Electricity...tackle the tricky bits
All you need to know to confidently tackle common misconceptions, the science behind electricity and how to teach it to children in a way they will really understand.
Here we focus on those scientific concepts that are the hardest to explain to children. We break it down into what pupils need to know and outline the background science. Even though much of the background science does not need to be taught to primary aged children, it is useful for you as a teacher when addressing misconceptions and children’s challenging questions.
Please refer to your national curriculum documents when planning your sequence of work and ensure that you teach the knowledge for your year group.
What do children already know about electricity?
Most children will have formed their own ideas about what electricity is because it is part of their everyday life. Linking their experiences with the scientific conceptual understanding of electricity will support their learning. However, some of our everyday language about electricity can lead to confusion. A common misconception is that electricity is a substance. Children may even think that electricity leaks out of a broken circuit.
Learning about Electricity builds on prior understanding of the properties of materials. The topic provides opportunities for child-led learning, teamwork and problem solving. We have included some ideas for how to teach electricity in part two of this topic guide.
Although the effects of Electricity are observable (like forces), it is itself invisible. This means that the children can find Electricity an abstract concept that is difficult to understand. It is important to build their understanding in increments by reviewing and revisiting the topic during their years in primary school and not rushing them into secondary school content.
Key scientific concepts:
For their first steps, pupils need to…
- Identify common appliances that run on electricity.
- Construct a simple series electrical circuit, identifying and naming its basic parts, including cells, wires, bulbs, switches and buzzers.
- Identify whether or not a lamp will light in a simple series circuit, based on whether or not the lamp is part of a complete loop with a battery.
- Recognise that a switch opens and closes a circuit and associate this with whether or not a lamp lights in a simple series circuit.
- Recognise some common conductors and insulators, and associate metals with being good conductors.
It is valuable if children are given opportunities to apply this knowledge in other subjects. For example, designing and building a product with an electrical circuit in Design and technology.
For their next steps, pupils need to…
- Associate the brightness of a lamp or the volume of a buzzer with the number and voltage of cells used in the circuit.
- Compare and give reasons for variations in how components function, including the brightness of bulbs, the loudness of buzzers and the on/off position of switches.
- Use recognised symbols when representing a simple circuit in a diagram.
Children might know about sources of electricity in nature such as lightning and electric eels. Discussing these natural sources is a good starting point in the story of our discovery of electricity. This game can help develop children’s awareness of the history of how people learnt to harness electricity.
How do we make electricity?
The electricity which runs our homes, schools and businesses is generated in different ways:
- By burning fossil fuels (e.g. coal, gas) or using nuclear fuel in large power stations to produce superheated steam that spins huge turbines to generate electricity.
- by using hydroelectric or renewable sources (wind, wave, solar) to directly move turbines
The electricity is then transported around the country via the national grid and then into our homes through large wires and cables.
Electricity and climate change
Children need to learn that when fossil fuels are burnt, carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere as a waste product. This gas is a major contributor to global warming. Take a look at our guide to the Climate Challenge to find out more on how to approach teaching children about these important issues.
Building children’s understanding of electricity
Using electricity safely
Children need to be alerted to the dangers of electrocution and know how to be safe around electricity. They should NEVER use mains electricity in the classroom and only investigate the properties of electricity using low voltages. Ultimately, of course, using electricity safely is a matter of being cautious and following the necessary guidelines. Please refer to CLEAPSS or SSERC for advice on health and safety.
Learning about static electricity, which many children will have experienced, allows children to understand that when some materials are rubbed together there is a transfer of charge. They can easily explore the phenomena of attraction and repulsion that results from charge build up, using balloons.
Image credit: cws_design via Canva
When children build an electrical circuit, they learn that an electric current is the flow of electric charges moving through a wire (the term electron does not need to be taught at this stage). A simple complete circuit must consist of a loop without any gaps. Electric charge flows continuously and is the same throughout the circuit. A common misconception is that the current gradually decreases as it passes through components. Children need to learn about and use a range of electrical components in the circuits they build.
- Batteries (composed of 1 or more cells) are needed in a circuit to provide the voltage, or push, for the charges resulting in an electric current. Cells come in all shapes and sizes, but to measure how much ‘push’ they have, we need to look at their voltage (measured in Volts). It might surprise children to learn that the largest cells do not always provide the highest voltage. Cells have a positive and a negative terminal and when both these terminals are connected, it is a complete circuit.
- Metal wires are used to connect each terminal of the cell and link all the other components within a complete circuit. If a circuit is made with only batteries and wire, there is a short circuit. Short circuits are dangerous because they cause overheating and potentially fires.
- Other components in a circuit include bulbs, buzzers and motors. Electricity does not travel by a single charge to the component and then away again, rather there are many charges that all move simultaneously when the cell introduces the push force, and all stop when the circuit is broken. This article explores how to address this common misconception using games.
As children gain experience working with circuits, they will notice lower output if more components are added to a circuit. For example, adding bulbs results in each bulb becoming dimmer and adding buzzers results in each buzzer getting quieter. They will also discover that cells with a higher voltage (or adding cells to the circuit) increases the brightness or volume of the components.
- Switches are useful to control when the circuit is open (and the components do not work) and closed/complete (and the components turn on). Light switches and on/off switches all work in this way.
Children should use simple, labelled drawings to record what they find out about electrical circuits at first. Later, they can be introduced to the correct symbols and begin to interpret circuit diagrams.
Identifying conductors and insulators
Metal is a good conductor because it allows the electrical current electric charges to pass through it easily. Insulators, such as plastic, paper, wood, and rubber, do not allow electricity electric charges to pass through them easily.
The wires in most common appliances are covered with a protective plastic coating. Some children think that electrical cable is made completely from plastic. Showing them the metal wire inside helps them grasp that metal wires are electrical conductors, and the plastic is a protective electrical insulating coating.
Ideas to try with your class
Now you've got the key concepts under your belt, try our ideas to help you explain electricity to your class in a way they will understand, in part two of this topic guide!
You can also take a look at the related topic guides for light, materials and forces.