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Essential Science for Teachers: Physical Science

Heat and Temperature Children’s Ideas About Heat and Temperature

Children’s Ideas About Heat and Temperature

Below are common ideas children in grades K-6 have about this topic, compiled from research on children’s ideas about science. Consider what evidence might refute this idea, and why a child would be likely to believe this? Once you’ve entered all your answers you can click “printable page” at the bottom of this form to print your answers. You can also click “see possible response” for any question to see one possible response from the series content advisors.

1. Heat is a substance that flows in and out of objects.

Interestingly, research on children’s thinking shows that many children have the same “caloric” view of heat that many eighteenth-century scientists (like Lavoisier) had. In the Science Studio, Lydia rethought her idea that heat is matter when she was asked if it had weight and took up space. As stated in the video, heat is the transfer of energy between different temperatures of matter.

2. Cold, like heat, is a property of some substances.

Researchers have also shown that children sometimes think of cold as a property of a certain substance, perhaps because certain materials, including metals, always feel cold to the touch, even at room temperature. Simply put, cold is the feeling that we get when heat is transferred away from our skin.

3. Heat and temperature are the same thing.

In elementary grades, many children have not yet fully grasped the abstract concepts of energy and particles. As we’ve said elsewhere, scientific language is more precise than everyday language, which often blurs the distinction between heat and temperature. As stated in the video, heat is simply a transfer of energy from faster-moving particles to slower-moving ones; temperature is a measure of the average motion of particles.

4. When something is hot or warm, there are more atoms in it, making it heavier.

Probably from their experiences children often have the impression that the hotter something is, the more “stuff” it has — for example, they might have observed that a room full of people generate a lot of heat. They also may think that the expansion of matter is due to the expansion of particles, rather than an increase in the size of the spaces between the particles. While adding heat to matter increases its volume, the principle of conservation of mass states that the amount of matter remains constant. Hence, as Lydia discovers in the video, when heat was added to the thermometer, the volume and density (mass/volume) of the red liquid changed, but the weight stayed the same.

5. If you add more ice to ice water, the temperature will continue to lower and, if you continue to add heat to boiling water, the temperature will continue to rise.

Children don’t often have direct experience with measuring the temperature in these two situations. No matter how much ice is added to ice water, it can’t get any colder than freezing and, when water reaches its boiling point, it turns into water vapor, leaving the remaining water at a constant temperature.

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Essential Science for Teachers: Physical Science


Produced by Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. 2004.
  • Closed Captioning
  • ISBN: 1-57680-749-5