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Exploring clouds: An introduction

by Barbara Langham


When I looked out the window, I couldn’t see the ground anymore,” Ryan says. “There were clouds all around.”

“Could you touch them?” Carly asks.

“No, silly. You can’t open airplane windows,” Ryan says.

“How do you know they were clouds?” asks Damian.

“My mom said so,” Ryan answers. “They were white, and we went right through them, like smoke.”

Ms. Banks, who is listening nearby, observes the children’s envy and curiosity as Ryan describes his first flight on an airplane. She notices in particular their fascination with clouds. This would make a great curriculum unit, she thinks.


What are clouds?
People have observed clouds and wondered about them for hundreds of years. Around 650 B.C. the Babylonians predicted weather based partly on clouds, and around 340 B.C., Aristotle wrote a treatise on his theories about clouds, rain, wind, and other weather phenomena.

But it wasn’t until 1802 that an English pharmacist, Luke Howard, classified clouds into types. Clouds that look like feathers or wisps of hair are cirrus clouds. Those that look like puffy cotton balls are cumulus clouds. Those that cover the sky like a bed sheet or comforter are stratus clouds. Howard also observed combinations of types, such as cirro-cumulus, cirro-stratus, and cumulo-stratus. He identified yet another combination, cumulo-cirro-stratus, or nimbus, dark, billowing clouds that bring rain often with thunder and lightning. Sometimes a cloud floats on the ground. This is a stratus cloud that we call fog. If you live near an airport or military base, you may see contrails (short for condensation trails), long, thin clouds that may form behind flying aircraft.

Identifying clouds is rarely so clear-cut, however, as you will discover in reviewing books and Internet sites. Some authors offer more combinations (altostratocumulus, for example) and unusual shapes—such as lenticular (like a flying saucer) and mammatus (like tennis balls). Often the sky contains several types of clouds at once.

Since the 1800s, scientists have studied clouds more thoroughly, especially as they affect weather. Today we know that a cloud is a collection of water drops or ice crystals floating in the sky. Actually the sky can be full of water, but the water droplets may be too small to see because they are in the form of a gas called water vapor.

Clouds form when water vapor in warm air rises into the cooler air above, condensing the vapor into tiny water droplets. The droplets get bigger and bigger, forming clouds. When the droplets get big enough, gravity pulls them to the ground as rain. When sunlight shines through raindrops, we may see a rainbow.

In the winter when the temperature is freezing, the rain may fall as sleet or snow. By contrast, in warm weather during thunderstorms, updrafts of air can lift raindrops into higher, cooler air and form ice crystals, or hail. In addition to producing rain, snow, and hail, clouds can affect our temperature. At night, clouds reflect heat and keep us warmer. During the day, clouds make shade that can keep us cooler. When almost all the sky is covered with clouds, we say the sky is overcast.

Ordinarily, the sky is blue. That’s because the sunlight hits air molecules and scatters light energy or waves in all directions. Because blue light waves are shorter and smaller than other color waves (red, orange, yellow, green), more blue light gets scattered, and that’s what we see. The sky is black at night because there’s no sunlight.


Clouds in art
Many artists have observed and studied clouds. British artist John Constable, for example, painted several cloud studies in the early 1800s. Later in the century French impressionists sometimes included clouds in their landscapes, notably Claude Monet in his Field of Poppies and The Beach at Sante-Adresse.

A number of American painters celebrated the natural beauty of the sky and land, including Frederick Edwin Church in Twilight in the Wilderness and Albert Bierstadt in Garden of the Rockies. Georgia O’Keefe painted clouds in her desert landscapes, such as Summer Day, as well as her more abstract Sky Above the Clouds series, her interpretation of clouds seen from an airplane.

American photographers also captured clouds in their landscapes. One of the most famous, Ansel Adams, shot clouds in the West, such as Mount McKinley Range Clouds. Another, Kelly DeLay, shot photos of clouds every day for 1,825 days (beginning July 1, 2009) in his Cloud 365 project. The result was an amazing view of Mother Nature’s splendor.


Help children learn about clouds
On a series of days while children are outdoors, invite them to observe clouds. Infants and toddlers will enjoy simply lying on their backs on a blanket and talking about the white shapes in the sky. Older children can take a few minutes from play and think about questions such as the following:
What do you see in the sky?
What colors do you see in the clouds?
What would clouds feel like if you could touch them?
Are the clouds moving? Why?
What do clouds look like? Maybe animals or objects?
If you could be a cloud, what shape would you be?

Encourage children to dictate their observations and thoughts to you, as you write on paper or an electronic notepad. As children show interest, provide additional activities for learning, such as the ones below.


Clouds at group time
A good book to introduce clouds to children is Clouds by Anne Rockwell. The illustrations by Frané Lessac show the different cloud types and what kind of weather they indicate. As you read and discuss clouds, remember that the goal is to help your preschoolers begin to recognize differences, not to memorize names of cloud shapes.


Take photographs
Here’s what you need:
smartphone or digital camera
index cards or cardboard


1. Explain to children that they will go outdoors and take pictures of clouds. Encourage them to be safe and courteous:

  • Avoid looking directly at the sun because of possible damage to the eyes.
  • Take turns using the smartphone or camera.

2. Have children write their names on an index card or cardboard and take it outdoors with them.
3. Divide children into small groups and give each group a smartphone or camera. Each child will first photograph his or her name (for identification later) and then photograph clouds. You may need to set a limit, such as four photos or three minutes for each child’s turn.
4. Back indoors, transfer the photographs to a computer. Invite children to compare their photos. They might compare the angles they chose, the cloud shapes and colors, and the changes in the clouds that occurred from the first child’s photo to the last.
5. If possible, print out the photos on a color printer for children to post in the room or share with their families.

Variation: With school-age children, suggest they identify compass directions (north, east, south, and west) and photograph clouds from each of the four directions.


Find images of clouds
In the science center, display images of clouds from books and the Internet that children can peruse on their own.

Books you may find in a public library or bookstore:
Clouds, by Anne Rockwell. New York: Harper Collins, 2008.
Clouds, by Valerie Bodden. Mankato, Minn.: Creative Education, 2012.
The Book of Clouds, by John A. Day. New York: Silver Lining Books, 2003.
Peterson First Guides: Clouds and Weather, by John A. Day and Vincent J. Schaefer. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1991.

Weather-related images online:

Images of clouds in art:
Website of artist John Constable,
Website of the National Earth Science Teachers Association,

Time-lapse videos of clouds: