Rainbow Facts: Lesson for Kids

Instructor: Kelly Beaty

Kelly has taught fifth grade language arts and adult ESL. She has a master's degree in education and a graduate certificate in TESOL.

Rainbows appear in many places around the earth. There are scientific reasons for these beautiful arcs in the sky. In this lesson, you will learn how light and water combine to make rainbows.

What Are Rainbows?

Have you ever wondered what causes rainbows? In ancient times, people made up stories to explain these colorful streaks in the sky. Some cultures believed they were bridges used by the gods, while other cultures thought they were evil beings.

Today we know that rainbows are not magic bridges or demons. Scientists have since learned that rainbows are arches of color caused by a special combination of light and water.

Rainbows are created from a special combination of light and water.

Understanding White Light

Before we can discuss how rainbows are formed, we must learn about white light. The light from the sun, though bright, does not appear to our eyes to have color--instead, it helps us see other things that do have color, such as the green grass and the blue ocean.

However, light is actually made up of all colors of the color spectrum. The color spectrum is made up of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet (you can remember this with the acronym 'Roy G. Biv'). When all of these colors come together as one, we get white light.

How Does White Light Become A Rainbow?

To understand how rainbows are made, we need to understand the way white light splits apart into the colors of the spectrum. Hundreds of years ago, scientist Isaac Newton showed that a prism could split white light into the seven colors of the spectrum. A prism is a clear, solid object that can bend light.

A prism causes white light to divide into the different colors of the spectrum.
light spectrum

The prism causes the light to bend and separate into the colors we see. Notice that the different lines of color bend at different places. Violet has the shortest curves (called wavelengths), and red has the longest. These differences in the wavelengths make colors look different.

When we see a rainbow in nature, it is because water droplets are acting like prisms. Tiny drops of water split the white light of the sun into colors. The water then acts like a mirror to reflect the colors into the sky.

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