Teaching “Insulation”

To “insulate” something means “protect (something) by interposing material that prevents the loss of heat or the intrusion of sound.”

To teach this to my son (3), using a hands-on activity that isolates the concept, I used a thermos, a canister, and a cup. I put ice cold water in each of them. Waiting just a few seconds, you can feel that the canister and cup are cold, while the thermos remains at room temperature. I told my son that the thermos “insulates” us from the cold.


We left it on the counter over night. My son frequently went over to the containers to feel each. After sitting on the counter all night, the canister and cup were now room temperature to the touch. We then felt the water inside each. The water in the thermos was still cold! It even had ice in it! Woah! I explained that insulation “traps” the cold inside and at the same time protects us from the cold when we touch the container.

I have found in doing these activities, it is best to have two different activities. There is something about presenting the concept once, then doing it again, that cements the idea. I have also found that it is best to give the lesson, then let the child sleep overnight, before peppering them with any questions about it. So I did this all again with hot water. Same deal: The thermos protected us from the heat and kept the heat inside overnight. When I asked him which container insulated us from the heat, he correctly pointed to the thermos.

It is interesting to me how these lessons help me in the strangest of ways. We are in the market for coffee cups. My husband went to buy some, and I asked him to wait for me to do some shopping. I told him, “I have standards, you know. You know how I feel about cold coffee!” He asked me what I was looking for. I said, “Something that keeps the coffee hot and protects my hand at the same time … insulates the heat if you will.” 😉 We enjoy our vocabulary lessons.

The next one to think about is “conduction.” This one is a little harder because it only applies to heat or electricity.

Conduction: “The process by which heat or electricity is directly transmitted through a substance when there is a difference of temperature or of electrical potential between adjoining regions, without movement of the material.”

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