Teaching physics to your toddler 

Physics is roughly the study of how the world works – the set of rules by which all matter and energy play. When you think of physics, you might think of Isaac Newton, or force = mass x acceleration.

Right now he doesn’t need to know any specifics, like Einstein’s theory of relativity, or the formula for kinetic energy. But there are definitely some concepts it can be helpful to get some practice putting into Baby’s terms, to help life make a little more sense to him. If nothing else, you’ll be a little bit more prepared for the inevitable ‘why?’ phase.

Motion 

In adult terms: motion is the act of moving. Forces make objects move or stop. Friction, like that of tires braking, sleds sliding, and feet climbing a steep hill, is a resistance of motion.

Babies around this age love various forms of motion, some of which include:

  • Crawling, walking, or running around the room
  • Throwing blocks or crayons across the room
  • Snacks getting dropped and falling to the floor (gravity!)

Objects at rest stay at rest until they’re acted on by an outside force, and Baby probably takes great delight in being that outside force now and then.

Electricity 

In adult terms: electricity is the flow of energy through electronic circuits. Power sources, wires, and circuit boards usually transfer the energy, allowing it to power our lights, cars, machines, computers, motors, and batteries, to name a few.

For Baby, electricity will come into play in ways like:

  • Flicking the light switches on and off – babies at this age love playing with light switches!
  • Pressing buttons on a phone or remote
  • Knowing that ‘lights out’ time means sleep
  • Being kept away from electrical outlets or any electronics that are unsafe at this age
  • Discovering whether or not he gets scared during his first few thunderstorms

Work and energy

In adult terms: energy is anything’s ability to do work. We can measure an object’s potential energy, or how much energy is stored in an object. Work means exerting a force to move or displace an object.

Good luck trying to explain to Baby the potential energy of a soccer ball. Here are some better examples of how work and energy relate to his life.

  • Naps for restoring energy
  • Eating food that provides energy for the body
  • Pushing a push toy around the room (work)
  • Lifting a ball off the ground (work)
  • (Messily) feeding themselves using utensils

Waves and Sound

In adult terms: waves – like light waves, sound waves, or water waves – transfer energy. Sound comes from the wave-like vibrations of molecules. We can hear things because the vibrations travel into our ears, and our brain distinguishes them from other sounds.

Even at this young age, Baby has made pleeeeeenty of sounds. Some pleasant and some not-so-pleasant. Some other basic ways that waves and sound come into Baby’s life include:

  • You turning down loud music or television, as loud sound can hurt Baby’s ears
  • Using low tones to shush Baby’s higher-pitched cries
  • Communicating with Baby, or listening to him babble or chat to themselves

Light and optics

In adult terms: light is a form of energy. Sometimes it goes through objects, and sometimes it bounces off them. Our eyes have muscles that open and close our pupil to reflect light.

Even adults have a hard time understanding how light travels in waves, so you may not be trying to explain that to Baby any time soon. Here are some ways that you can help Baby notice light and optics in his life.

  • Encourage him to eat foods that are good for his eyes, like spinach, eggs, oranges, and berries
  • Point out rainbows, which form when light bends a certain way
  • Teach Baby to protect his eyes from the light of the sun – and look pretty snazzy while doing it – by wearing sunglasses on especially bright days
  • Take Baby to get his eyesight tested as often as your healthcare provider recommends

Was that so bad? Hopefully it didn’t take you back to high school again, staring at a board that might as well be written in a different language. For now, just make things fun and interesting whenever possible. Baby is curious about the world around him, but he has all the time in the world to learn the more complex aspects of physics.

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