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What Is Lightning? How to Explain Lightning to Children

Punctuation & grammar, when wrong, are huge pet peeves of mine. I enjoy sharing my knowledge on this and a number of other topics.

I just got home from a half hour drive through a torrential downpour with lots of clapping thunder and some awesome lightning.  My kids, however (three- and five-years-old) didn’t think it so awesome!  This type of storm is not uncommon this time of year here in South Florida, but it is a relatively new phenomenon to my kids and my husband because we moved here just a year and a half ago from sunny Southern California.  I, although in California for many years, was pretty much raised here so I’m used to thunderstorms.

If you’re a parent, you can probably relate to the barrage of questions that were forthcoming during the storm, like “What is thunder?” and “How is lightning made?” 

I took this picture during the storm I describe here - no, not while driving; I was at a red light!  The picture really doesn't do it justice at all...but I was proud of myself for actually catching one with the camera!

I took this picture during the storm I describe here - no, not while driving; I was at a red light! The picture really doesn't do it justice at all...but I was proud of myself for actually catching one with the camera!

Well, I answered the best that I could of at the moment, which is what I was told by my parents when I was younger: “thunder is just the clouds bumping into each other; no big deal and nothing to be scared of” but I really couldn’t answer the lightning questions other than to reassure them that we were safe from it in the car and that we would close the garage door after we park the car and before we exit the car so that there would be no chance of lightning striking them on their way out of the car (their fear.) I also knew enough to tell them that lightning was electricity. But that was it. They accepted it for what it was, but I was not satisfied.

Since I was not satisfied and felt I should be able to calm their fears better (although their being afraid of lightning is a valid fear and perhaps one they should keep!) by explaining better what it is. So off I went into cyberspace to find a kid-appropriate answer to lightning and lightning protection…

I found a lot of very interesting and fascinating information, which I will summarize here.  I’m no scientist so I’ll keep it simple, especially since my primary focus was to be able to tell my kids what lightning is in a way that they can at least slightly understand. There are also some great lightning tips that anyone, especially parents, should be aware of. 

U.S. Lightning strikes up to the minute - at the time I wrote this hub.

U.S. Lightning strikes up to the minute - at the time I wrote this hub.

Did You Know?

Lightning helps nature by infusing the earth with nitrogen, which plants use.

Lightning Facts

  • According to the National Weather Service (NWS), fifty eight people on average are killed and hundreds are injured by lightning each year in the United States. An estimated twenty-five million lightning flashes occur each year (thousands a day). There have been eight lightning deaths so far this year (2010). Lightning is a serious danger and you could be at risk even when you think you’re safe; keep reading to find out what I mean by that.
  • Simple explanation for kids: Lightning is a big charge of electricity that strikes from clouds to other clouds or to the ground. Lightning can start fires and can seriously hurt or kill people.
  • Lightning can strike as far as ten miles from the area where it’s raining, some say it can even strike fifteen or more miles. Basically, if you can hear thunder then you are within lightning striking distance. Below I’ll tell you how you can tell how far away it is.
  • Although lightning strikes year round, most lightning deaths occur in the summertime. Perhaps this is because so many outdoor activities take place during this time of year. Also, because thunderstorms are just more likely to develop during the spring and summer months.
  • Lightning kills more people in open fields than any other outdoor place, so remember this when participating in or attending outdoor sporting events.
  • The second most deadly place is under a tree.
  • Dry lightning can strike from a cloud that’s not even making rain; forest fires are often started from dry lightning because there’s no accompanying rain to stop a fire from spreading.
These cows were killed when lightning struck the metal wire fence that they were standing at.  How sad.

These cows were killed when lightning struck the metal wire fence that they were standing at. How sad.

Lightning Safety Tips

  • I like this quote from the NWS: “When thunder roars, go indoors!”
  • Watch for developing thunderstorms and if you hear thunder, seek shelter immediately – at the first roar.
  • The best way to be safe is to not put you or your family or friends in danger in the first place; pay attention to the weather reports on the TV, radio, or online weather source so you know what to expect and have a plan.
  • A large building or enclosed (metal-topped, that means NOT convertible) vehicles (make sure the windows are up all the way) are both safe places to be.
  • When indoors, stay away from plumbing which can conduct electricity from lightning strikes outside your home to you. The same goes for electronic equipment, especially things like games that have electronic equipment with handsets, joysticks, or headphones that are connected by wiring to your TV or computer.
  • As a last resort, if you cannot get to a building or vehicle, stay low and stay away from trees or anything tall, and anything that is conducive to electricity, like metal fences (see cow picture above), water, utility lines. Remember this, though – you are never safe from lightning outdoors.
  • Corded telephones, computers, and other electronic equipment put you in direct contact with electricity, so stay away and off of these during a storm. Cell phones and cordless phones are safe to use.
  • Stay away from metal windows; many of them have metal frames that can conduct electricity.
  • Always wait at least thirty minutes after the last roar of thunder before going outside.
  • If someone near you is struck by lightning, seek help (call 9-1-1) immediately and know that a lightning strike victim is safe to touch; they don’t carry an electrical charge. If given the proper first aid immediately, a lightning strike victim can survive.

Flash to Bang

Flash to bang is the method used to tell how far away lightning is; you count the seconds from the lightning “flash” to the “bang” of thunder. Every five seconds between the two equals one mile, so if you count fifteen seconds between the thunder and lightning that means it is three miles away.

Within six miles is considered the high danger zone, but remember lightning can strike up to ten or more miles away from a storm. That being said, you could be standing outside with blue sky over you, the sun shining, and no sign of rain close by and still get struck by lightning because of how far it can travel and strike away from a storm.

I’ll end this by reiterating what you all should remember for lightning safety:


This is my 200th hub and I'm so happy that it is one that has taught me and my family something new; I love learning new and fascinating things and this was a great hub to write about.

Check out this cool video of lightning in slow motion -


Lily Rose (author) from A Coast on December 15, 2013:

lily - I think that if you actually read this hub you would realize that it not only is meant to be educational, but also to say that lightning is a very interesting, fascinating, and, yes, AWESOME phenomenon. That in no way should be taken to mean that the fact that people get killed by it is awesome. I am sorry about the loss of your uncle and that you had to witness it and get hurt as well by the lightning, but perhaps you should become more familiar with the term 'awesome phenomenon.'

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Lily Rose (author) from A Coast on June 29, 2010:

Thanks, Money! Yeah, it was funny, I was at 99 last night and when I refreshed the page it suddenly went up!

This hub was actually one of my favorites to write as I found it fascinating and learned a lot, too!

Money Glitch from Texas on June 29, 2010:

Wow, never knew lightning could strike ten miles away from rain. That info and the entire hub was very educational for me. Hey congrats on the 100 overall Hubber score. You go, girl! :) Rating the hub score up too! :)

Lily Rose (author) from A Coast on June 28, 2010:

If you've got lightning going on - get off your computer - now! ;)

Hubbin4V12 on June 28, 2010:

thanks for the insight, its actually storming where i live now..keep up the awesome hubs!

Lily Rose (author) from A Coast on June 23, 2010:

I'm so sorry that your grandmother met with such a fate! I agree with you and I love lightning storms, too - I find them fascinating and I always feel challenged to capture a picture of one! I do prefer for them to occur when I'm home, however!

Thanks for visiting, Cari.

Cari Jean from Bismarck, ND on June 23, 2010:

Great hub! Although I know they are dangerous, I love lightning storms. My great-grandmother actually died from being struck by lightning. Thanks for all this great information - I will keep in mind the flash to bang method during our next storm!

Lily Rose (author) from A Coast on June 21, 2010:

You're welcome, BPop, thanks for stopping by!

Equealla - The hair standing up for a couple of days part is kinda funny! I, too, am fascinated by watching the storms. My husband and I usually like to sit at our bedroom window and watch, but I know now that that's not a very good spot to do it (metal window frames)!

equealla from Pretoria, South Africa on June 21, 2010:

Very informative, all in a nutshell. Thank you for putting loose ends together. Makes it a lot easier to explain to kids, especially, that way.

I've seen a couple of people, in my lifetime, that has been struck by lightning. Their hair stands up in the air for a couple of days. This is not a cartoon image, it is real.

I love lightning, and usually go sit in a safe place, just watching the storm raging. Fascinating!

breakfastpop on June 21, 2010:

Thanks for the info. When I am asked I will know what to say,

Lily Rose (author) from A Coast on June 21, 2010:

Having grown up mostly in South Florida, then living in San Diego for 11 years where it rarely rains, let alone ever has thunderstorms, I really missed them. Hate it if I'm out, but when I'm home and have no plans I love a good storm. Except when it knocks out the elctricity and I can't get on the internet - LOL!

Hello, hello, from London, UK on June 21, 2010:

I am the biggest coward when there is a thunderstorm.

Holle Abee from Georgia on June 21, 2010:

great info! I hate lightning!

suziecat7 from Asheville, NC on June 20, 2010:

Weather is always so interesting. Thanks for this informational Hub.

Lily Rose (author) from A Coast on June 20, 2010:

Thank you! I truly enjoyed writing this one and all of the education I received along the way.

billyaustindillon on June 20, 2010:

A great resource for lightening - I will definitely bookmark this site for when I have to explain the same question to my boys.

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