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Tornadoes, Hurricanes, and Lightning Hands-on STEAM Lesson Plan

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I am a Christian. I was an 8th-grade American History teacher. I am currently a freelance writer, public speaker, & homeschooling mom of 9.

Tornado in a bottle

Tornado in a bottle

This is part 4 of a 4 part hands-on unit study on Meteorology and Weather. Create tornadoes in a bottle, form a hurricane in a mixing bowl, produce lightning and thunder using pie plates and balloons, and more! My lessons are geared toward 2nd-3rd grade level children and their siblings. These are lessons I created to do with a weekly homeschool co-op. We meet each week for 2 1/2 hours and have 14 children between the ages of 1-13. Use these fun lessons with your classroom, family, after school program, camp, or co-op!


Introduction to Fronts

*Please bring a clear plastic bottle (water botter or 2L bottle) and markers for each of your children.*

1. Stretch. Pray. Discuss Job 36:29-32.

2. Review what we have learned about the relationship between clouds, rain, temperature and the weather.

3. Review what we learned about cold and warm fronts by again reading the section on cold fronts and warm fronts in “What Will the Weather Be Like?” by Lynda Dewitt. Talk about the symbols used for cold and warm fronts in weather forecasts by reading pp. 35-41 in “How’s the Weather?” by Melvin and Gilda Berger.

Book to Use for Activity 3

Book to Use for Activity 3

Weather Map

4. On your phone, computer, or TV, show the current weather on the Weather Channel or show the Current Surface Map on Try to guess what tomorrow’s weather will be like.

Image credit

Image credit

Miniature Cold Front

5. Divide the children into 3 groups and have a mom lead each group in making a miniature cold front.

  • Ask the children what they think will happen when milk is poured into warm water. Will they combine? Will the cold milk rise to the top? Will the warm water stay at the top? Have each child verbally state their hypothesis.
  • Fill a container 2/3 full with warm tap water. At one side of the container pour a small amount of milk (about 1/4 cup) into the water. Watch carefully. Note the shape and movement of the milk in the water. Ask the children, "What happened? Is that what you hypothesized would happen?" (The cold milk should sink and the warm water should rise.)
  • Dump out the liquid. Ask the children, "What will happen if we mix cold water with cold milk?" Have each child verbally state their hypothesis.
  • This time fill the container 2/3 full with cold tap water. Pour about 1/4 cup of milk into one side of the container. Watch carefully. Ask, "What happened? Is that what you hypothesized would happen?"
  • Ask the children the following questions:

    a. What differences did you see in the movement of the milk in the 2 experiments?

    b. Why did this happen?

    c. How did the cold milk simulate a cold front?

    d. How did the shape and movement of the cold front compare to the shape and movement of the cold milk?

    e. What conclusions can you make about cold fronts based on what you saw?

YOU WILL NEED:3 transparent containers (plastic shoe boxes or glass loaf pans), warm and cold water, & 3 cups of cold milk OR cold water colored with food dye

6. Bring the children back together and ask them what happened during the experiment we did with milk and the warm water. (The cold milk sank while the warm water rose.) Tell the children that this happened because of convection. The cold milk is like a cold air mass and the warm water is like a warm, unstable air mass. Do you know what happens when a cold air mass meets a warm air mass? The warm air is "shoved" upward by the cold air mass and that creates a thunderstorm!



7. Read book on thunderstorms: "Flash, Crash, Rumble, and Roll" by Franklyn Branley.

8. (If you are not limited by time) Make lightening.

  • Divide children into 2-3 groups (depending on how many room you have that can get dark) as it is much easier to see the electric sparks in the dark. We had each group do this demonstration in the bathroom. Have a mom lead each group. (Note: Try this out ahead of time. We could not get it to work on days that were particularly humid or rainy.)
  • Create a handle for the aluminum pie plate by using the thumbtack to punch a hole through the middle of the bottom of the pie plate. Push the thumbtack through the end of the pencil eraser. The pencil will act as a handle for the pie plate.
  • Let Child #1 rub the wool quickly and with some force across the bottom of the Styrofoam plate for about 1 minute.
  • If you are able to get the room dark, turn out the lights. Have Child #2 hold the aluminum pie plate by the pencil handle and quickly tap it against the Styrofoam plate. It should produce a spark.
  • Pass the wool to Child #3 and have him/her rub the wool across the Styrofoam plate for about a minute, and then have Child #4 touch the plate with the aluminum pie plate. Continue to let each child in the group have a turn at doing this.
  • Explain: As the children continue taking turns, ask them why they think this produces a spark of "lightening." As they rub the wool across the Styrofoam plate, they are actually rubbing electrons onto the plate. The Styrofoam plate isn't a good electric conductor, so it won't "accept" the electrons. The aluminum pie plate is a good conductor of electricity, so when it gets near enough to all those electrons sitting on the plate, they "jump" onto it, producing the spark that we saw.
  • This website explains it in this manner: "It's all about static electricity! Lightning happens when the negative charges (electrons) in the bottom of the cloud (and your finger) are attracted to the positive charges (protons) in the ground (and the pie pan). The resulting spark is like a mini-bolt of lightning. The accumulation of electric charges has to be great enough to overcome the insulating properties of air. When this happens, a stream of negative charges pours down towards a high point where positive charges have clustered due to the pull of the thunderhead. The connection is made and the protons rush up to meet the electrons. It is at that point that we see lightning. A bolt of lightning heats the air along its path causing it to expand rapidly. Thunder is the sound caused by rapidly expanding air."

YOU WILL NEED: 2-3 Styrofoam plates (or other form of Styrofoam), 2-3 thumbtacks, 2-3 pencils with erasers, 2-3 aluminum pie plates, & 2-3 small pieces of wool

Book to Read for Activity 8

Popping a balloon to show what causes thunder

Popping a balloon to show what causes thunder

Scroll to Continue


8. Demonstrate what causes thunder. Have children add heat and pressure to the air inside a blown-up balloon by sitting on the balloon and bouncing on it a few times until it pops. What did they hear when their balloons popped? Thunder (kind of)! Explanation: Thunder is caused by a small amount of air moving fast. When a flash of lightening passes through the atmosphere, it heats up the nearby air and causes all the individual air molecules to move around quickly. This movement causes that huge boom. A short crash of thunder results from a short flash of lightening. Rumbling thunder occurs when lightening covers a large areas or when clouds or mountains cause echoes.

YOU WILL NEED: a blown-up balloon for each child


9. Show pictures from a book on tornadoes and quickly discuss what causes them. We used "Tornadoes!" by Lorraine Jean.

Tornado in a bottle

Tornado in a bottle


10. Make a tornado in a bottle:

  • Fill a plastic bottle 3/4 full of water. If desired, add about a teaspoon of dish-washing detergent, glitter, and food coloring. Put the lid on the bottle and shake it vigorously for about 20 seconds. Turn it upside-down and give the bottle a good twist. A funnel shape should form. It may a few attempts to twirl the water fast enough.
  • As children work on forming tornadoes, explain the "recipe" for a tornado as provided by this scholastic website.


    In order to form a tornado, you need three very different types of air to come together in a special way:

    * Near the ground you need a layer of warm, humid air & strong south winds. In the upper atmosphere, you need colder air and strong west or southwest winds. The air near the surface is much less dense than the cold, dry air up the sky. Meteorologists call this instability. If the warm, moist air is given an initial push to move upwards, the air will keep on rising, sending moisture and energy to form a thunderstorm that can produce a tornado.

    *The next ingredient you need is a change in the wind speed & direction with height. Meteorologists call that wind shear. This helps the air rotate around in a circular direction just like you're doing with the water in your bottles.

    *The last ingredient you need is a layer of hot, dry air between the upper &lower layers. This middle layer acts like a blanket & allows the warm air underneath it to get even warmer. What happens when air molecules heat up? They get "excited" and make the atmosphere even less stable.

    *"When a storm system high in the atmosphere moves east and begins to lift the layers, it begins to build severe thunderstorms that spawn tornadoes. As it lifts it removes the [blanket], setting the stage for explosive thunderstorms to develop as strong updrafts form. If the rising air encounters wind shear, it may cause the updraft to begin rotating, and a tornado is born."

(Note: At home I tried to make a "tornado in a bottle" with two 2L bottles, one on top of the other. We filled one bottle with water and placed the other bottle on top of that bottle. We added duct tape to the mouths of the bottles to hold them together in place. It took lots of work to get the bottles perfectly placed so that they wouldn't leak. If you have extra time and patience, you can try the 2 bottle method. The 1 bottle method does work, though, and is much easier to put together.)

YOU WILL NEED: dishwashing liquid, food coloring, Optional: glitter & food coloring


11. Read a book on hurricanes: "The Magic School Bus Inside a Hurricane" by Joanna Cole.

Book to Read for Activity 13

Hurricane Winds Demo

Hurricane Winds Demo

12. Demonstrate the eye of a hurricane by having the children partner up with one other child, hold hands and spin around in a circle. Ask, "Did you feel how you each seemed to try to pull away from each other?" The faster you whirl around, the stronger the pull was. This is called centrifugal force. Have everyone say, "centrifugal force." Centrifugal force is the force that pulls an object outward when moving in a circle. In the same way the winds of a hurricane tend to pull away from the center as their speed increases. When the winds move fast enough, a hole develops in the center - the mark of a full-fledged hurricane.

13. Divide children into 4 groups and have a mother lead each group. Show the spiral bands of hurricane by putting a few drops of food coloring in a large mixing bowl of water. Let the children take turns stirring the water as fast as they can. While a child is stirring the water, dip a paper clip held by a string into various places in the swirling bowl to see where the "winds" are the fastest. Ask the children what they noticed about where the speed of the water was the fastest. (Just outside the center of the bowl = outside the eye wall of a hurricane.)

YOU WILL NEED: 4 large mixing bowls, food coloring, 4 mixing spoons, 4 strings with a small paper clip attached to each string

Review & Homework

14. Come together and discuss what we learned about fronts, lightning and thunder, tornadoes and hurricanes. (5 Minute Review of what we learned.)

15. Optional Homework: Create “Weather Recipe” booklets using pp.39 & 41 from “Considering God’s Creation” by Mortimer and Smith.

Material List for the Lesson

Material List for the Lesson
*Everyone needs to bring per child:
- a clear plastic bottle (water bottle or 2-L bottle) filled 3/4 full with water

*Items to be assigned to individuals:
-book on weather fronts such as "How's the Weather?" by Melvin and Gilda Berger
-book on thunder & lightening such as "Flash, Crash, Rumble, and Roll" by Franklyn Branley
-book on tornadoes such as "Tornadoes!" by Lorraine Jean
-book on hurricanes such as "The Magic School Bus Inside a Hurricane" by Joanna Cole
-2 transparent containers (such as plastic shoe boxes or glass loaf pans)
-a container to use to heat up water (saucepan for stove or liquid measuring cup for microwave)
-a container to hold cold water
-a box of food dye/coloring (the kind that has 4 small plastic squeeze bottles)
-2 Styrofoam plates
-2 metal thumbtacks
-2 pencils with erasers
-2 aluminum pie plates (must be aluminum)
-2 pieces of wool (such as a wool sweater or blanket) (must be wool)
-a blown-up balloon for each child plus a couple extra in case they pop (just regular balloons – not helium balloons)
-dishwashing liquid
-4 large mixing bowls & 4 mixing spoons
-3 strings (each about 12 inches long) with a small paper clip attached to each string
-1 hurricane tracking map per child (optional)

More Great Picture Books on Thunderstorms

We also enjoyed the picture books Rumble, Boom!: A Book About Thunderstorms (Amazing Science: Weather) by Rick Thomas and Nature's Fireworks: A Book About Lightning (Amazing Science: Weather) by Josepha Sherman. A Party for Clouds: Thunderstorms (Bel the Weather Girl) by Belinda Jensen is good if you have a young child who is afraid of thunderstorms.

More Great Picture Books on Tornadoes

Twisters: A Book About Tornadoes (Amazing Science: Weather) by Rick Thomas would also make a great read aloud option as it has nice illustrations and good text. Tornado Alert (Let's-Read-and-Find-Out Science 2) by Franklyn M. Branley has good illustrations. My children enjoyed other books on tornadoes and twisters better, but they still enjoyed this book. Tornadoes & Superstorms (Graphic Natural Disasters) by Gary Jeffrey was my boys' favorite book on tornadoes as it discusses historical tornadoes in a comic book format.

Thunderstorms 101 by National Geographic

Hurricanes 101 | National Geographic

Tornado scene in Wizard of Oz

Tornado in Kansas

How do tornadoes form? - James Spann

Tornado in a Bottle activity from Lesson 4: Tornadoes, Hurricanes, and Lightening Lesson

Tornado in a Bottle activity from Lesson 4: Tornadoes, Hurricanes, and Lightening Lesson

Make tornadoes and clouds in a bottle, create and use rain gauges, dramatize a storm front, design and eat clouds, race against prevailing winds, and more during this exciting 4 part unit study on weather and meteorology!

  • Sun, Seasons, and Weather Lesson - This is part 1 of a 4 part hands-on unit study on Meteorology and Weather. Conduct experiments and demonstrations on how the sun, soil, and water affect the seasons and weather, dramatize the Earth's revolutions around the sun, and more!
  • Wind and Air Pressure Lesson - This is part 2 of a 4 part hands-on unit study on Meteorology and Weather. Make weather vanes and barometers, act out high and low pressure, blow up a balloon and collapse a can using hot water, make and eat prevailing winds, and more!
  • Clouds and Precipitation Lesson - This is part 3 of a 4 part hands-on unit study on Meteorology and Weather. Make clouds in a bottle, create rain, build rain gauges, form and eat clouds, and more!
  • Tornadoes, Hurricanes, and Lightning Lesson - This is part 4 of a 4 part hands-on unit study on Meteorology and Weather. Create tornadoes in a bottle, form a hurricane in a mixing bowl, produce lightning and thunder using pie plates and balloons, and more!
  • Weather Unit Presentations and Field Trips - This is the culminating activity for our 4 part hands-on unit on Meteorology and Weather. The children presented art projects, lapbooks, and weather experiments they created or performed during the unit. Afterward we had a weather-themed lunch. Recipes are included. Also included is where we went for field trips during this unit.
Konos Volume II

Konos Volume II

Konos Curriculum

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Konos Curriculum

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Konos Home School Mentor

If you're new to homeschooling or in need of some fresh guidance, I highly recommend Konos' program! Watch videos on-line of what to do each day and how to teach it in this great hands-on format!

© 2011 Shannon

What do you find most fascinating about storms? - Or just leave me a note. I LOVE getting feedback from you!

Will on March 07, 2020:

I find the content to be outstanding and quite educational, filled with some fun activities. My only criticism, and only because this is an educational page, is that you spelled lightning wrong each time. Lightening is something you do to take away the darkness of something. Lightning is the electrical charge from a storm. Still, I will be attempting they lightning experiments with my childcare class, so thank you for the ideas.

loki1982 lm on May 16, 2012:

Awesome lens. Very informative

Nancy Tate Hellams from Pendleton, SC on April 13, 2012:

Thank you for sharing this great information on Tornadoes, Hurricanes and Lightning. This is a great resource for teachers.

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