Recently, my son asked me when we were going to get solar panels. I told him that it would have to wait until we owned our own home, but I was really proud that this 4-year old was thinking about solar energy. So, this got me thinking about solar energy for kids and ways to get them excited about alternative energy.
I’m a big believer in modelling behaviors you would like to see in your children. After all, there’s not much point in telling your kids not to smoke if you put away a pack or two a day yourself.
In our house, my husband and I bike or walk as much as possible, and as a result, my son thinks of the car as a last resort for transportation. We also model behaviors like recycling, turning off lights, composting and eating local so that for him, it’s just what you do.
But how do you do this with solar energy if, like us, you aren’t in a position to install solar panels on your home?
In my opinion, we have to look at other ways of harnessing solar energy and incorporating it into our daily activities. So, I’ve put together a few ideas that I’m certainly going to explore with my 4-year old over the coming years so that solar energy becomes a way of life for him.
DIY projects and solar experiments:
Build a solar oven. I have wanted to build a solar oven since I wrote an article about them on EVG last year, but I still haven’t got around to it. However, I can’t think of a more rewarding and useful project that teaches kids about the power of the sun. Throw some pizza into the solar oven and you’re kids are bound to be impressed.
Of course, if you aren’t terribly handy you might be looking for a project with a little less commitment and a shorter instruction list. I found instructions for building a solar hot dog cooker (or veggie dogs) and all you need is a small cardboard box, some poster board and aluminum foil.
Hold ice cube races. This is a great little experiment that can be fun in the sun. Get the kids to cut out 3”x3” squares of different coloured paper. It doesn’t really matter what they use, but it would be best if you had a black square, white square and a square made out of aluminum foil within the group. Place the squares outside where they have equal sun exposure and then place an ice cube in the centre of each of the squares. Measure how quickly the ice cube melts. You can then talk to the kids about heat absorbing capacity of different backgrounds. If you do this one before building the solar oven, you can incorporate what you learn from this experiment into discussing what colours to make the inside of your oven.
Magnifying glass art. This is another great activity that demonstrates the sun’s energy, however it needs to be supervised. We’ve probably all done it as kids – it’s almost a rite of passage. Take a large magnifying glass and a piece of wood and on a bright sunny day, use the magnifying glass to concentrate the sun’s rays and do some burnings into the wood. Kids can write their names or do pictures all while learning about the sun’s energy. I suggest keeping a bucket of water to hand for emergencies. Also, it’s worth a discussion with the children as to why we don’t use our new found tool on ants and other poor unsuspecting creatures!
Solar toys that are educational and fun:
Let’s face it, for kids, toys are the tools of life. So, if some of the toys they have around them are run on solar power, it becomes a legitimate energy source.
Elenco and Sundance Solar both make educational kits that include a series of DIY experiments that help children understand the basics behind solar energy. Kids make electric and solar circuits and use solar energy to power radios, fans, lights and other great things.
OWI makes a 6-in-1 educational kit that allows kids to build six working models including an airboat, car, windmill, puppy and two planes. Some kids might find this more engaging than powering a fan. However, keep in mind that you can only build one project at a time and the finished projects are quite small. For instance, the finished car is about 2.5 inches long.
Elenco makes a snap circuits alternative energy kit, which investigates solar power as well as other sources of clean green energy. The kit makes 129 different projects and is recommended for children 8 or older. The snap-style circuits are very easy to use and make it easy for kids to work on the projects on their own.
You can get OWI’s solar car, which is about the size of a dime. They only cost a couple of dollars, so at that price you can get one for each family member and have races that are fun and educational. However, if you’re looking for a larger version with some more guts , check out the Tamiya solar car assembly kit.
Solar energy is massively underused and so putting it into the forefront of our children’s minds may very well mean that it becomes the standard in the future rather than the ‘alternative’. Solar energy for kids will become the norm. The following video is of some 3rd graders who helped convince Foster City Council in California to drop solar panel building permit fees. It’s inspirational to see young voices fostering change.