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Sun up, Sun down: A classic explored

by Louise Parks


Exceptional non-fiction books for young children are a rare commodity. If there are too many facts, the children are lost and disinterested; too few, and the subject becomes hazy and accuracy is lost in simplification.

In Sun up, Sun down (1983) Gail Gibbons offers a non-fiction classic—earth science presented accurately and appropriate for a preschool audience. It’s a book that can be read again and again with pleasure, and it’s accessible across ages—adults don’t tire of the text. The facts invite conversation, observation, investigation, and discovery. And the illustrations are clear, engaging, and informative.

Sun up, Sun down is a simple picture book that can be enjoyed for its language and illustrations as much as any fictional story. It follows a young girl from sunrise, through a sunny day marked by a sudden rain shower, to sundown and bed.

On a deeper level however, it’s a preschool earth science text. Across every spread, young readers are invited to dig a little deeper into earth science, math, and physics—making sophisticated concepts tangible through hands-on activities. Explore these and develop more activities of your own.

And always look at the best of children’s literature for opportunities to broaden concepts and stoke new ideas for investigation and discovery.


Cardinal directions and the compass
Every 24 hours, the Earth rotates or spins around its axis, an imaginary line that runs from the North Pole to the South Pole. The Earth rotates from west to east, making it appear that the sun and moon are moving from east to west across the sky. Thus we see the sun rise in the eastern sky in the morning and set in the western sky at the end of day. The rotation and the poles give us the four cardinal directions—north, east, south, and west.

A compass is an ancient tool used for navigation and orientation that indicates a geographic place in space relative to the cardinal directions. The diagram behind the compass needle is referred to as the compass rose marking N, E, S, and W for the four directions, looking much like an old clock face with N at 12 o’clock, E at 3 o’clock, and so on. Like a clock, small marks designate 360 degrees—the directions between the cardinal directions like NE and NNE.

As children learn directionality (in addition to left and right), plan to introduce a simple modern compass. Many are available on the market, but beware of buying a toy rather than an authentic tool. Note the parts: A base plate with an etched or painted direction line, a rotating dial indicating the cardinal directions and the degrees between, and a floating magnetic needle painted on one end. When the red needle is aligned to N and you’re holding the compass in front of your body, you are facing north. East is at your right, south behind you, and west to your left.

Play with the compass before you introduce the tool to children. In which direction does your kitchen window face? In which direction do you turn out of the grocery to get home?

Share a large map of the United States with a small group of children. Note the compass rose on the map and use it to identify the cardinal directions—Minnesota is in the north, Virginia in the east, Texas in the south, and Oregon in the west. Mark a place on the map with one finger and ask a child to point to another locale. If my finger is on Texas and I’m traveling toward the child’s finger on Mississippi, I’m traveling east. Make this a game, with children surrounding the map on the floor. Encourage them to plan trips from one place to another. Knowing the names of the states isn’t the object. Instead, it’s helping children understand that moving from one place to another involves moving in a direction.

Let children experiment with moving and watching the floating needle move. Note their observations. When they are ready to learn why the compass needle moves as it does, revisit Sun up, Sun down. Talk about the cardinal directions—the sun rises and shines through the girl’s east-facing window. Talk with the children about how this tool helps us understand directionality—the location of a geographic object in relationship to the four cardinal directions.

With the compass as a tool, orient the group to the north and show how the compass needle faces north. Ask the children to point east and check the compass to verify. Use the compass indoors (asking, for example, the direction of the art center, the hall, or cubbies) and outdoors (asking the direction of the teacher parking lot, the sand box, and the class garden). Or play a game with directions like “Take three steps to the south,” or “Gallop to the north fence on the playground.” Remember to always orient the compass to north before using it to identify directions.


Sun up, Sun down invites an exploration of light—bright and dim—and of the shadows created when an object comes between a light source and a surface.


Explore sunscreen
Help children understand that while the sun is essential to life, its light is so bright it’s dangerous to skin and eyes. You probably encourage the use of sunscreen in the summer but it’s just as important in cooler months—the sunlight is just as damaging even if it feels less hot.

The sun emits three kinds of ultra violet (UV) radiation: UVA, UVB, and UVC. The first two burn and damage the skin; the third is absorbed by the Earth’s ozone layer. Sunscreens contain ingredients that protect the skin from the sun, either chemically or by providing a physical barrier (as in zinc oxide or titanium oxide) that reflects the radiation.

This simple activity shows how effective sunscreen can be. Introduce the activity by asking what the children already know about sunscreen and how it works.


Here’s what you need:
dark construction paper
black markers
sunscreen spray


1. Give each child a sheet of dark-colored construction paper. Ask that the children write their names (always accepting their best efforts) on the backs of their papers.
2. Show them how to draw a straight line dividing the paper in half. Ask them to put one hand on each side of the line—one hand with sunscreen and one without.
3. Ask the children in the group to lift their right hands. Spray sunscreen on their right hands and ask that they blot their hands on the right side of the divided paper. Ask them to press their clean left hands onto the left side of the line.
4. Encourage the children to describe the wet right side. It may be oily or greasy depending on the sunscreen you use.
5. Invite each child to bring their papers out to the playground. Place the papers in a sunny spot and observe them over time, morning and afternoon. Over the course of the day, the sun will bleach the color from the paper. The side without sunscreen will bleach uniformly, and the handprint with sunscreen will be visible on the paper and the original color of the paper will be clear.
6. Reflect and question children about what they understand about how sunscreen protects the skin.


Eye shades
Just as the sun can damage the skin, so can it damage the eyes. We often see warnings at the time of a solar eclipse but tend to ignore potential eye damage otherwise. Sunglasses protect the eyes from the UV rays that can contribute to cataracts in later life. Not just a fashion accessory, sunglasses and broad brimmed hats are valuable in protecting the eyes.

Gather a collection of donated sunglasses and invite children to arrange them according to the color of the lens in each. Typically, the darker the lens, the more protection provided. Ask to borrow a welder’s mask that is made with an exceptionally dark lens, shade 12 on the darkness scale. Encourage children to talk about how the shades impact what they see.


Light sources
We access and use light from both direct and indirect natural sources—the sun, fire, flashlights, and lamps. The quality of light differs in each; the immediate dangers vary too.

Help children explore light and discover the tools that make life easier. Talk about fire and how we access it—turning on a stove, flicking a match, or lighting a candle, for example. Note that all fires require three essential ingredients: heat, fuel, and air in the right combination. Heat (from a lightning strike, intense friction, or a smoldering match) must be in contact with fuel (a flammable material like dry lumber) that is fed by air (typically oxygen), for example.

Print color photos of fires—leaves burning, a forest fire, a candle, a campfire, for example, and encourage children to identify the fuel in each. Talk about why a fuel like a leaf or a log can’t create fire on its own. Even the sun, hot though it is, cannot cause a fire in the absence of fuel and air. Talk too about how we extinguish a fire by removing one of the three ingredients. For example, a kitchen fire extinguisher uses foam to block the oxygen a fire needs to keep burning. Similarly, the fire safety direction to “Stop, Drop, and Roll,” stops the flow of oxygen and helps extinguish the fire.

Ancient societies used fire for light, to stay warm, and to cook food. We do the same today though not usually with an open flame. Instead we channel natural energy into indirect sources of light and heat with electricity.

Help children to explore flashlights that produce light through stored energy—a battery. Collect and share a variety of flashlights—from tiny pin and LED lights to large, heavy, and powerful lanterns. Caution the children not to shine light directly into another’s face but encourage observation and discovery.

Electric light, also from stored energy (often natural gas that turns steam turbines), is familiar and often taken for granted. Try to spend a few hours without any electricity to encourage conversation about alternative—realistic and fanciful—sources of heat and light.


Light and shadows
A light source is sometimes partially blocked, resulting in a shadow on a nearby surface. Investigate shadows created by the sun and smaller ones created by flashlights or electric lights.


Trace the shadow
Refer again to Sun up, Sun down to explore shadows. Note the relationship of the sun’s position in the sky to the direction of the shadow. Reinforce the concept by tracing shadows.


Here’s what you need:
sidewalk chalk in 3 colors
open area


1. Gather the children to explain that they will use chalk to trace the outlines of objects several times throughout the day. Use three colors of chalk—for example, red for morning, white for noon, and blue for afternoon. Precision with the tracing isn’t as important as building knowledge about light sources and the shadows created when part of the light is blocked.
2. Go outdoors and ask for observations. What shadows can the children identify?
3. Early in the day, when the sun is in the eastern sky, ask where shadows appear. Give children pieces of red chalk and encourage them to trace the shadows created by objects between the sun and the ground. Consider setting props like a wagon, ball, and chair near the tracing area.
4. At midday, repeat the tracing with white chalk. Talk about why the tracing areas changed.
5. Repeat with blue chalk late in the day. Where is the shadow now? Why has it moved?


Use light from other energy sources—a flashlight or lamp, for example. Let children explore the ways in which these light sources are tighter and create more precise shadows than the sun. Making and describing shadow patterns is a fun way to explore shadows indoors.


Shadow patterns
Here’s what you need:
large sheet of white fabric
collection of stick puppets


1. This activity invites numerous variations that encourage children to experiment with the effects of light and shadow. Introduce the activity by recapping what the children have already learned.
2. Hang the fabric in such a way that children can stand or sit easily on either side.
3. Let the children work in small groups—half the group on one side of the sheet with flashlights and the other half behind the sheet.
4. Tell the children with flashlights to turn on their tools and shine the light on the sheet. Can they identify their classmates by shape? Are the hidden classmates the same height? Are they moving or still?
5. Let the children trade places and have the children behind the sheet hold props from the classroom—a rolling pin, a doll, a ball, or a paintbrush, for example. Encourage the children with the flashlights to identify the object.
6. As another variation, let the children holding the flashlights direct the action—moving the light quickly, rhythmically, slowly, or on and off. Challenge the children behind the cloth to move in time to the changing light pattern.


Plants and the sun
The sun provides the warmth and energy for plants to grow and thrive. In addition to nutrient-rich soil, water, and air, plants use sunlight to make their own food in their leaves— a process called photosynthesis. If a plant doesn’t get enough sunlight, photosynthesis slows, and the plant’s growth is stunted. Eventually the plant will die.


Testing photosynthesis
Here’s what you need:
small plants in pots
three identified growing areas
chart paper and marker
12-inch ruler


1. Use small plants to help children see how sunlight impacts plant growth.
2. Invite conversations about the soil, water needs, and the plant size. Children may want to draw or photograph the plants.
3. Prepare two charts. On the first, list children’s names down the left side. Across the top, make three columns labeled Sunlight, Shade, and Dark. On the second chart list children’s names down the left side. Across the top, write five dates, each about a week apart, starting with the date you introduce the activity. Use this chart to graph the height of the plants at four intervals.
4. Give each child a plant labeled with the child’s name.
5. Poll the children on where they would like for their plants to live for the next five weeks—in the sunshine, in shade, or in the dark. Indicate children’s choices on the chart. Note that wherever the plant is placed, it will need weekly watering (about ¼ cup of water in a 4-inch pot).
6. Before placing the pots, show the children how to take a preliminary measurement. Place the pot on a firm level surface and the ruler next to the pot. Make a note of the height of each plant in the first column for the growth chart.
7. Let the children place their pots in the chosen locations.
8. Return to the activity weekly to measure the growth of the plants.
9. At the end of the growing period, ask children to form a hypothesis about the plants and their growing locations. Plants grown in sunlight show evidence of photosynthesis—healthy growth and robust green leaves that result from the energy the sun provides.

Variations: If the children keep journals, encourage them to write about the condition of their plants—droopy stem, falling leaves, strong green color, and so forth.

Further, encourage children whose plants are growing in the sun to note the way the plant leans toward the sun, a function called heliotropism. Some children may want to watch how far the plant leans to follow the sun; others may want to turn the pot regularly to encourage straight stem growth.


We experience seasons because of Earth’s changing relationship to the sun. In rotating, the Earth tilts at a 23.5-degree angle along its axis while orbiting or circling the sun. The Earth makes one orbit every 365 days, with slight daily changes in how much sunlight is directed to different areas of the planet.

In winter in the northern hemisphere (the area north of the equator), for example, the axis tilts away from the sun; days are shorter, nights longer, and the air is cooler. In the southern hemisphere the opposite is true because that area receives more direct sunlight. Seasons in the northern hemisphere are opposite those in the southern hemisphere; winter (the coldest months) in the United States occurs from December through February, while in Argentina for instance, winter occurs from June through August. Winter in the United States is summer in Argentina.

The YouTube video at helps explain the phenomena with clear graphics. You might want to silence the voiceover and be prepared to narrate the video at your group’s pace, measuring understanding as you go.

Sometimes people describe the sun being low on the horizon or high in the sky. These observations also relate to the Earth’s orbital tilt. Help children notice that the sun is straight overhead only in the summer. In the winter, the sun stays lower in the sky, still moving from east to west but staying much closer to the horizon, the distant point that seems to set the boundary between Earth and sky.

Helping children understand these concepts is made more difficult because there is little consistency in weather from day to day, or even in the course of a single day. In Texas, for example, the temperature can range from 103 degrees in October to 23 degrees in November, making standard calendar activities fruitless and often confusing.

On the other hand, children need baseline knowledge—there are four seasons that typically reflect a change from cold to hot and back again. Rather than sharing information that isn’t accurate (“It’s winter so it’s cold”), opt for encouraging observation and evaluation.


Reading thermometers
An outdoor thermometer measures air temperature, degrees of hotness or coldness. Most are closed glass tubes mounted on a frame. The tubes contain a liquid (usually alcohol or mercury) that expands or contracts according to the temperature of the air around it. The frame has scale marks indicating temperature in degrees. In the United States we use a Fahrenheit scale to describe temperature.


Here’s what you need:
tape or tacks
calendar pages
clear, adhesive-backed vinyl or laminator


1. Mount a thermometer at child’s eye height on the playground. Avoid putting it in direct sunlight; a shady spot is best.
2. Print a month’s calendar page that includes the date and day of the week. Microsoft software has templates like this one
3. Cover the page with clear, adhesive backed vinyl, or laminate.
4. Post the calendar page near the thermometer. Clip a marker to the wall near the calendar.
5. Show children the calendar and the thermometer. Practice reading the thermometer with the children.
6. Determine a system for letting children take turns reading and recording the daily temperature.
7. At the end of the month, use the calendar to talk with children about trends or big variations in the temperature. Maintain the system throughout the year, doing routine evaluations of temperature changes. Help children make connections between outdoor temperature, atmospheric conditions, and what the air feels like on the skin.

Variation: Children might add symbols to indicate rain, sun, clouds, wind, or mist to the calendars. Create a list of conditions with easy-to-draw symbols for the children to use.


Dress for the weather
Use a rebus template to encourage children to think about and describe how their clothing choices reflect the weather.


Here’s what you need:
story template
clear, adhesive-backed vinyl or laminator
images of clothing articles
images of weather conditions
2 small baskets


1. Make up a story that correlates the weather with clothing articles. For example, the story might read


When it is _____________
I like to wear my _____________


Make the story as complex or as simple as is appropriate for the children. Cover the template with clear, adhesive-backed vinyl or laminate it.
2. Draw or copy symbols of weather conditions. Cover the images with clear, adhesive-backed vinyl or laminate. Trim near the margins.
3. Draw or copy clothing articles. Old coloring books, discarded picture books, internet images, and fashion catalogs provide lots of options. Cover the images with clear, adhesive-backed vinyl or laminate. Trim near the margins.
4. Separate the images into two baskets.
5. Work with small groups of children. Ask one child to choose a weather symbol for the first line in the story.
6. Invite the other children to sift through the clothing images and to match the article with the weather condition.

Variations: Make multiple copies of the story template and invite children to fill in the blanks with their own drawings and pictures.

Use Nancy White Carlstrom’s picture books in the Jesse Bear, What Will You Wear? series to introduce the activity and initiate conversations about clothing choices.


Rain and the water cycle
On Earth, all water is in an endless recycling process. Moving between lakes, rivers, and oceans into the atmosphere and back down again as precipitation (rain or snow), the cycle uses water as a liquid, a solid like ice, or a gas like water vapor. Rain can fall into collection pools like the ocean or a lake. It can also fall to the ground and trickle into streams to rivers. Some rain is absorbed by plant roots and some evaporates into gaseous vapor. The vapor rises to the sky, cools and condenses into water again, collects in clouds, and eventually falls to the Earth again as precipitation—rain, snow, hail, or sleet. For more detailed information on the water cycle, see Rivers: Exploring moving water with children in the Fall 2013 issue of Texas Child Care.

In Sun up, Sun down the explanation of how a rainbow occurs after a rain fall is clear and accessible. A rainbow, a multicolored arc across the sky, always occurs opposite the sun in the sky and is formed by sunlight shining through droplets of rain or mist still in the air. The sun’s light is bent or refracted and reflected, displaying the many colors in a ray of sunlight: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. This phenomenon was first identified by Sir Isaac Newton, an English scientist considered to be one of the most influential of all time.

A prism is an inexpensive classroom tool. It’s a piece of clear glass that has several flat sides called faces. If a beam of light shines through a piece of glass directly, the speed the light travels slows temporarily and resumes its travel speed on the other side of the glass. If the light hits the glass at an angle, the beam both slows and bends, dividing the light into its component colors. The same rainbow effects can be achieved by hanging faceted crystals (often available in resale shops for less than a dollar) or small mirrors or mirrored globes in a sunny window.

A useful, if technical, YouTube video is available at If you use this in a preschool classroom, set the video to stop at about 2 minutes—or as soon as the children lose interest.


Classroom rainbows
Here’s what you need:
sheets of white paper
glass of water
bright sunshine
crayons in primary and secondary colors


1. Explain to the children that they will be able to observe and copy the colors of a rainbow.
2. Give each child a sheet of white paper and access to crayons.
3. Fill a clear glass (not plastic) container with water.
4. Carefully hold the glass over a sheet of white paper, tilting it gently to allow sunlight to pass through the water. The sunlight will separate into its primary colors and refract or bend to form a rainbow on the sheet of paper.
5. Give the children time to see the rainbow and to copy it onto their papers.
6. Move the glass to different distances from the paper and encourage children to observe and hypothesize about the impact. Is the effect different?


Gibbons, Gail. (1983). Sun up, Sun down. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.