What is the Greenhouse Effect? - Lesson for Kids

Instructor: Shoshana Yarin

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

How can plants be grown during cold seasons? Inside a greenhouse it stays nice and warm even if there are snowmen outside. Learn how Earth is like a giant greenhouse in this lesson.

How Does a Greenhouse Work?

Have you ever left something like a candy bar or a banana in a closed car on a summer day? When you find it, it has usually melted into a soggy mess! What caused it to get so hot in the car? The answer can be found in something called the greenhouse effect, and it works not just inside hot cars, but on the whole Earth.

A Greenhouse

Our atmosphere, Earth's protective layer, is made up of different kinds of gasses. Some of these gasses act like a greenhouse. Just like the windows in a car allow the sunlight in but do not allow the heat to get out, a greenhouse works the same way. The clear material of a greenhouse allows the sunlight in so the plants can grow, but the heat that is generated is not able to leave, keeping the plants warm when it may be too cold for them to grow outside.

Most life on Earth can thank this effect, also called the greenhouse effect, for keeping us nice and warm. Without the greenhouse gasses that keep heat trapped inside our atmosphere, most of the heat from the sun would escape right back out into space. This would only be good if you were a snowman.

What are the Greenhouse Gasses?

Can you see air? It's hard to imagine that air is actually something that has mass and takes up space. But air is actually matter. If you weighed an empty balloon and a balloon full of air, it would show you that air has mass. So what is air made of? Most of our atmosphere (78%) is nitrogen. Nitrogen is not a greenhouse gas. Oxygen makes up the next biggest part (21%). Oxygen is not a greenhouse gas. That means only a very small percent of gasses create the greenhouse effect.

Greenhouse Earth
Earth as a Greenhouse

Some of the gasses that contribute the most to Earth's warmth are water, carbon dioxide and methane. These particular gasses allow the sunlight to pass through, warming the Earth, but they keep that heat from escaping right back into space. What do you do when you are cold at night? You put on a blanket, right? Greenhouse gasses are like a blanket for the whole Earth.

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