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How to Explain Thunder & Lightning to Kids

by Zora Hughes, studioD

Thunder and lightning often send young children running to their covers where they hide in fear. Instead of letting your kids cower with fright, take the opportunity to teach them about thunder and lightning, from their origins to how to stay safe. Use children's books and creative examples that will keep your children engaged while they learn. As understanding of the unknown grows, unwarranted fears about these scary storms will reduce and safety protocol will be reinforced.

Read age-appropriate books to your children about thunder and lightning. Illustrated books with simple text can aid you in describing and explaining. For kids ages 4 and older, check out "National Geographic Readers: Storms!" by Miriam Goin, which uses photographs of storms and simplified explanations of lightning, thunder and other elements of storms. A book to consider for kids 7 and up is "Why Does It Thunder and Lightning?" by Darice Bailer, which provides a more in-depth understanding of the science behind lightning and thunder.

Create a lightning storm visual. Have your kids each fill a clear plastic cup halfway with water. The water represents the sky. Give the kids a large dollop of shaving cream to drop on top of the water, which represents clouds, then drop blue food coloring on top of the shaving cream to represent rain droplets. Explain that as the cloud gets full of water, it causes rain and that the movement of energy in the clouds causes lightning. Straighten paper clips and have the kids stick them into the cups to represent the lightning.

Demonstrate how thunder is formed. Give each child a brown paper bag and have him blow into it to fill it with air. Twist the open end closed with one hand, and then have the child hit the bottom of the bag hard so that the bag breaks, making a loud popping sound. Explain that when lightning strikes it gives off heat in the air, which expands like the bag and pushes apart air particles. When it pushes the air particles, it causes the sound you hear, which is thunder.

Play a game of "Thunder and Lightning Tag" to improve understanding and provide some levity to a scary subject. Take the kids out to the backyard at night and divide them into equal teams. Select one child from one of the teams to be the storm chaser for the first round. Give the lightning team flashlights and the thunder team two pie pans each to bang together. The kids hide around the yard while the storm chaser counts down. He must then try to find and tag someone. The lightning team must flicker their flashlight every five seconds, and the thunder team must bang their pie pans together. If the thunder, lightning or both teams can make it to safety before the storm chaser tags someone, they earn points for their team. If the storm chaser doesn't tag anyone, no points are given and he is still the chaser for the next round.

Teach your child about safety during lightning storms. Tell the children that when they are outside and spot a thundercloud forming in the sky, even if the sky is blue, or if the sky turns gray, or they hear thunder, not matter how distant, they must head indoors. A vehicle is better than nothing, but caution them not to touch anything metal in it. Also tell them if they cannot find shelter to never lie flat on the ground, but instead to crouch down as low as possible with their head down. They should stay away from an isolated tree, bodies of water and anything that conducts electricity such as power lines. If indoors during a lightning storm, teach children to keep away from electrical equipment, windows and doors, metal, and water faucets and showers during lightning storms. Visit together the National Weather Service's Lightning Safety page.

Items you will need
  •  Children's books about thunder and lightning
  •  Plastic cups
  •  Water
  •  Shaving cream
  •  Blue food coloring
  •  Paper clips
  •  Brown paper bag
  •  Flashlights
  •  Pie pans


  • Help ease your child's fears of thunder and lightning by watching a lightning storm from the safety of your home. Point out the beautiful colors in the sky that the lightning makes. Have the kids count the number of times it thunders during the storm and have them try to recreate the sound.


  • Because "Thunder and Lightning Tag" is played outdoors after dark, ensure that there's nothing children can trip over or get hurt on in the game area.


About the Author

Based in Los Angeles, Zora Hughes has been writing travel, parenting, cooking and relationship articles since 2010. Her work includes writing city profiles for Groupon. She also writes screenplays and won the S. Randolph Playwriting Award in 2004. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in television writing/producing and a Master of Arts Management in entertainment media management, both from Columbia College.

Photo Credits

  • NA/AbleStock.com/Getty Images