Teaching How Light Travels – Energy for Kids

Teaching how light travels? For kids in elementary school, keep this energy lesson simple. Light travels in a straight line. Read on for activities to let third, fourth, or fifth grade students explore this concept on their own.

Ms. Sneed Prepares for Teaching How Light Travels

Our favorite fourth grade teacher sat at the side table with her teaching partner. “Let’s go through our light lesson plans,” she said. “As usual, we’ll use science stations to teach forms of energy.”

“Right,” Mr. Frank replied. After opening the files on his laptop, he pulled up the first lab sheet. “In this physical science station, kids explore how light travels. Three activities let kids explore. When they’re done, they should deduce that light travels in a straight line.”

As her co-teacher spoke, Ms. Sneed searched the concept on her own laptop. “It says here that light has characteristics of both waves and particles, which are called photons.”

“True. But our kids don’t need to know that. Let me read the standard for you.

NGSS 4-PS3-2 Make observations to provide evidence that energy can be transferred from place to place by sound, light, heat, and electric currents.

Ms. Sneed smiled slightly. “Okay, but I might just mention photons – as a preview to what’s coming in middle school.”

How Light Travels with a Mirror

“Let’s look over the light activities we’ll use at this station,” Mr. Frank continued. “Kids touch the right-hand side of their faces. Then they look in the mirror.”

“And the reflection touches the left,” said Ms. Sneed.

“You got it. This provides the first piece of evidence on how light travels. With a mirror image, we can see that it reflects in a straight line.”

“Hmm,” Ms. Sneed said, “while it’s one little piece of evidence, our students will definitely need more exploration to make that generalization.”

Several simple activities help kids understand how light travels. First, ask them to touch the side of their face and look in the mirror. When they touch the left-hand side, their reflection touches the right. Therefore, light bounces straight back.
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More Exploration with Mirrors

“As a follow-up to the first activity,” said Mr. Frank, “kids write their names on slips of paper. Then they hold them up to the mirror.”

“Again, a mirror image,” his teaching partner said.

“Um-hm. This time, the writing is backward.”

When kids hold their written names up to a mirror, they get an idea of how light travels. A mirror image! Their names appear backward.

A Challenge That Illustrates How Light Travels

“For the grand finale,” said Mr. Frank, “kids must shine a flashlight on the front of a book. Then, using mirrors, they bounce the light until it shines on the back of the book.”

“I love this activity,” Ms. Sneed said. “It combines science, math, and critical thinking.”

“Don’t forget teamwork! Kids work in their science groups to achieve a common goal.”

Ms. Sneed looked over her teaching partner’s shoulder. “So they use three mirrors. No more, no less. What a great challenge! Last year, one of my groups finished early. So I challenged them to focus their flashlight on the wall inside the classroom – and get it to get it to shine on the other side of the wall in the hall. And guess what? They did it!”

To show kids that light travels in a straight line, try this activity! Kids shine a flashlight on the front of a book. Then, using mirrors, they bounce it to the back of the book.

Extending Understanding of How Light and Sound Travel

Ms. Sneed tapped her pencil on the table, deep in thought. “I’d just like to add one more little activity. After they finish their lab sheets, I’m going to take my students onto the playground. I’ll ask them to stand on one side of the field while I stand on the other (with one student). They will watch while I turn on a flashlight and the student with me claps their hands. Obviously, they’ll see the light before they hear the clap. That establishes that light travels faster than sound.”

“Great idea,” said Mr. Frank. “I remember doing that activity when I was in elementary school. A great addition, I agree.”

Enjoy Teaching

In addition to teaching how light travels, this set asks kids to explore four more concepts:

Check it out!

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