Static electricity, something we experience before we're old enough to understand it

A boardwalk trail through a wetlands.It was a beautiful sunny winter day in the mid Atlantic region in the mid 40s with little wind when I went walking in a wetlands park wearing a synthetic fleece jacket and nylon pants. The boardwalk over the water is made of recycled plastic “lumber” and the handrail is metal. Walking along, my body built up a strong static electric charge that hurt me as it discharged when I touched the handrail. Ouch!
Child exploring static electricity using a "Discovery" bottle.Young children notice this phenomenon. They might get a small shock from a static electrical charge when they take off a sweater or snowsuit on a dry winter day. The spark can be seen if you go into a dark room to remove the sweater. Although the movement of electrons won’t be understood fully until the fifth grade when the concept of a “whole” being made of parts too small for us to see is taught, children can still play with static electricity. In the March 2013 Science and Children Early Years column, I write about using an activity, such as a Discovery Bottle, to explore it. Children will play with the bottle briefly. Talking with children about what they see will help them understand that their action of rubbing the bottle on the rug or their hair attracts the small particles to the inner wall. It’s not magic.
When children are interested in a hard-to-teach topic, reading a book can help them understand how their experience fits into the larger world. Do you have a book you read to children about electricity or a picture book that has some content about electricity? This doesn’t seem to be a common topic for fiction, and much of the non-fiction about electricity is rightfully for older elementary students.
Book cover, What is Electricity by Lisa TrumbauerBook cover: Electricity by Darlene Stille Try these books, Electricity: Bulbs, Batteries, and Sparks (Amazing Science) by Darlene Stille (2004 Picture Window Books) and What Is Electricity? (Rookie Read-About Science) by Lisa Trumbauer (2004 Children’s Press), or see if any of the other works reviewed in NSTA Recommends will meet your needs.
Here are just a few of the many websites that describe the use of Discovery Bottles as craft projects and science experiences.
Wonderful as playthings, they become tools for science observation and reflection when conversation is part of the experience.

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4 Responses to Static electricity, something we experience before we're old enough to understand it

  1. Susan Cahalane says:

    I love the idea of Discovery Bottles! I’m going to incorporate this into my electricity lessons, my kids love static electricity experiments & I think they’ll really love this one!

  2. Peggy Ashbrook says:

    I love Discovery Bottles too, Sue, especially the way they open a conversation about the concepts being observed–the properties of matter, shapes, motion of objects and others.

  3. Derek Webb says:

    I have always wondered about static electricity to this day. It was never really talked about during my elementary/middle school years and I actually still wonder about it. Children love to touch the Van de Graaf generator, which is that static electricity ball at kid arcade restaurants, so it definitely “sparks” their interests. It is just finding a way to make sense to them. I really love the discovery bottle idea, especially with the pieces of tissue paper, to show the power of static electricity and those books are great ways to talk about electricity in elementary terms. This may not be on your grade’s standards, but static electricity experiments would be fun and great to discover the truth about it. Love this topic for future scientific teaching ideas.

  4. An awesome idea to stimulate preschoolers with a love of science! Who says only the older kids should learn about static electricity?

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