Whether your youngster is fascinated with thunder and lightning storms or he scurries under his bed each time he hears thunder rumbling in the distance, these lightning experiments will help to explain the science behind the storm, making the next one even more exciting -- or at least a little less frightening. You can try a one-on-one with your child or entertain a group of kids by turning the experiments into birthday party activities.
You can make learning about lightning fun by teaching your child about lightning's electrical charges with a tasty, simple experiment. Have her stand in front of a mirror in a dark room, wait until her eyes adjust to the darkness and then pop a minty, ring-shaped hard candy in her mouth. As she looks in the mirror, have her keep her mouth open as wide as possible as she bites down on the candies with her teeth. As she breaks up the candy, she'll see small flashes of bluish-colored light because the sugars in the candy release a small amount of electrical charge that attracts nitrogen in the air. The nitrogen is attracted to the electrical charge from the sugars because it is oppositely charged. As the two meet, the reaction creates a little spark.
Lighting a Light Bulb
Lightning is created when the electricity in clouds becomes high enough that it can leap through the air from cloud to cloud, from the cloud to the ground and even from the ground to a cloud. You can help your child simulate this reaction with a balloon and a light bulb. Inflate a balloon and turn off all of the lights. You'll want the room as dark as possible, so wait until evening or close the blinds to make it pitch black. Have your child rub the balloon on her hair quickly for at least 15 seconds and then hold the balloon charged with static electricity to the bottom end of a fluorescent light bulb and watch the bulb light up. The electrical charge in the balloon jumps to the bulb upon contact. Don't worry -- there isn't enough charge in the balloon to cause injury when you illuminate the light bulb.
Pie Pan Lightning
Make lightning in a pan -- or at least with a pan in this experiment. Stick a thumbtack through the bottom, center of an aluminum pie pan, flip the pan over and slide the eraser end of a pencil over the thumbtack. Place a piece of polystyrene on the table and have your child rub it vigorously with a piece of wool. Now, pick up the pie pan with the pencil -- don't touch the pan itself -- and place it on top of the polystyrene. Turn off all the lights and then touch the pie pan with your finger to create a spark. The electrons -- negative charges -- in your finger are attracted to the protons -- positive charges -- in the pie pan, and voila -- a little spark. The shock from the pan is tiny and not painful, but if your youngster is worried about it, have her watch you complete the experiment a few times so she’ll feel comfortable giving it a try.
Help your child track a thunder and lightning storm with a little observational experiment that might just keep him busy enough that the storm doesn't seem so scary anymore. Give him a pencil, a piece of paper and a stopwatch the next time there is a thunderstorm on its way. Have him sit near a window to watch for a bolt of lightning in the distance and monitor the length of time between the lightning bolt and the sound of rumbling thunder that follows with the stopwatch. Record the number of seconds between the two events to determine how far away the storm is from home; every five seconds between the lightning and thunder is equivalent to 1 mile away. If 15 seconds elapses between the lightning bolt and thunder, the storm is 3 miles away. Keep using the stopwatch as the storm approaches and continue as the storm moves away afterward.
- National Lightning Safety Institute: Fun with Lightning!
- The Book of Potentially Catastrophic Science: 50 Experiments for Daring Young Scientists; Sean Connolly
- 365 Simple Science Experiments with Everyday Materials; E. Richard Churchill, et al.
- The Book of Totally Irresponsible Science: 64 Daring Experiments for Young Scientists; Sean Connolly
- Digital Vision/Digital Vision/Getty Images