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Explaining Planetary Rotation to a Toddler

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About a month ago, I picked up my 2-year-old from daycare. Living above the 45th parallel, the sun was already setting. From the back seat, I hear, “Why it dark, Mama?” So I reply with the obvious, “Well, the sun has gone down.”

Then, my science-teacher-brain kicks in. “Really, the Earth has turned, and it just looks like the sun has gone down.” Clearly, he wasn’t buying it. “No, why dark, Mama?”

I drove the rest of the way home, trying to think of other answers. He sorta took the “sun is gone” idea, but he was unsatisfied. When we got home, he had a conversation with my husband:

Z: Why dark, Dada?
Husband: The Earth turned and the sun has gone down.
Z: No, why dark?
Husband: Well, this flashlight is like the sun, and it shines on the Earth, which is like this potato. See how only half of the potato is lit? And so if you’re on this side of the potato, it’s daytime, and if the potato turns, it’s nighttime, but it looks like the sun went down. Got that?
Z: Yeah!

About a week after this detailed explanation, I’d again picked up my son from daycare, and this was the conversation in the car:

Z: Why dark, Mama?
Me: You tell me.
Z: Flashlight potato!

Once I stopped laughing, and we got home, we talked about the flashlight and potato again. He now diligently parrots back, “Earth turns, sun goes down,” when asked why it’s dark outside, but he’ll throw out a “flashlight potato” to make me laugh.


This past school year (and especially after this flashlight-potato idea), I’ve been thinking about how and when to introduce science to my son. And I’ve realized that I’m already showing him science. He can talk about why the sun goes down, which is pretty cool for a 2-year-old, even if he doesn’t know the exact mechanics of it yet. He can examine things and pull them apart and attempt to put them back together. He knows how to push buttons on elevators, cameras, and annoying electronic toys. He can identify colors and watch things change. He loves watching animals and wonders what they’re doing and what they eat and what their names are. He has licked nearly everything in the house at least once. Clearly, he’s a fantastic qualitative observer.

There’s a super cool site called Talking Math With Your Kids, run by Christopher Danielson, a.k.a., @Trianglemancsd. He posts short vignettes about his own conversations with his kids, as well as bits of math/brain research related to language and cognitive acquisition. In a lot of ways, it’s easy for parents to talk about simple math-things with kids. Everyone (who is slightly literate and has some degree of education) can do simple numbers or counting or even more versus less. It’s a matter of “seeing” math opportunities like we see language opportunities with small children (“I runned!” “Oh, you ran down the hallway?”)

I think there needs to be a “Talking Science With Your Kids” site. This is harder, I think, for parents to get correct because of standing misconceptions that they truly believe to be true, such as cracking knuckles causing arthritis (it doesn’t), the Earth is farther away from the sun during summer (only for the northern hemisphere, but it is warmer overall) and Vitamin C preventing colds (nope, but it may reduce duration). There are so many misconceptions going around, and a lot of them start with misinformation at an early age. It’s easy to become Calvin’s father and introduce bad science (accidentally or otherwise).

As far as looking things up, there are tons of websites for doing experiments with kids, which is awesome, but there aren’t many (any?) that I can think of that just dabble in the everyday, without a lesson plan or specific task to complete. There’s How Stuff Works to explain things, but I don’t want to have to look things up when talking with my kid. Instead, I want to encourage him to examine things, see how it works, and try it out. He sure doesn’t have qualms about punching all parts of the iPad at home (and while I don’t know how to reset certain features, he’s got it figured out and nothing’s broken).

So what can we do, as science-concerned parents? Dr. Tyson says, “Get outta the way!”

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