When it comes to teaching 4th and 5th grade science, electricity is one of my favorite units. I love teaching electric circuits because it’s hands-on, fun, and something students recognize from everyday life!
Let’s take a look at some electric circuit activities you can use at home or in the classroom to learn about simple, series, and parallel circuits.
Introducing Electric Circuits
One fun way to kick off a lesson on electric circuits is to use the board game Operation. Students can play it in groups or you can model playing it via a projector, and then ask students to brainstorm what causes the light to turn on and off.
Start with Simple Circuits
I like to have students work in groups of 2 or 3 to try to create a simple electrical circuit – without any direction from me on how to do it. It’s so fun to watch the light bulb literally go on when they figure out how to create closed circuits and light their bulbs! They can draw and label pictures of how they created the circuits so they see that they made a path for the electricity to follow.
You can set up each group with 2 insulated wires (use wire cutters to strip the plastic from both ends) or thin strips of aluminum foil, a size D battery, and a small light bulb (like the ones used in flashlights). If you want to get fancy, you can add alligator clips and light bulb holders, but they’re not necessary.
To light the bulb, students will need to connect the metal ends of the wire/foil to the metal parts of the battery and light bulb.
Once they have mastered creating simple closed circuits, it’s a great time to introduce terms like electric circuits, electrons, flow, and electrical energy. We want students to understand that electrons will only flow when they have a continuous path. In Operation, that will only happen when you touch the metal part of the tweezers to the metal parts of the gameboard.
Experiment with Series Circuits and Parallel Circuits
Once students know how to create a simple circuit, I like to point out that most of the lights we use in buildings have multiple bulbs. Then, I give groups additional wires and bulbs and have them try to get two or three bulbs to light. This is usually a bit more challenging! If any groups are struggling, you can give them some circuit diagram cards so they have a model to follow.
To reinforce the difference between them, I explain that a series circuit is like a bookshelf, where all of the books from a series are in a row, one after the other. Parallel circuits are like the parallel rungs on a ladder, with each bulb getting its own little step.
Then, we discuss which type students think we use to power our homes and buildings, and why, so they understand the advantages to using parallel circuits. (Demonstrating this with old-school holiday lights is fun.)
This Brainpop video is a short and fun way to reinforce the concepts behind the circuit experiments they’ve done.
I also like to display vocabulary cards on my science word wall so that students can refer back to the different terms throughout our electricity lessons.
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Electric Circuits Review & Assessment
To wrap up the lesson, I like to have students complete a sorting activity to make sure they can differentiate among open and closed circuits, as well as series and parallel circuits.
Electric Circuits Lesson Extensions
For more great current electricity projects for kids, you can have students experiment with:
- changing the size/power of the battery, light bulb, and/or wire to see how it affects the circuit
- adding switches or motors
- creating electromagnets
- creating electric circuits that produce sound or motion (MakeyMakey is great for this)
- drawing circuit diagrams using symbols
- testing conductors and insulators
- snap circuits
- electricity games for kids
I hope this post gave you some good ideas to get started teaching electricity and circuits to your upper elementary students!
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