Teaching Electrical Circuits to Elementary Students

An example Scope and Sequence for an electrical circuits education program

We live in an electric circuit powered world, but do your students really understand how circuits work? The following is an introduction to our scope and sequence for teaching elementary students about the basics of electrical circuits.

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Parts of a Circuit: Power, Connection, and Action!

When introducing circuits, whether with kindergartners or 5th graders, I always break it down into three essential components: power, connection, and action (light, sound, movement). Everything else in teaching circuits is built on these three components, and REALLY understanding these components allows students to troubleshoot any issues themselves with their circuits as they build by referring back to the basics. To quickly provide an overview, I’ll cover three activities that highlight two of these components- power and connection.

Power, connection, action

Connection

One of my favorite tools for introducing the three components of an electrical circuit is the Energy Ball. It’s a ping-pong size ball, with a battery and light inside, with two metal strips on the outside. Touching both of the metal strips closes the circuit and the ball lights up. I explain that the power source is a battery, and that the action is both light and sound, but without a connection, the action can’t occur. At this point, I introduce the other “C” of circuits- conductive. At this stage, I keep it simple and explain that we (humans) are conductive, so we can provide the connection necessary to make the energy ball light up and make noise. I demonstrate by myself, and then the whole class joins hands (alternatively students can touch elbows) to complete/close the conductive connection. If one student breaks the connection, the circuit won’t work (in technical terms, it is an open circuit). 

Conductivity

One downside to simplifying connections as a component of circuits is that unless that connection is conductive, the power won’t trigger the action. As soon as students understand the concept of a connected circuit, I move to teaching about conductors vs insulators. You could continue to use the Energy Ball to test materials, though given the curve between the metal prongs, you’re limited to flexible objects such as foil, paper, cloth, or sponge. 

My preferred alternative uses one of my variations of an “Is it Conductive?” test where  students break into small groups and test various objects, sorting them into conductors or insulators. Both of these activities require a computer for at least part of the set up, either a Makey Makey or Micro:bit, and two wires. The advantage of using these is the ability to test anything that would bridge the gap between two wires, regardless of the shape of the material or object. 

Makey Makey: Is it Conductive?

Makey Makey set up: If you have access to a computer, you can hook up a Makey Makey to two strips of foil, and use this link in Scratch that I’ve coded for you. Pictured is this activity in action. 

Micro:bit set up: This set up employs the same principles as the Makey Makey, but uses the cheaper (and more versatile!) micro:bit. You’ll load the code onto the micro:bit, at which point this activity becomes highly portable and compact, providing the same capability to sort conductors and insulators. You can use this link to access the code. You can find a video of this in action on both our Facebook page and Instagram. One note: you can firmly attach your ground wire to the object you are testing, but I’ve found that the pin 0 wire must be just tapped (briefly touched) to the surface of the same object to count as a “pin press”, as opposed to holding it to the object. If you take a minute to play around with it, this will make sense.

Simple Squishy Circuit

Power

The next lesson in this sequence is Squishy Circuits, also known as Playdough Circuits. Did you know that playdough is conductive? Add an LED and battery with wires and you’ve got yourself a hands-on circuit building activity. My main goal in using squishy circuits is for students to understand the specifics of power in a circuit: that batteries have a positive and negative anode, and how the action part of the circuit requires a certain amount of power to work. As in the picture, students play around with how the light legs and wires have a specific way to orient (positive vs negative) in order to work. Additionally, I use squishy circuits to teach about a “short circuit”. If I were to have one solid blob of playdough with both wires and lights plugged in, I’ve effectively created a short circuit, where the energy does not flow into the lights. This is a valuable lesson in energy flow within a circuit. After showing these points, rather than following a strict lesson, with Squishy Circuits I like to leave it open ended and student-led. To that effect, rather than telling you how else to use Squishy Circuits, I recommend simply checking out the following website. Enjoy!

Once your students know these basics, an entire world of building circuits opens up. You can do paper circuits, build a bigger project like a homemade game of Operation, and more. If you’re interested in receiving my full Circuits program scope and sequence, you can find it here on Teachers pay Teachers (coming beginning of September).

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