With apologies to Mark Twain, who reportedly quipped, “Everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it,” I think there’s plenty we can do, if not about the weather, at least with it.
Studying the weather is a great way to get kids interested in lots of subjects, lots of skills, and lots of knowledge. And it can be lots of fun.
Where’s the coldest place in the world? The hottest? The rainiest? What causes tornadoes? When was the worst one? What’s a cyclone? A tsunami? How do planes manage to get through storms? And, of course, when is it going to snow enough to get out of school for a day or two?
Weather can be dramatic enough to get the attention of even the most jaded middle-schooler. It’s a basic element of the early learning years – a routine topic to get the day started with kindergartners and first-graders. “What’s the weather today?” teaches kids about the passage of time, seasonal changes, observation, and valuable vocabulary.
You don’t have to be a “weather nerd” (although the popularity of weather channels on TV and weather blogs everywhere lets us know there are lots of them out there), but we teachers and parents can open up worlds of skills and knowledge by encouraging an interest in weather in our kids.
Here are some subjects that can easily relate to weather study.
- Science. Learning about the atmosphere, the properties of heat and cold, astronomy, cloud formations, the sun, the moon, the tides, and their interrelationships are all scientific studies that a mere chat about the weather can lead to. Who says a snow day is a day free of learning?
- Geography. Kids learn local, state, regional, national, and international geography as they read about the climates of various places on our small planet. Why do the northern and southern hemispheres have opposite seasons? What’s the significance of the equator? What’s the climate of the Scandinavian countries? African countries? Asian countries? The country or countries our family hails from?
- Math. Studying temperatures immerses kids in math, but in a real, not a textbook way. Math skills like counting, comparing, contrasting, analyzing, measuring, predicting, and recognizing patterns are all part and parcel of studying weather.
- The arts. Monet’s paintings are as much about the weather as they are about depicting beauty. He understood the changing quality of light at various times of the day and seasons of the year. Frost’s poetic descriptions about New England’s weather often tell us about its effects on human nature (as well as that little horse on a snowy evening). Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, Beethoven’s Spring violin concerto or Tempest piano sonata, or perhaps the most famous sunrise anthem of all, Richard Strauss’ Thus Spoke Zarathustra (the stirring theme of 2001 A Space Odyssey). Jack London’s Yukon stories and novels appeal to kids as much as Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm appeals to adults. The arts are full of weather!
- History. Weather and atmospheric conditions affect history. Just ask the residents of Pompeii, Indonesia, or Japan. Ask Napoleon or Hitler how it affected their military campaigns. Or the passengers on the Titanic or the Hindenburg how it affected their trips. Or Okies’ how it affected their agriculture. Countries’ climates affect their wealth, their health, their place in the world’s economies and living conditions.
- Research. Kids love to do research, to look up facts and figures, especially when those facts and figures are related to a subject of interest. When was our city’s most hot and humid day? Its heaviest snowfall? Its rainiest day? Its coldest summer? Its warmest winter? What professional baseball game was played in the coldest weather? Who won the muddiest, rainiest football game? Looking up stuff piques kids’ curiosity and leads to other learning.
- Travel. Where’s the best place to go – and at what time of year – for skiing? Snorkeling? Spelunking? Hiking? How does the weather affect a place’s economy, its tourism, its livability?
- Ecology. Kids learn about the ecology of the earth by showing even a cursory interest in the weather. How has the weather changed the face of the planet? The Grand Canyon? The Sahara Desert? The Florida Everglades? Venice, Italy?
- Patterns. Patterns are basic to all subjects, especially mathematics and science. When kids learn about weather patterns – the changing of the seasons is the most basic – they begin to recognize patterns in other aspects of life, from algebra to geometry, from human behaviors to economic cycles. Patterns are essential to learning language arts (“’I before E, except after C, or when sounded as ‘ay,’ as in ‘neighbor and ‘weigh’.”)
- Vocabulary. Anything to grow kids’ working vocabularies is a worthwhile activity. The weather-related words we use – variable, precipitation, extreme, humidity, smog, Fahrenheit, Celsius, meteorology, ultra violet – introduce kids to new subjects and new words.