The Shortest Day: Learning About the Winter Solstice

December 22nd is the winter solstice. This astronomically significant milestone is a fantastic opportunity to teach your kids about science and the role of this special day in our everyday lives. Just because it's the year's shortest day doesn't mean it can't be packed full of educational fun!

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What Is the Winter Solstice?

If the earth had a line running from the North Pole to the South Pole, it would be tilted at an angle of about 23.5 degrees. Because of this tilt, the angle of the sun's light on the Earth changes throughout the year as our planet travels around the sun. The winter solstice occurs on the day when the northern hemisphere is tilted furthest away from the sun.

On this day, the northern hemisphere receives less sunlight than on any other day. The amount of sunlight in the place where you live depends on your distance from the equator, with sunlight decreasing as you move north. In fact, all places with a latitude north of 66.5 degrees, such as parts of Alaska and Canada, receive no sunlight at all on the solstice.

The Solstice and Science

There are numerous activities you can do with your child to better understand the solstice. For example, in the weeks leading up to the solstice, your child can chart the times of each day's sunrise and sunset. Graphing these times will show a clear trend towards shorter days.

Another activity is to study how the solstice occurs with pieces of construction paper. Create an Earth with an axis and a sun. By moving the tilted Earth around the sun, your child can see how the angle of the sunlight changes. This activity can also be done with a globe, basketball or other round object; using a focused flashlight to represent the sun can show how solstice works.

Furthermore, you can look outside for solstice lessons. Your child can observe how the changing seasons affect local wildlife. If you install a bird feeder, your child can record how different birds appear during the darkest days, compared to the longer days of fall and spring. Other animals, like squirrels, will show signs of preparing for winter by storing food and retrieving it later.

Overcoming the Solstice Blues

Your child has likely been feeling the effects of the shortening days. The further north you live, the more time is spent indoors, out of the cold and away from valuable sunlight. This can be especially difficult with children, as they may not realize the impact the change in seasons and daylight is having on them.

While the solstice is a reminder of just how short the days can get, it's also a turning point. From this day onward, the days will get longer and longer until summer. Even though there may just be a few extra minutes of daylight each day, the progression towards the year's longest day is a steady and welcome sign.

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