Electronics for kids: Learning how electrons flow in circuits

Finding a way to teach electronics for kids can be tough. 

The concept of electronics flowing through a circuit is not only foreign but also something that kids can never actually see happening. It is almost like asking them to take a huge leap of faith and just trust what you say. If you have kids like mine the line "because that's how it works" doesn't usually pass their muster. 

Kids want to know why things work.

And who can blame them? All they have been doing their entire lives is trying to figure out how things work. They have to learn about gravity pulling the fork to the floor, they learn that ice can melt into water, and they learn that balloons somehow float. Kids are the ultimate scientists and tinkerers. When we think they are playing, they are actually working, really hard. 

How can we teach electronics projects for kids so kids grasp the ideas at hand?

At Rosie Research, we make an obstacle course.

Wait, what, an obstacle course? 

How is an obstacle course related to electronics for kids?

Kids learn by doing. When it comes to electronics for kids part of that doing is creating circuits, but to understand how those circuits are working and the role that each circuit components we have to understand how fundamental particles, electrons, behave in those circuits. That is a tough task given that there isn't anything out there that lets kids actually see, or follow, an electron in a circuit and discover what is happening, until now. 

In this circuit obstacle course kids actually become the electrons in the circuit and move through the various circuit components. So, it isn't playing with wires, LEDs, and batteries, but it is bringing electronics for kids down to a level that they can understand, and play with!

Check out our video below to see Dr. Erica explain the circuit obstacle course, and see how with a little ingenuity we can bring play-based learning and electronics for kids to a three-year-old! We have a discussion about all the circuit parts and how to set up your own circuit obstacle course below!

Electronics for kids: Component ideas to add to your circuit obstacle course

  1. Battery
  2. Wire
  3. LED
  4. Light bulb
  5. Resistor
  6. Speaker
  7. Motor
  8. Switch

1. Battery

Every circuit needs a source of power. The power provides the push to electrons to make them flow through the circuit. Electrons are very lazy creatures, they won't do anything they don't have to, but they also love to race. In some circuits, like your computer, the power is provided by a plug into the wall. The plug is powered by a power plant many miles away that is pushing electrons, or a current, through power lines. Basically, when you plug anything into the wall socket, you are sending a rush of electrons through the circuit (or obstacle course) that you want to be powered.

In other circuits, however, the push for electrons to move around is from a battery. A battery has two chemicals in it that are reacting to create a current when it is added to a circuit. Since the battery is what makes our electrons go, the battery is also the start/stop line in our circuit obstacle course. Instead of one long start line, however, we make our start line to look like electrical engineers drawing of a battery, which is one long line above a shorter line. This adds a new layer of knowledge in this electronics for kids activity.

2. Wire

Any activities or projects involving electronics for kids will always involve wires. Wires are the highways that electrons can take on their race to the finish line (aka the battery's bottom). While electrons can travel through air, like in lightning, it is really difficult for them to do so since air is an insulator. 

I mentioned earlier that electrons are lazy, so they will always take the easiest route to the finish line. When you add wires, you are adding an easier route for the electrons to pass through, and you are controlling where the flow of electrons go.

Electrical engineers draw wires as plain old lines from place to place. In our circuit obstacle course, we will model these lines using duct tape that leads the kids from component to component. The kids have to stay on the lines to be a part of the circuit since electrons can't leave their wires!

3. LED 

LED is shorthand for a light emitting diode. LEDs are formed of two materials that are close together. One material has an abundance of electrons, while the other material has an abundance of holes. When a circuit is powered, and electrons are moving through the circuit, they see this as a slide. They slide from the conduction band of one material, into a lower valence band of another material. Since the electrons changed their energy by sliding down, they emit light! The height of the slide would determine the color of the LED. 

I've said it a few times now, but I'm going to say it again. Electrons are rule followers. They will only slide down the slide, never up it. So as you wire up your obstacle course, you need to make sure they climb up the stairs and go down the slide, not up the slide and down the stairs. I love pointing this out to kids since when we move to actual electronics for kids they will often have an issue with their LED lighting up. Most of the time this is because their LED is connected to the battery backward. That means they are trying to make the electrons go up the slide instead of down it. 

Since the direction of connection to an LED matters, manufacturers make LEDs with two different sized legs, one long and one short. The long leg gets connected to the positive side of the battery, while the short leg goes towards the negative. In this way, kids can imagine the electrons sliding down from the long leg to the short leg as they troubleshoot their circuits.

When electrical engineers draw LEDs into their circuits they denote the direction of the LED by incorporating an arrow into the icon. In our circuit obstacle course we did this by mapping out an arrow with a line at the tip along the slide, so kids went down the list as the arrow indicated (yay layers of knowledge). 

4. Lightbulb

LEDs and lightbulbs light up in different ways. Teaching electronics for kids means finding ways to show kids the subtle differences of what is happening in the circuit. In our circuit obstacle course, that means two different types of obstacles, one for LEDs and one for a light bulb. 

Remember how LEDs made light as they went down a slide? Well, light bulbs are totally different. In a lightbulb, electrons are forced to move through a very thin tungsten filament. When they are doing this they bang around millions of times. All that banging around causes the tungsten filament to get how. A byproduct of that heat is the tungsten filament begins to glow and create light. In fact, only 3% of the energy that goes into a lightbulb becomes light, the rest goes into heating up that tiny filament!

In our circuit obstacle course, we can't really model banging around so much that you heat up a wire and glow. So instead we made it into a jump. Kids jump over a raised X which we made out of yardsticks. Why jump? Well, partly because it is completely different than the slide motion, and partly because it is another way for electrons themselves to create light since they are going into a higher energy state and then coming down from that state.

Why did we make the jump into an X? When electrical engineers draw light bulbs in a circuit they draw a circle with an X in it. In this way kids still get to see the extra layer of knowledge as they go through the circuit. 

5. Resistor

Resistors control the speed of electrons in a circuit. Since electrons flowing in a circuit is the current, resistors can change the current going into the parts of the circuit that follow it. Since resistors control their speed, we decided to make the resistor in our circuit obstacle course look like a zig-zag. This slows kids forward progression down as they have to go back and forth. We also chose that pattern since electrical engineers draw in resistors as little zig-zag portions of wire!

6. Speaker

I haven't added a speaker component to our circuit obstacle course yet, but I have dreams of doing such over the summer when we can run this outside. Speakers create sound because of a moving membrane (usually a thin plastic), pushes pulses of air waves into your ears. When we hear a sound, we are hearing air moving back and forth. For high frequencies of sound, the air is moving back and forth quickly, while lower frequencies are heard when the pulses come more slowly. You can actually feel some loud speakers. If you go to a concert or stand near a subwoofer you can often feel the vibrations of the air pulses in your body!

How can we add in a speaker to our electronics for kids course? Well, this one would be tough to be as literal as we are in the other pieces of the circuit obstacle course. That is because we would have to change the current of the electrons into a changing magnetic field that would then push and pull a different magnet back and forth as it was attracted to/repelled from the changing current. Whew. That would be really hard. 

I do have one idea, however. Since it is the current of electrons that creates the changing magnetic field that ultimately vibrates a membrane, why not just skip the magnets and have the electrons vibrate a membrane? Basically, have the kids jump on a trampoline. The trampoline becomes the membrane that moves back and forth (or I guess up and down), to create the sound waves we would hear. We still see the physical concepts, just not the electromagnetic portion of it - mainly because I have yet to figure out how to make an electromagnetic portion to a human run circuit obstacle course. If you have any ideas, definitely let me know!

To draw the speaker symbol in electrical engineering talk you basically draw it as the icon you see on your computer volume switch. 

7. Motor

Electrons can do a lot of things in a circuit. As we saw earlier, they can light up, heat up, even create sound with a little extra help. Electrons can also drive a motor in a circuit. Just as we were not able to be quite so literal with the speakers, we find ourselves in the same predicament with the motor. But, what do motors do? They create movement. So if you want to add a motor to your circuit it would be perfect to add some movement.

Most of the motors that you will see while engaging in electronics for kids will have an axle that sticks out and spins. Since we associate motors with spinning (just look at your car), why not add a little piece where the kids have to spin something around. I am still working on adding this piece in, but I think one of those toys that you sit on and spin would be perfect. You could just write out how many spins they have to do before they can get off!

Electrical engineers indicate motors in a variety of ways, the easiest being a circle with an M inside of it.

7. Switch

The last component I am planning on adding to our circuit obstacle course is a switch. In theory, this switch would be kind of like a start flag, since if a switch is open, a circuit is open, and there is no path for electrons to get from one end of the battery to the other. Remember how electrons are lazy? If they know they can't complete the circuit they won't even start.

When a switch is closed, however, a path opens up. The closing of the switch basically adds a piece of wire that bridges a gap, and thus allows electrons to see a way to complete the circuit. 

In our circuit obstacle course, a switch can be anything that moves, although electrical engineers often draw a switch as two circles (the ends of the wires to be connected), and a line rotating off of one of those circles. You could easily model this by having the switch component be on a 2x4 that can rotate in and out of the circuit. When it is in the circuit the piece of wire is complete and kids can run the obstacle course. When it isn't in the circuit (ie one end is out of the circuit creating a gap), kids have to stop and wait.