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Explaining Gravity to Kids
At first blush, gravity seems like a simple enough concept to explain, but the plot thickens when you consider that no one knows what it actually is. Scientists know enough about it to satisfy a child's curiosity, however, and you can convey this knowledge in simple terms without resorting to explanations on the level of "the Earth sucks." It helps to appeal to personal experience as well as to innate curiosity about the cosmos.
Objects Fall at the Same Speeds
Your child may have noticed that some heavy things fall faster than light ones, so explaining that, actually, everything falls at the same speed should be an attention getter. Gravity depends on mass, but the mass of the earth is so big that masses of smaller objects don't matter. It's air resistance that slows down fluffy things, such as feathers. You can illustrate this by dropping two dense round objects with obviously different masses, such as a marble and a softball, from a second story window and having the child verify that they hit the ground at the same time. Prepare for a look of disbelief when you explain that, in the absence of air, a feather would fall just as fast.
Distinguishing Mass and Weight
After having convinced the young scientist that objects fall at the same rate, it's a good time to clarify that, even though acceleration due to gravity is constant, the gravitational force on each object is different. That force is a product of the acceleration due to gravity and the object's mass, and we call this force the object's weight. Weight and mass aren't the same things, although by convention we use units of mass to measure weight. Mass is the amount of matter an object contains, while weight is a measure of the force of gravitation on the object. If you were on the moon, your mass would be the same, but you would weigh less.
The Effect of Gravity on Planets
Drawing the child's attention to a picture of stars or planets, explain that the gravitational force is universal, which means it affects everything, and that it's the force that keeps planets orbiting around each other. The gravitational force between two bodies strengthens when the mass of either one increases, or when they get closer together. In mathematical terms, the gravitational force between two bodies varies directly with mass and inversely with the square of the distance between two bodies. Gravity is like a string connecting two bodies and keeping them together; if they get too close, gravity forces them to collide, and they may stick together. That's how planets are formed.
OK, So What Exactly Is Gravity?
The time will come to disclose the nature of this mysterious attraction that everything in the universe has for everything else, but alas, the answer isn't straightforward. It may result from the curvature in the fabric of space-time that every body creates by virtue of its mass, or it may be caused by the exchange of fundamental particles as yet undetected, called gravitons. Whatever causes it, gravity is extremely weak compared to other fundamental forces, such as the electromagnetic force. To illustrate this, simply pick up a paperclip with a magnet to illustrate that the magnetic force in the tiny magnet is stronger than the gravitational attraction of the entire earth.