The Summer Solstice will occur this year on June 21 at 5:04 a.m. Universal Time. That's 12:04 a.m. for those of us in the Central Time Zone, or June 20 for those west of America's Central Time Zone. The summer solstice is a wonderful opportunity for bright kids to learn about all kinds of topics. Here are facts about the Summer Solstice and some activities for your kids that you can use to capitalize on the educational opportunities it presents.
1. Etymology The word "Solstice" comes from the Latin words for "sun" and "to stand still." The noontime elevation of the sun does not seem to change from day to day around the time of the solstice and thus why the sun is said to stand still. Have your twee look up the actual Latin words. (They are sol - sun and sistit - stands.) Discuss what other words in the English language have Latin roots. There are millions of them. Pick a few highlights, such as the fact that the Summer Solstice is an annual even, with annual coming from the Latin annum, meaning year.
2. Tropic Thunder. On the Summer Solstice, the sun reaches its most northern point. The sun is at a zenith, directly above the Tropic of Cancer. The Tropic of Cancer is at 23.5 degrees north latitude. Seize this opportunity to teach your tween about latitude, longitude and the Tropic of Cancer, Equator and Tropic of Cancer. Ask them what countries are along the Tropic of Cancer. (Answers include: Mexico, the Bahamas, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, India, and southern China)
3. Overhead lighting. From no point in the 48 continental United States can the sun appear directly overhead. Use a globe to show your tween where the Tropic of Cancer is for them to understand why the sun cannot be directly above.
4. Celebrations. Cultures around the world celebrate the Summer Solstice. Have your tween research Stonehenge. At the prehistoric monument in Wiltshire, England, the rising sun appears behind one main stones. It looks like the sun is balancing on the stone. You can also have your kids research the Bighorn Medicine Wheel in northern Wyoming which has stones that indicate the direction of the rising and setting sun during the summer solstice.
5. Seasons of change. The Summer Solstice marks the start of summer by the astronomical definition of seasons. Have your tween research the meteorological definition of summer. Meteorological and astronomical definitions are the two most commonly used definitions.
6. Calendars. The date of the Summer Solstice changes. This year is unique because it is a different date in different parts of the United States. The past few years have been June 21. In 2008, it was June 20. Ask your tween if he/she can determine why that is. (Answer: The reasons the date moves is that there is a discrepancy between the human calendar year of 365 days per year and the astronomical year, which is 265.25 days long.) The solstice can occur on June 20, 21, or 22.
7. Heat things up. If the sun is at it's zenith, talk with your tween about why June is not the hottest day of the year. The hottest day of the year often occurs
in late July. That is due to the fact that the atmosphere takes a while to warm up. You can explain it to your children with a demonstration in your kitchen sink, explained by Cornell astronomers here.
8. Superlatives Event. The Summer Solstice marks the day on which the sun appears above the horizon for the longest period of time, the day on which the sun reaches the highest point in the sky and the longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. Have your child guess the times of sunrise and sunset in your location and see how close he/she is.
9. Switch things up. The solstice is a great chance to explore the differences between the Northern and Southern Hempisheres. Does your tween understand why this event is the start of astronomical winter in the Southern Hemisphere. You can illustrate how lots of things are opposite in the other hemisphere with this video of a whirlpool of water swirling the opposite direction.
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Sources for the above facts:
Solstice Fast Facts on CNN.com
Summer Solstice on Factmonster.com
The summer solstice – and other interesting sun facts – explained by The Washington Post
Why isn't the summer solstice the hottest day of the year? by Ask an Astronomer at Cornell
The Summer Solstice by the National Weather Service Forecast Center