circuit or a parallel circuit? Why? [Parallel. If one light bulb burned out, the other lights would stay lit. Each bulb would be bright.] Would there be any advantage to wiring the street lights in a series? [It would save money. They would draw less power and would only require 1/2 as much wire]
Building Circuits: On/Off Switches
11. Create a circuit, an on/off switch.
- Show the children a flashlight. Open the flashlight and show the children that 2 or more "D" cells are stacked inside and light one bulb. Point out that these batteries are lined up end to end in a series circuit to provide more voltage. Ask: "How many volts does a flashlight with two D cells provide?" [1.5+1.5=3 volts] "How many volts would a flashlight provide that had three 1.5-volt batteries?" [4.5 volts] If you had 1 flashlight with 2 batteries stacked end to end in a series circuit and another flashlight with 2 batteries side by side and connected in a parallel circuit, in which flashlight would you expect the batteries to last longer? [Stacked in a series because a parallel circuit draws more energy]
- Turn the flashlight on and off several times. Ask what you're using to turn the flashlight on and off? [a switch] Ask if anyone can name a material that is a conductor in the flashlight. [metal] Switches use conductors to bridge the gap in a circuit and then interrupt it. The on/off switches on lamps, TV's, toasters, etc. all work the same way. Ask: "What happens to the circuit in an appliance when I flip a switch to on?" [A conductor bridges the gap in a circuit and allows electricity to flow.] "What happens when I flip it to off?" [The conductor is moved out of the pathway of electricity, so the flow stops.] Two metal thumbtacks and a metal paper clip can be used to make a switch on the circuits they have already built.
- Pass out to each group 3 thumbtacks, 2 cardboard squares, a metal paperclip, and a clothespin. Have each group take 2 pieces of wire (#1 & #2) and coil the end on each one. Then use electrical tape to hold the wire ends firmly against the ends of a D-cell battery.
- Have each group slide the other end of wire #1 under a thumbtack. Press the thumbtack into a soft piece of cardboard. Slide the other end of wire #2 under another thumbtack. This thumbtack should also have a paperclip beneath it. Press the thumbtack firmly into a second piece of cardboard. The thumbtack will hold both the paper clip and the wire in place.
- Wrap one end of wire #3 around the side of a flashlight bulb. Use a clothespin to hold the wire firmly against the side of the bulb. Use electrical tape to hold the clothespin in place. The base of the bulb must press against the thumbtack connected to the battery by wire #1.
- Slide the other end of wire #3 under a thumbtack. Press the thumbtack into the piece of cardboard near the free end of the paper clip. How can you make the bulb light?
- The circuit you built contains a switch. The switch is the paper clip that can connect wire #2 to wire #3. By turning the paper clip so that it touches both thumbtacks, you close the circuit. Closing the circuit allows electric charge to move from the battery through wire #1 to the bulb. From there it can flow to the switch through wire #3. It can move back to the battery through wire #2.
- To open the circuit, simply turn the paper clip so that it does not touch both thumbtacks. This creates a gap circuit. Charge can no longer flow along wires from one end of the battery to the other. The bulb goes out.
(From "Energizing Science Projects with Electricity and Magnetism" by Robert Gardner p. 34. We did find that electrical tape works better than rubber bands for holding the wires.)
YOU WILL NEED: a flashlight that requires D cell batteries, 2 thumbtacks or brass brads per group, 2 pieces of thick cardboard squares, foam board, or styrofoam trays (about 4"x4") per group, 1 metal paper clip per group (make sure it doesn't have plastic at the ends!), 1 clothespin per group, and supplies from the above activities
Do you need really simple explanations?
When I taught a class of children mainly ages 5-7, I used the explanations from this book. I liked this book as opposed to many of the other electricity activity books because it uses materials that are frequently already around the house. It does include a drawing of each experiment and has a simple (but thorough enough) explanation of what happens and why.
Pressure Switches and Morse Code
12. Make pressure strips and discuss Morse Code.
- A light switch can be clicked on and off quickly to blink a signal. Can anyone think of a switch that turns something off and on quickly? [A doorbell] Ask: "What do you think happens when you push or put pressure on a doorbell button?" [A conductor connects to make an electric circuit complete and the bell or buzzer works.
- We can make a simple pressure switch using aluminum foil as a conductor. Show a pre-made tapper switch (i.e. your cardboard with aluminum foil) Ask: "What do you think would happen if you taped the ends of 2 wires in your circuits to these 2 pieces of aluminum foil and then you tapped the 2 pieces of aluminum foil together? Would the aluminum foil complete the circuit?"
- Give each group a cardboard tapper switch to replace the paper clip switch. When the groups have wired in the pressure switches, ask if they can switch the light bulbs on and off quickly.
- Mention that more than 150 years ago a device for sending coded signals was invented by Samuel Morse that used a pressure switch called a tapper switch. The device was called a telegraph.
- (If you have extra time) Discuss Morse code and let children try to signal S.O.S to each other using their tapper signals. If you're able to make a telegraph machine ahead of time, you can let the children try it. (We tried to make a telegraph machine but we couldn't keep the paper clip from sticking to the nail. I am not including the link for the directions we attempted to follow. Maybe you'll have more success than we did.)
YOU WILL NEED: 5 pieces of cardboard (about 12"x1") with aluminum foil wrapped and taped around each end. Fold the cardboard in half so that the aluminum foil strips touch.
Here is a good link to get you started on making a Telegraph Machine: Simple Telegraph Machine Using the Materials We Used in This Lesson
13. Review what we learned.
Ready for More?
I bought this almost 10 years ago, and my children continue to play with it! It is one of my top 5 favorite toys! It is so easy to use that even my 4 year old can snap together circuits, yet it is complex enough that my 13 year old enjoys designing with it too! He can even follow the directions in the project book because they're color coded. The circuits snap off and on kind of like LEGO bricks. You start off by lighting a light bulb and making a fan turn. Our favorites so far have been the radio, the police siren, and the flying saucer.
Joke: Why is electricity so dangerous?
Because it doesn't know how to conduct itself properly!
Looking for more great books on electricity?
This was probably my 2nd favorite book on electricity. Even my 3 year old enjoyed it. You get to follow Miss Frizzle and her class as they discover how electricity comes from a power plant to your home.
Our Favorite Picture Book Biographies on Thomas Edison
This was the favorite of my sons. We also enjoyed reading "A Wizard from the Start: The Incredible Boyhood and Amazing Inventions of Thomas Edison" by Don Brown and "The Value of Creativity--The Story of Thomas Edison" (The Valuetales) by Ann Donegan Johnson.
More of Our Favorite Picture Books on Electricity
The Shocking World of Electricity with Max Axiom, Super Scientist (Graphic Science) by Liam O'Donnell was my boys' favorite book on electricity. It is written in comic book style and is great at explaining all the aspects of electricity in an engaging manner. Wired by Anastasia Suen has great illustrations so that even my 3 year old was able to sit through the book. Electrical Wizard: How Nikola Tesla Lit Up the World by Elizabeth Rusch is an excellent picture book biography on Nikola Tesla, who battled Thomas Edison, made ac a practical means of delivering electrical power, and wired the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. How Ben Franklin Stole the Lightning by Rosalyn Schanzer was my boys' favorite book on Benjamin Franklin's lightning experiment. It not only discusses that but also includes many of his other inventions and experiments. This author does a great job of verifying her facts. Oscar and the Bird: A Book about Electricity (Start with Science) by Geoff Waring is great if you have a preschooler. My 3 year old loved the cat! This is a more simplistic explanation. A cat turns on windshield wipers and a bird explains how that happened (electricity) and why you need to be careful around electricity. Discovering Electricity by Rae Bains would be another good option for reading to the group. It briefly explains electrons, static electricity, battery power, circuits, conductors, insulators, and lightning. Each page has nice illustrations and just enough text to still keep the interest of even my 5 year old. It is a bit dated, though. You'll get to introduce your children to record players. Flick a Switch: How Electricity Gets to Your Home by Barbara Seuling has great explanations and cute illustrations so that even my 3 year old could sit through the book. Charged Up: The Story of Electricity (Science Works) by Jacqui Bailey has good illustrations and explanations. You Wouldn't Want to Live Without Electricity by Ian Graham is a longer picture book that includes the history of electricity. It has humorous illustrations and great explanations. The Shocking Story of Electricity: Internet Referenced (Young Reading) by Anna Claybourne has nice illustrations and interesting text.
Looking for a Chapter Book?
We LOVE this series! It follows a pair of twins as they use science and inventions to discover mysteries and fight bad guys. It is silly, action-packed, and educational. It includes activities you can do at home to replicate the twins' inventions. It is probably best for ages 8-12. It has 240 pages, but the print is large and it includes many black and white illustrations.
Good videos on electricity
Ready for the next lesson?
Race cars down ramps as you study inclined planes and wedges, build and test catapults as you study levers and screws, create waterwheels as you study wheels and axles, lift each other using pulleys as you study gears and pulleys, use static electricity lift hair and separate salt and pepper as you study electricity, devise Rube Goldberg machines to place toothpaste on a toothbrush without touching either one, present on famous inventors, and more during this exciting 6 part hands-on unit study on simple machines and inventions!
- Inclined Planes and Wedges Lesson - This is part 1 of a 5 part hands-on unit on Simple Machines and Inventions. Race cars down ramps, compare carrying luggage to pulling it up an inclined plane, slice through apples using wedges, and more!
- Lever and Screw Simple Machines Lesson - This is part 2 of a 5 part hands-on unit on inventions and simple machines. Build and test catapults, lift an adult using a lever, test out screws of various threads, and more!
- Wheels and Axles Lesson - This is part 3 of a 5 part hands-on unit on Inventions and Simple Machines. Build and test waterwheels, use cylinders to make wheel cookies, experiment with matchbox cars to demonstrate friction, compare the mechanical advantage of an adult and a child's bicycle, and more!
- Gears and Pulleys Simple Machines Lesson - This is part 4 of a 5 part hands-on unit on inventions and simple machines. Build and test pulleys, play pulley tug-of-war, find out how a clock works, and more!
- Electricity Lesson - This is part 5 of a 5 part hands-on unit on inventions and simple machines. Watch static electricity lift hair and separate salt and pepper, build and test circuits and switches using household materials, play an electron game to demonstrate how...
- Inventions and Simple Machines Presentations and Field Trip Ideas - Included are the presentations on famous inventors our students created following our 5 part hands-on unit on Inventions and Simple Machines. They also sang the Simple Machines song and ate a simple machine-themed lunch. (Recipes are provided.) Also included are the field trips we attended during this unit.
Would you like to teach this way every day?
I use Konos Curriculum as a springboard from which to plan my lessons. It's a wonderful curriculum and was created by moms with active boys!
If you're new to homeschooling or in need of some fresh guidance, I highly recommend Konos' HomeSchoolMentor.com program! Watch videos on-line of what to do each day and how to teach it in this great hands-on format!
© 2011 Shannon