What is electricity made of?
January 22, 2012 12:13 PM   Subscribe

In a bid to prolong bed-time, my four-year-old just asked me, "What is electricity made of?' I told her to close her eyes and go to sleep, which has bought me 9-10 hours till she wakes me up and asks me the same question again. What's the most accurate answer I can give her that she will understand and not be bored by?
posted by Hogshead to Science & Nature (22 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Electricity is like a flowing river, only instead of water flowing, there are electrons flowing.
posted by Land Ho at 12:30 PM on January 22, 2012 [7 favorites]

An explanation that worked for me with a five year old:

"Everything in the whole world is made up of tiny tiny bits and pieces called atoms which are like really small legos that slot together to make things (like you, the table, the water, the car...). They are too small to see with your eyes or even a magnifying glass. Atoms have even smaller parts called electrons. Sometimes those electrons get excited and jump around from lego to lego. That is what makes electricity, a whole bunch of electrons getting all excited. (Follow up re how getting excited can, say, make a toaster work): When you are excited, you have heaps of energy, you run around and get warm and do lots of stuff. It's just the same for electrons, and when they get excited they have lots of energy, which we use to make our things work."

Good luck!
posted by yogalemon at 12:34 PM on January 22, 2012 [15 favorites]

Shit. As I was saying. The answer I would give is "I wonder?" and let her use her imagination. See what see comes up with. She's only got one shot at a carefree childhood, no need to rush all the facts in.
posted by roboton666 at 12:36 PM on January 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Go buy some balloons. The fun of creating static electricity will distract the 4 year old from anymore difficult questions.
posted by myselfasme at 12:41 PM on January 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

My link didn't add, here it is: http://www.bhe.com/kidscorner/power_learning/electricity/kids_elec_created.html
posted by myselfasme at 12:42 PM on January 22, 2012

Best answer: I told my four year old "It's made of a million billion tiny sparks, each too small to see. But by working together, those tiny sparks can move mountains! Or power the tivo."
posted by KathrynT at 12:59 PM on January 22, 2012 [4 favorites]

Tell her it's electrons. Seriously. Find a (simplified) model drawing of an atom in a book or on the internet and show her how the electrons orbit the nucleus "like the Earth around the sun" (again, that's simplifying, but I don't think she wants to know about the difference between p-orbitals and s-orbitals). Tell her that sometimes the electrons get separated from the atoms and when they do they go looking for a new atom to call home. How is that boring? Learning that the world is made up of billions of tiny things you can't even see? That's not boring. That's awesome.

I explained this concept to my son when he was four. Kids that young can get it. They have BIG imaginations. If a kid can understand that flour turns into bread, that acorns grow into trees, that the moon is actually huge and shaped like a ball, etc. she can understand that matter is made out of little things atoms and electricity is made of littler parts of atoms called electrons.

Heck, your kid probably already believes in invisible things that aren't even actually real, like the Tooth Fairy, right? An electron is not really much weirder than the Tooth Fairy.
posted by BlueJae at 1:12 PM on January 22, 2012 [8 favorites]

You can always sit down with Ms. Frizzle and let The Magic School Bus help you explain electricity.
posted by MonkeyToes at 1:33 PM on January 22, 2012 [4 favorites]

Electricity is electrons pushing against each other. The confusing part is that the electrons don't actually move*; they just push against each other really really hard, and it's that force that we can use to do things. Obviously not easy for a four-year-old to grasp, plenty of adults find it hard to grasp.

* OK, they do move. It's something like inches per hour though.
posted by miyabo at 2:06 PM on January 22, 2012

Get a newton's cradle, that's an awesome way for a kid to see the transmission of energy in (pretty much) the same way electrons create current. Plus, science and toy, all in one!
posted by fearnothing at 3:02 PM on January 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also: while I obviously knew nothing about electricity when I was 4, my dad gave me various "learn electronics" toys and I understood most of the basics by the time I was 8. This is one of the best things my parents ever did for me. If she has an interest, go for it!
posted by miyabo at 3:21 PM on January 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

For a 4 year old, I think KathrynT has it. That's a pretty genius answer, actually. Electrons are a pretty complicated concept for someone who's only been alive for 4 years and probably doesn't even understand how cotton candy is made. But a 4 year old can understand sparks. If she asks questions after that, you can go into a little more detail, but the sparks thing will probably satisfy her.
posted by MexicanYenta at 3:35 PM on January 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yeah, don't even try with alternating current, where the electrons just vibrate back and forth. I was really annoyed at high school science when the teachers were using models that weren't actually correct. Oh, the electron picks up 15V at the bank, and drops off 5V at each resistor, ok... but if there were two resistors it would drop off 7.5V, how does it know?? To which the teacher said, 'shrug, beats me, I'm a biologist'.

The best analogy I know of for electricity is the water analogy. Water itself isn't the energy; it's the carrier. Water pressure is like voltage; when you turn on a tap from a pressurized source, you get a high flow of water. If you pour water out of a cup, there's not much pressure, so it doesn't flow very fast. Likewise with electricity, something has to 'pressurize' the electrons (a generator, at a power plant); you can understand that a wall outlet is basically ready to explode with electricity in the same way a pressurized pipe is ready to explode with water. This gets more into the physically useful conception of electricity as an energy carrier, though of course what is energy is the next question you'll have to contend with, and good luck with that.

And of course now that I hear myself saying this, I imagine nothing in the world would sound cooler to a four year old than trying this out by sticking things in a power outlet, so um tread cautiously.
posted by PercussivePaul at 3:52 PM on January 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

I would go with yogalemon's answer or BlueJae's. I think that for a four year old child ... and, in fact, for anyone that does not have taken Physics courses beyond high school level, these are perfectly satisfactory answers.

For anyone trying to imply that it's misleading (as in electricity is not simply made of electrons), I would refer you to this answer by Feynman about why magnets "feel" each others. And then ask you to tell me what is electricity... Btw, I have a Ph.D. in Physics and my Ph.D. thesis included a study of Gauge Theories of which Electro-magnetism is the simplest example.

posted by aroberge at 4:22 PM on January 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Mod note: please don't start the quibbling here, you can take it to MeMail or MetaTalk but it's derailing this thread.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 4:28 PM on January 22, 2012

Response by poster: Thank you all. We still have a few hours so keep the explanations coming. I shall try a selection of them and report back on the ones that get a favourable response.

I have a bad feeling that my next AMF question is going to be 'But WHY?'
posted by Hogshead at 4:54 PM on January 22, 2012

It's okay to explain that it's complicated, then go to the library to seek some help finding answers.
posted by theora55 at 5:34 PM on January 22, 2012

Best answer: Here's what I would say:

Electricity is made of electrons, which are like tiny sparks, to small to see.

Electrons like to go where there are fewer electrons, to keep things balanced and even, like water down a river.

Electrons like to go over waterfalls. We call the height of the electron waterfall "voltage" and the amount of electrons traveling together "current".

When electrons travels through things, like light bulbs and TVs, they make the those things excited and turn on. When there are no electrons moving through them, things like light bulbs and TVs are sad and stay quiet and dark.

Electrons, like water, are important and helpful to us. But, also like water, electrons can be dangerous and you need to be careful with electricity. Only going near things like sockets and plugs when with an adult.
posted by Argyle at 8:00 PM on January 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

It seems to me the question "what is electricity made of?" is not apropos of nothing. So it might be worthwhile trying to figure out what prompted the curiosity and see if there's more to explore there.

I love, love, love this story because it serves to remind that a child's thoughts can be more sophisticated than we expect. What gets articulated may only be the final step in a series of deductions.
posted by losvedir at 8:18 PM on January 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Have you ever seen this?

(It is a sub-reddit "Explain like I'm five" with 77000 subscribers. There was a godel's incompleteness theorem (for 12 year olds) on there linked from the front page of hacker news today.)
posted by bukvich at 8:19 PM on January 22, 2012

What about looking up the answer together?

When I was little and I asked a question my dad couldn't answer (this happened a lot) we would find out the answer together. This was before google so he would tell me, 'bring the encyclopaedia' and guide me through finding the relevant entry (good for learning the alphabet too). We would read the answer and then discuss it.
We had fun learning stuff and I never came to expect my dad to have all the answers off the top of his head though I did expect him to point me to a reliable source and help me develop an understanding of everything! - thanks dad for being patient!.
Obviously a four-year-old's too young for the encyclopaedia route but with the internet and a bunch of learning resources for kids people have recommended (like miyabo's learn electronics kit), I think a question opens up opportunities to have fun and learn together.
posted by mkdirusername at 4:32 AM on January 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

I trained as a high school physics teacher and have a bunch of under 10 kids who ask these sort of questions. I *always* tell them my best understanding, and devolve into the sub-questions as they arise.
The Feynman video linked by aroberge above is a spectacularly good example (also answers insane clown posse magnets questions well).
Kids already filter adult info down into kid terms, and they don't respect dumbed down stuff. Sure, explain simply, but not "mr electron meets missus wire" style.
posted by bystander at 4:59 AM on January 25, 2012

« Older sort of like burning your mouth with pizza, only...   |   Out of copyright post-apocalyptic stories Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.