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What is electricity?

What is electricity?
Circuit, cell, bulb, switch... Find out about the electrical terminology your primary-school child will be using in the classroom and try some hands-on activities to support learning about electricity at home.

What is electricity?

Electricity is an energy. This energy can be used to power electrical items such as toasters, kettles, cookers, televisions and computer tablets. 

Electrical energy is caused by electrons (the particles in atoms) moving about to make a current.

What do children learn about electricity in primary school?

Electricity can be created in a variety of ways such as:

  • burning fossil fuels (oil, gas, coal) at power stations,
  • using wind power generated by wind turbines,
  • using solar power generated by the sun,
  • using water power (sometimes called hydropower) generated by running or falling water.

Electricity is transported to our homes, schools and places of work through wires and cables.

Electricity can also be stored in batteries (sometimes called cells). 

Primary-school children also learn about simple series electrical circuits. A simple series electrical circuit is a circuit for electricity to flow around as shown in the diagram. It's simple because the circuit is a single wire running from a battery to a bulb and back again.

The diagram shows a battery (cell) with wires connecting it to the bulb.

Some of the electrical vocabulary your child will learn to use includes these terms:

Current: this is the amount of electricity flowing through the circuit (basically a flow of electrons moving in a loop in the circuit). It can be measured using an ammeter and measured in amps.

Voltage: is the difference in electrical energy between two parts of a circuit. It can be measured using a volt meter and is measured in volts. The bigger the voltage, the bigger the current. Large electrical items need a higher electrical voltage and current than smaller items.

Some objects conduct electricity; this means they allow electricity to flow through them easily. These are called conductors. Metal items such as spoons, paperclips and coins are good conductors.

Other objects do not allow electricity to flow through them easily; these are called insulators. Rubber, paper and some plastics are examples of insulators. 

Semiconductors like silicon conduct or block electricity at different times and are used in electronics.

When are children taught about electricity in primary school?

In Year 4 children will explore electricity.

  • They begin to identify items that run on electricity such as laptops, mobile phones, televisions, etc.
  • Children will learn how to construct a simple series circuit.
  • They will learn about electrical safety.
  • They will identify some conductors and insulators.
  • Children will understand that a switch opens and closes a circuit.

In Year 6 children will consolidate their electrical knowledge.

They will learn about voltage and currents and learn to draw electrical circuits using symbols.

How are children taught about electricity in the classroom?

Children may complete activities to sort items according to whether they run on electricity (this might be using pictures or actual items).

In the classroom, children will usually enjoy explore electricity by using batteries (cells that make electricity), wires (often with crocodile clips so they are easy to attach), bulbs, switches (they turn circuits on and off, stopping the electrical current from flowing) and buzzers to create simple series circuits. They may investigate how to make the bulb brighter or buzzer louder by adding more batteries or find out if the bulbs dim when more bulbs are added.

Electrical safety will be discussed as a class or in groups; children might watch video clips or create safety posters.

In Year 6 children will draw electrical circuits using symbols.


Books about electricity for children


Electronics activities for at-home learning:

  • Give children a pack of Post-it notes and ask them to label all the items in your home that run on electricity.
  • Record all the items you use that run on electricity during a day.
  • Look at an old catalogue or magazines and cut out pictures of all the items using electricity.
  • Wired is a free puzzle-platform game where you wire up electrical circuits to progress through the levels (Windows or Mac computers; needs a keyboard and mouse).
  • Discuss what it would be like without electricity. Why not have an electricity-free evening or day and explore alternative ways to light a room, cook food or entertain yourselves?
  • Discuss electrical safety and create your own safety posters using paints or crayons.
  • If you have an electricity meter or monitor look at this with your child. (This could be especially interesting if you have a smart meter – all homes are to be fitted with smart meters by 2020.)
  • There are lots of brilliant electronics sets for kids that will teach your child about circuits and electricity through play.
  • Build some squishy circuits with playdough! This TED Talk explains how to turn your kitchen into an electrical engineering lab.
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