With solar panels springing up on rooftops in your neighborhood, your budding environmentalists might be asking you, “How does a solar panel work?” Solar energy is a complex concept to explain, but you don’t need a physics degree to do it. With a few simple activities you can help your kids understand and have some fun while you’re at it.
Discovering Solar Energy
Before you can understand how solar panels work, you need some knowledge about the sun itself. The best way to teach kids about the sun and its energy is by discovering more about our solar system and what energy means. Begin your quest at your local library where you can check out books for all reading levels to teach kids about the solar system.
Another great resource right at your fingertips is the internet. The U.S. Energy Information Administration website, Energy Kids, is a good place to start. Besides helping to define what energy is, it also gives you activities and games to check out. The Solar Classroom Lesson Plan is a place to watch videos about a fourth grade class that powered its room with solar energy.
Harnessing the Power of the Sun
The best way to approach a big question, like how does a solar panel work, is with hands-on learning. Here are a few simple experiments that will break down solar energy for kids.
This is an experiment for kids that even younger ones can grasp. All you need are two ice cubes. Place the cubes outside in your backyard on a sunny, but not too hot, day. Place one cube directly in the sun and the other in full shade. Have your child make a guess on which cube will melt faster. As the one in the sun turns into a puddle first, explain that the heat energy from the sun made it melt faster.
This is a great project for kids that like to break things apart to see how they work. Using mini solar panels from yard lights, you will harness solar energy to make a night-light.
- A solar yard light
- A mason jar
Measure the top of the jar to make sure the light will fit, as yard lights come in a variety of sizes. Gently twist off the solar light from the rest of the stake. Turn the solar pack over, and peek underneath to see the small solar cells inside. This will give kids an idea of what’s going on inside giant solar panels. Run some glue around the rim of the jar, and fit the solar light into place on top. You can then put the jar outside in full sun for a day to charge it up. Bring it indoors for bedtime to watch it illuminate your home.
Solar Oven Project
This project illustrates how you can harness the energy created by the sun and then use it—in this case, to cook. As a bonus, it’s also a great project for teaching kids about recycling.
To start, you need:
- Pizza box
- Box cutter
- Clear tape
- Plastic wrap
- Black construction paper
- Old newspaper
Leaving a one-inch frame, cut a flap into the top of the pizza box that opens in the same direction as the lid. Cover the inside of the flap in foil, and secure with tape. Cover the hole you have created with plastic wrap, pull it taught, and again secure with tape. Line the bottom of the box with black construction paper before rolling up newspaper to stuff along each side.
Now place the food you want to cook on a plate inside. For something quick and easy, you can start with a cooked dish to reheat. Close the lid, and prop up the flap with a ruler or wooden spoon. Place it in a sunny spot so the sun reflects off of the foil and onto the plastic covering. Let it sit for at least 30 minutes before you check your food. Get excited experimenting and seeing how long different items take to heat.
With some effortless science experiments you can do at home, kids can learn about how solar panels harness the energy of the sun. Discovering these concepts at an early age sets up kids to be greener global citizens as adults.
Have you tried any fun solar energy experiments with your kids? Share pics of your experiences to @TomsofMaine.
This article was brought to you by Tom’s of Maine. The views and opinions expressed by the author do not reflect the position of Tom’s of Maine.
Why It’s Good
You don't have to be scared of answering big questions, like "how does a solar panel work?" Simple science experiments and activities can illustrate complex ideas like solar energy to kids. Plus, you'll both have some fun while you're learning about the environment and protecting the planet.