Happy Solstice!

by Deb on June 21, 2010

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Today is the winter solstice for the southern hemisphere and the summer solstice for the northern hemisphere. This means that the sun appears furthest to the north, the north has their longest day and shortest night and the south has their shortest day and longest night. From now on the sun will appear to move south, and days will get longer (or shorter). This appearance of movement is caused by the tilt of the earth’s axis and the way it moves around the sun and gives us the seasons.

Earth’s Axis

Here is the earth as it is today, you can see it doesn’t spin around a stick going up and down, it is tilted to the side by around 23.5 degrees (pink). This spin is what causes day and night – it’s day when you are facing the sun and night when you have turned to the other side. But the line between day and night is from the sun, and it does go straight up and down (blue). This means that the part of the earth tilted towards the sun has more of its spin in the light, so a longer day.

The Arctic and Antarctic

In fact if you look right up the top you’ll see there’s a bit that spins all the way around completely in the light. And in the south there’s a bit that spins all the way around completely in the dark. They are the south and north polar regions, or the Antarctic and Arctic circles. They are the areas that have at least 24 hours of light or dark during the year, the poles themselves have 6 months of light and 6 months of dark – no wonder it gets so cold!  The photo at the top was taken in Antarctica at this time of year – it shows 3 photos of the sun coming up, at its highest and going down again.  You can see it only just makes it over the horizon for a few minutes.

The Tropics

There are three other imaginary lines going around the earth related to the way the sun moves. In the middle is the equator, it divides the earth into two equal halves. The other two are the Tropic of Capricorn in the south and the Tropic of Cancer in the north. They are found at 23.5 degrees north and south of the equator. Do you remember that number? It’s the same as the tilt of the earth’s axis and it is how far north and south the sun appears to travel. Today, the sun is 23.5 degrees north, directly overthe Tropic of Cancer. Everywhere in between the two lines of the Tropics is called the tropics and will have the sun directly overhead at some time in the year, which is why this is the warmest part of the earth.

Some activities to try:

  • For babies – in the south, be glad the sun isn’t getting up early to wake them up!  In the north, enjoy the lovely long days to run around outside.  Make them aware of day, night, the sun and moon and shadows pointing them out or making shadow puppets.
  • For toddlers – Watch the sun set (and if you’re really unlucky, rise) and go across the sky, pointing it out during the day and talking about how it moves.
    • Talk about the different seasons and the weather, especially  things like ‘It’s warm because it’s sunny.’  This is easy when they are getting dressed and could help to distract them 🙂
  • For preschoolers or younger children – Have them spin around standing next to a lamp and call out ‘day’ when they can see it and ‘night’ when they can’t.
    • Use a ball and lamp to explain that the sun doesn’t really move, it is the earth that spins.
    • Find where the sun sets and mark it by choosing a landmark.  Check it every week or so and see how it moves.
    • Make a simple sundial with a stick and mark the end of the shadow several times during the day, sidewalk chalk works well.  Then join the dots to make a smooth curve.  If you can keep a permanent record, do it every week or so and see how the curve moves.
    • Draw their shadow several times during the day standing on the same spot and talk about how it changes.  They are acting as their own sundial.
  • For older children – Use a foam ball on a skewer and a lamp to set up the picture shown and try it for yourselves.  It is much easier to understand if you draw all the lines on first.
    • Pretend you are living in Antarctica and it is dark for months – what do you do?  How do you keep warm and do everything you need to?  What is it like in December when it is light for months?
    • Find out about some of the cultural rituals associated with the solstices.

Do you do something for the Solstice?

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Marita June 21, 2010 at 7:07 pm

Lots of fun ideas 🙂 Thank you.


Pat June 23, 2010 at 3:01 pm

That is a great sunset shot! I liked the chalk outlines of shadows at different times of day, too…what a fun thing for kids to do.
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Ann-Marie November 29, 2010 at 3:25 pm

I wish I had seen this at Winter Solstice. Our family celebrate the Summer Solstice in Dec, rather than Christmas (mix of Pagans and Atheists). Would love to see what you’ll have for explaining the Summer side of Solstice in a few weeks time.


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