Teaching Kids About Renewable Energy

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As the state of our planet becomes more fragile every day, it becomes increasingly important to educate future generations about the many renewable energy options that are available. The children of today will grow up to be the leaders of tomorrow, and it is vital that these future decision-makers understand that there are many energy options beyond oil, coal, or fossil fuels. Fortunately, teaching kids about renewable energy can be a simple and fun addition to their science studies and will likely have a long-lasting effect on the way they view the world.

Photo of mother and her young daughter learning reading on a laptop

Renewable Energy Basics for Children

When you're teaching any subject, it's best to start with the fundamentals. Even if your own education had some holes in it when it came to alternative energy, it's easy to brush up on the basics of how renewable energy works so that you're prepared to confidently answer questions from inquiring young minds.

One of the main differences between renewable and non-renewable energy resources is that while non-renewable resources consume materials that have limited availability such as oil, coal, or fossil fuels, renewable resources use materials that either has unlimited availability or can be quickly re-grown. Non-renewable energy source materials are limited because they take thousands of years to produce, but renewable source materials often don't even consume the material and instead use it as a tool to create power.

Renewable energy can be produced in many different ways, including:

  • Solar Energy - One of the most well-known and commonly used types of renewable energy, solar energy is energy captured from the sun using solar thermal collectors such as solar panels and converted into electricity. It is considered renewable because the sun produces an inexhaustible supply of energy that easily exceeds the amount of electricity required by the world.
  • Hydro Energy - Hydro energy uses the power of water from rivers and dams to produce electricity. Water runs through hydropower plants at high speeds and spins the blades of generators to create electric power. Hydro energy should be produced with care to avoid disrupting the natural rhythm of waterways, but it is considered a renewable energy source because the water is used as a tool to create energy instead of being consumed.
  • Wind Energy - Wind energy is produced through a similar process as hydro energy, except that it uses the power of the wind to turn the blades of wind turbines - structures that look like giant pinwheels. The resulting power is turned into electricity.
  • Biomass Energy - Biomass energy involves multiple types of plant and animal material that are burned to release their photosynthesis chemicals (stored solar energy) as heat, which is then converted into electricity. It is considered renewable energy because it uses the natural process of photosynthesis and can be used to recycle agriculture byproducts such as wood waste, sugar cane, or manure.
  • Geothermal Energy - Geothermal energy is produced by power plants that convert heat from deep within the earth into steam, which is then turned into electricity. Geothermal energy needs to be produced with caution to avoid releasing greenhouse gases from below the earth's surface into the atmosphere, but it is a renewable source of energy because it uses the unlimited supply of heat from the earth as a tool to create power.

Now that you have an understanding of the basic mechanics of the most common renewable energy sources, you can have lots of fun teaching your kids. Keep reading for ideas and resources to help them not only learn about these concepts but also understand their shared human responsibility as caretakers of the Earth.

Learning By Doing

One of the best ways to learn anything at any age is hands-on, but this method is especially effective for engaging the huge imaginations and short attention spans of young children. A simple Google search or flip through a grade school science book reveals many science projects and experiments that help renewable energy concepts come alive, but here's a couple to get you started:

  • Pinwheel (wind energy) - Buy one at your local department or dollar store, or make your own with a pencil or dowel rod, a pin, and a square sheet of paper with a few strategic cuts. Blow on the pinwheel for an interactive experience, or make several and stick them in your garden or yard to form your own miniature wind turbine farm so you can witness the power of wind in action.
  • Solar oven (solar energy) - Teaching children about solar energy happens in an unforgettable way when you make a solar oven out of common household items including a pizza box, a piece of foil, and a pencil. This project illustrates not only the way solar energy works, but also creates an up-close look at the way solar panels can be used.
  • Water wheel (hydro energy) - Understand how hydro energy works with a homemade water wheel. Use a few inexpensive items like a plastic soda bottle and barbeque skewer to set one up in your kitchen sink.

Advanced Ideas for Older Kids

If your kids are in upper elementary or middle school, consider taking them on a field trip to a wind farm, solar energy installation company, or another place where renewable energy is produced. They can see the equipment first-hand and have any questions answered by a professional. If you're trying to figure out how kids can learn about solar energy in more depth, you can look for resources such as Sullivan Solar Power's Solar Academy that explains solar energy in an easy-to-grasp way that includes some technical terminology. The National Education Association also provides a collection of lesson plans and other strategies for exploring renewable energy.

Teaching kids about renewable energy is incredibly rewarding because you are giving them an effective way to protect our most valuable resource - the planet. If you're worried that you don't know enough yourself to teach them, don't let that stop you. There are lots of resources out there to help guide you, and you and your child can learn together as you take this important step toward caring for the natural world.

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