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Canal Definition: Lesson for Kids

Instructor: Suzanne Rose

Suzanne has taught all levels PK-graduate school and has a PhD in Instructional Systems Design. She currently teachers literacy courses to preservice and inservice teachers.

In this lesson, you'll learn how the development of canals helped solve some difficult transportation problems. Read on to find out what canals are, how they're used, and why they're important.

Transportation in the ''Old Days''

Imagine you're a farmer with a load of corn that you need to get to market. Today, you'd have many ways to get your crops to stores where people can buy them. You might use trains, trucks, or planes to get your goods moving. But many years ago, when there weren't any trucks, planes, or trains, how did people and goods move from one place to another?

Ships carried many things across the ocean and on rivers, but, unfortunately, they were only helpful if there was a river or other body of water close by. Horses could be used to pull carts and wagons, but they were very slow and had difficulty in bad weather, or if the land was mountainous. People had to find another way to move themselves and their goods.

The Birth of Canals

Canals are man-made waterways that were first built about 5,000-6,000 years ago. The first canals were used to move water from rivers and lakes into faraway areas where water was needed, either to drink or for irrigation, or water crops.

Grand Canal in China
grand

Usually, canals connect two bodies of water, such as a river with a lake or an ocean. Canals are dug in the ground and then lined with something to make them stronger, such as rocks or steel, which also keeps water from leaking out of them. A canal is almost like a man-made river. Unlike a river, though, canals can be built to go wherever they are needed, including uphill!

Uphill Canals

When people wanted to travel uphill or across uneven land, they needed to find a way to build canals that could help them solve this problem. So they came up with canal locks. A canal lock is a gate placed in one part of a canal. When the locks, or gates, are closed, the water between the two locks cannot escape and stays at the same level.

A Canal Lock on the Erie Canal
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When a boat approaches this stretch of a canal, the lock opens. Then the lock closes and fills with water. This makes the boat rise up along with the water. Then the next lock opens and the boat moves into the next section of the canal, a process that can be repeated many times, allowing a boat to sail uphill! Boats can also sail downhill using the same process.

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