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High school physics usually include a brief introduction to Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation:
By then, physical science students already have a preconceived notion of what gravity is. Teachers have to explain it in a way that’s entertaining, but not too difficult, considering the nature of the law of gravity.
But how do you explain the concept to a curious 5-year-old who relentlessly barrages you with never-ending questions?
As with any difficult concept, first of all, give your little scientists a lot of examples and counterexamples!
Second, break the new information down into small manageable chunks.
Third, let them practice and explore!
Fourth, sacrifice some of the details and accuracy in favor of the big picture. Dan Heath, co-author of Made to Stick, notes that “the more you know about something, the harder it is for you to imagine what it’s like to lack that knowledge”. This has consequences when communicating ideas, especially to a young child.
Finally, don’t assume that you know your student’s learning style. Multi-sensory experience creates more connections and associations and helps your budding scientists remember and retain learned information more effectively.
With that in mind, let’s go on an adventure of
Explaining gravity to 5-year-olds
Most 5-year-olds have experimented with gravity. A lot. Just Google “kids vs gravity.” Ouch!
Gravity is an invisible universal force of attraction that acts on all matter. It keeps you and everything on Earth from flying out into the space.
Sir Isaac Newton, an English mathematician who lived 300 years ago, discovered gravity.
What was the world like before the discovery of gravity? Did everyone float around?
No, things have been falling down since prehistoric times, and surely Sir Isaac wasn’t the first one to notice it, but he was the first one to come up with a theory that we now know as law of gravity.
One of the most famous anecdotes in the history of science says that Sir Isaac Newton made the discovery when he saw a falling apple.
He noticed that the objects always fell to the surface and he realized that some force must be acting on falling objects, it has a hold on…everything! Newton called this force “gravity” and he determined that gravitational forces exist between all objects.
You exert gravitational force on the people around you too! That force isn’t very strong because you are not very massive. Now if you were the size of a planet, it would be a different story.
What goes up must come down…Down…does it mean that things in Australia float off into the space? No, as it turns out, no matter where on Earth the object is, the planet’s gravitational pull will always draw it toward the center of the planet. In this case “up” means “away from the Earth” and “down” means “toward the center of the Earth.”
It can be demonstrated with these simple experiments.
- Wrap a tennis ball with a few rubber bands, ask your child to put a finger under the rubber band and gently pull away from the ball. Repeat the experiment on all sides of the ball. The rubber band will act like gravity.
My 5-year-old upgraded this experiment: replace tennis ball with an apple and finger with LEGO minifigures.
- Experiment with a balloon and static electricity. Rub a balloon with a wool cloth or your hair to create static electricity, then attract small pieces of paper to the surface of the balloon. Explain to your students that the Force is keeping pieces of paper on the surface of the balloon.
Newton described gravity, but he didn’t know how it worked. “Gravity must be caused by an agent acting constantly according to certain laws, but whether this agent be material or immaterial, I have left to the consideration of my readers,” he admitted.
For over 200 hundred years nobody truly considered what that might be, until in 1915 an agent causing gravity was described by none other than Albert Einstein. According to his theory, gravity is much weirder. It’s a natural consequence of mass’s existence in space.
Well, this just begs for a General Relativity Explained to 5-Year-Olds post, don’t you think?