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Gravitational Potential Energy: Lesson for Kids

Instructor: Shoshana Yarin

Shoshana has taught all grades with an emphasis in science and has a master's degree in science.

What do a slide, a roller coaster and a skydiver all have in common? They all have gravitational potential energy. Learn what it means, how things fall have energy and how it applies to you in this lesson.

What Goes Up Must Come Down!

Why might it be a little scary to climb to the top of a mountain, or jump from a plane with a parachute, or even jump from a high diving board? Gravity! Gravity is always bringing us down! Scientists consider gravity a force of attraction, which means a pull between objects. The bigger or more massive an object, the more pull it has. Earth's force on us is strong enough to be scary indeed.

Skydiving
Skydiving

A scientist a long time ago named Galileo showed that no matter the mass, all objects fall at the same speed. He dropped two different objects from a tall tower and they were observed to land at the same time. The astronauts also demonstrated this when they landed on the moon. They dropped a hammer and a feather together, and the objects landed at the same time. So what is the effect of falling things?

Galileo
Galileo and Gravity

Explaining Gravitation Potential Energy

If you were to climb up a slide, it would take more time and effort to go up than to slide down. The same thing is true for a roller coaster ride. It clicks away very slowly going up, but comes down fast enough to make some people scream! This is because of gravitational potential energy. It requires energy to go up from Earth's surface, but then leave it to Earth's gravity to bring you back down.

Roller coaster
Roller coaster

The gravitational potential energy (or GPE) of an object depends on the height above the ground. Even though most things fall to Earth at the same speed, it takes more energy to lift a bigger mass, so a larger object actually has more energy. Which is easier to get to the top of a mountain, a locomotive train or a motorcycle? A motorcycle takes a lot less gas! That means even though a train and a motorcycle were the same distance up, the train has a lot more GPE. How does an object have energy?

If you hold a pencil up to your height, you know that pencil will fall to the ground when you let go. That pencil has the ability to be in motion because of gravity. That's called potential energy. Potential energy is energy that is stored. In the case of the pencil, you added the potential energy by lifting it off the ground. When you let go of the pencil, all that energy you added and stored now gets put to work by being in motion (thanks to gravity!). Energy in motion is called kinetic energy.

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