The Warmth of the Sun

What You Need


  • Two open containers
  • Water
The Warmth of the Sun Photo Credit: Clipart.com.


To help students broaden their understanding of the sun, particularly its critical role in warming the land, air, and water around us.


At this early level, it is important for students to begin to take notice of the world around them and learn both the basic and broad concepts about the structure and key processes that make up the universe. In this lesson, students will take a closer look at the sun and begin to recognize its critical function in heating and warming the air, land, and water that sustain our lives. This will involve drawing their attention to the basics of the heat around them and how the sun is the primary source of that warmth. They will then perform a number of indoor and outdoor activities that support the benchmark, and help to begin their identification of the sun as the natural, universal source of heat in the world.

While teaching, it is recommended that you do not introduce the scientific concept of energy or any in-depth explanations about heat energy, so as to limit student confusion and save teaching time. If children use the term energy to indicate how much pep they have, however, that is perfectly all right, in that the meaning is clear and no technical mischief has been done. With the concept of energy in general, students by the 2nd grade should be familiar with a variety of ways of making things go and should consider “What makes it go?” to be an interesting question to ask. Once they learn that batteries wear down and cars run out of gasoline, turning off unneeded appliances can be said to “save on batteries” and “save on gas.” The idea that is accessible at this age is that keeping anything going uses up some resource. Overall, students should walk away from this lesson having made qualitative approximations and a basic understanding of the concepts surrounding the sun's heat energy. (Benchmarks for Science Literacy, p. 81-83.)

In addition, it is good to keep in mind a number of problem areas students of all ages have about energy in general. For example, students' meanings for energy both before and after traditional instruction are considerably different from its scientific meaning. In particular, students believe energy is associated only with humans or movement, is a fuel-like quantity which is used up, or is something that makes things happen and is expended in the process. Students rarely think energy is measurable and quantifiable. (Benchmarks for Science Literacy, p. 338.)

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Planning Ahead

Several hours before the lesson, fill two pans with water, placing one in a shaded area of the classroom and another outside in the sun.

Note: For the best possible results, it is important to teach this lesson on a warm, sunny day.


Spark students’ interest on the basic workings of heat by asking simple, thought-provoking questions like the ones below. Accept all reasonable answers and encourage students to speculate and elaborate on their responses.

Ask students:

  • When you are cold, what kinds of things or activities help you to stay warm?
  • What helps you to stay warm when you are indoors? Outdoors?
  • Is it usually warmer during the day or night? Why?

Now that students have been led to discover the heating role of the sun, ask questions like these to help them develop their benchmark-based focus and better prepare them for the activities in the body of the lesson:

  • What is the sun? Where is it? (To keep answers simple: The sun is a giant star that is about 4.5 billion years old. It is also the largest object in the solar system.)
  • What kinds of things does the sun do? (Answers will vary. Among other things, the sun provides the earth and its inhabitants the light and heat they need to grow and survive.)
  • What kinds of things does the sun allow you to do every day? (Answers will vary.)


Continue the lesson by distributing the Warmth Chart to your students. To aid in their comprehension, read over the chart carefully with the class explaining that they will go to three different areas—the classroom, the outside in the shade, and in the sun—and try to determine or feel the differences in warmth in each of the areas. To do this, they will need pencils and will have to circle the level of warmth in each area—cold, cool, warm, or hot.

Starting in the classroom, ask students these basic questions before they finally decide on what they believe is the relative warmth or coolness (temperature) of the room. For clarity, ask the same questions at each of the three indoor/outdoor areas.

Ask students:

  • How warm or cold does it feel in the classroom? In the shade? In the sun?
  • Why do you think it is (cold/cool/warm/hot)?
  • Is the heat of the sun helping to warm this area? Why or why not?

Encourage and accept all student responses so they can develop their ideas and awareness about heat variations in relation to the sun. When they have finished expressing themselves, close each of the three area discussions with the following directive:

    "OK. Now it is time to circle the answer on the Warmth Chart that you feel is correct. Is the _______ (classroom/ shade/sunshine) ________ (cold/cool/warm/hot)?"

When students have finished all three areas, take a few minutes—while everyone is still standing in the sun—to talk about your students' final results. Ask them summarizing questions similar to these:

  • How many of you thought the classroom was the warmest?
  • How many of you thought the shade was the coolest?
  • How many of you thought being in the sun was the warmest?
  • Were you surprised by any of your answers? Why?

    (Accept all answers, but ask students to support their views with explanations.)

After taking time to field their responses, you and your students should be warming up in the sun. As a way to transition into the water-pan, touch-and-test part of the lesson, draw your students' attention to the warmth they're feeling now by asking questions like these:

  • So, after standing in the sun for a few minutes, how do you feel now? Cooler? Warmer?
  • Do you think things like rocks, grass, leaves, water, or air are cooler or warmer in the sun? In the shade? If they were taken indoors? Why or why not?
  • If the sun warms people, do you think it warms all of these other things as well?

    (Accept all answers, but ask students to support their views with explanations.)

After students have made these types of broader connections, walk them over to the water pan that you have left outside in the sun. Ask them these orientation questions before you have them touch the water with their hands:

  • Do you think the water in the pan is cold, cool, warm, or hot? Why?
  • If I put this pan in the shade, do you think it would change the warmth of the water? Why or why not? How about if I took it inside and put it on my desk?

    (Accept all answers, but ask students to support their views with explanations.)

When finished, have students touch the water one-by-one. (Make this activity as scientific as appropriate for your students. This may involve letting your more advanced students use thermometers to gauge the degree of warmth or coolness of the water.) Then ask questions like these:

  • How does the water feel? Are you surprised by the warmth of the water? Why or why not?
  • Imagine that the pan was filled with leaves or soil or even air. How do you think that would affect the warmth of those items? Why?

    (Accept all answers, but ask students to support their views with explanations.)

To address their own personal warming processes while standing in the sun, you may ask them questions like these before taking them back to the classroom:

  • By the way, how are you feeling now? Are you warmer than you were an hour ago? Five minutes ago? Why or why not?

Once back inside the classroom, draw students' attention to the other pan of water. Ask them similar warmth-orientation questions as you had done with the outside pan. Also gauge and ask them about their own personal cooling-off processes.

To better support the benchmark, be sure to draw further connections that—like the water and themselves—virtually anything that is taken out of the direct line of the sun will become cooler, whether it is cupcakes, backpacks, soil, or air. Close the lesson by deliberately reinforcing how the sun warms the land, air, and water around us.


Have students review what they have learned about the sun and its widespread warming effects. They should be able to see more clearly now just how powerful and critical the sun is in warming people and virtually everything around us.

As part of this discussion and review, have students ponder and answer questions like these:

  • What would life be like if there were no sun?
  • In what ways do plants and animals count on the sun?
  • Why do people go swimming in lakes and oceans in the summer? Why not the winter?
  • Why do people need air conditioners? What is life like for those who do not have or use them?


This lesson may be supplemented by the four-part Sky lesson series, which investigates various aspects of how the objects in the daytime and nighttime sky change, and how shadows form, move, and evolve.

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Lesson Details

Grades Themes Type Project 2061 Benchmarks National Science Standards