Longitudinal Wave Lesson for Kids

Instructor: Emily Lockhart

Emily has taught science and has a master's degree in education.

Longitudinal waves can be found all around you. You can even make these waves yourself! In this lesson, you'll learn how longitudinal waves are produced and where to find them.

What Are Longitudinal Waves?

Imagine sitting on a beach and watching the ocean waves crash on your feet; then some friends wave at you, and you wave back, inviting them over. Waves are a part of our communication processes and found in more places than just at the beach. In physics, waves are a transfer of energy. Longitudinal waves are special waves that move surrounding objects in the same direction as the wave.

How Do They Move?

Longitudinal waves can't be seen, but when the energy that results from them moves mediums, you can see their effects. In physics, mediums are materials that waves move through, like the air or water. If a bomb explodes in a medium like sand, the longitudinal wave moves through the sand like a snake slithering underground.

Longitudinal waves can also move through a slinky toy. If you lay a slinky down on the ground and shake it, you'll see the slinky move back and forth. Here, the slinky moves like a longitudinal wave, with the springs slithering like a snake. If you look closely at how the coils compress or flatten together, you'll understand why longitudinal waves are sometimes referred to as compression waves.

Longitudinal/compression wave produced after shaking a slinky

Where Do They Get Their Energy?

Every longitudinal wave needs an energy source, or a place where the wave begins, like the bomb that explodes in the sand or a person moving a slinky. The wave then needs a medium to travel through, like sand, water or air. Energy from the wave is transferred from object to object within the medium until there isn't enough energy to move the medium.

Longitudinal waves transferring energy to different objects in three mediums

Where Can You Find Them?

If you read this sentence aloud, or sing 'la, la, la,' you are producing a type of longitudinal wave called a sound wave. Sound is actually a vibration: you produce it yourself when you vibrate your vocal chords. The energy of a sound wave wave vibrates particles in the air and travels to your ears. Hair and bones in your ear vibrate, and the energy wave is transferred through a chain reaction till it reaches your brain.

Sound waves from singing

Sound waves can travel through water too. For example, a whale singing in the sea will send out sound waves that can be heard by other whales thousands of miles away.

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