Photograph by Sam74100 / Dreamstime
Photograph by Sam74100 / Dreamstime

Why getting your kid’s head in the clouds is a good thing

Cloud watching provides lessons in science and creativity.

Need an activity for the kids to do while you’re on your next video call? Send them outside to watch the clouds.

It might sound super retro, but cloud watching actually has lots of benefits for children. Of course, being able to spot and understand the different types of clouds is a fun, accessible way to teach kids valuable science skills—and maybe even how to predict the weather. It fosters observation skills and creativity as well.

But skimming the skies can also be healthy for kids’ mental health, something experts say children need especially now as they deal with the stress and tension from the ongoing pandemic.

“Their sympathetic nervous system—that fight or flight or freeze mode—is on all the time,” says Megan Tudor, assistant clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of California Davis MIND Institute. “We have to give children a chance to turn it off, to just relax. And cloud watching is perfect for that.”

The good news is you don’t need to force kids to memorize the 10 different kinds of clouds (’cause who wants to do that on summer vacation?). The goal is for kids to simply understand what’s happening in the sky.

“I’d much rather that children have some idea of what’s going on,” says Jon Ahlquist, associate professor of meteorology at Florida State University. “Otherwise you’re just learning definitions. The important thing is to learn what all this means.”

For instance, high, wispy “cirrus” clouds don’t bring rain. But if kids observe fluffy “cumulus” clouds getting taller and darker at the base throughout the day, watch out! “That means they might be developing into thunderstorms, which can bring heavy rain,” says Sonia Lasher-Trapp, professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

Whether you’ve got a budding meteorologist or a kid with, well, his head in the clouds, these ideas can help your children chill out—while maybe learning a little science.

Weather detectives

If kids really want to nerd out on identifying different types of clouds, the National Weather Service has a fun printable cloud wheel craft. (Just rotate the wheel to match the cloud you’re seeing for its name and description.) No color printer? Online cloud atlases like the ones here and here can help too.

Once your kids are ready to roll, arm them with these questions so they can make the most out of their cloud-watching experience. (Check out a photo gallery and get facts about cloud types.)

What color is it? When you look up at cumulus clouds (the fluffy ones), you’re seeing the bottom of the cloud, Lasher-Trapp says. “Are they darker on the bottom? That indicates that the cloud contains a lot more water that can be made into precipitation soon.”

The more water inside a cloud, the thicker it will be. So the darkness of the cloud is a good hint to understand thickness—which can predict rainfall. “The darker the cloud, the thicker it is,” Ahlquist says. “If the cloud isn’t very thick, you’re not going to get much rain out of it.” With continued observation, kids can tell how thick a cloud needs to be before you get more than a sprinkle.

What shape is it? If it’s wispy (called a cirrus cloud) and late in the day, you’re probably seeing the remnants of old thunderstorms, especially if it’s summertime and you’re in the South, Ahlquist says. On the other hand, if you’re in the Midwest, a front might be on the way.

Are the clouds moving? If you’ve heard that a warm or cold front is coming through your area, ask kids to observe what’s happening in the sky. “As fronts come through, you can see the cloud types change,” Lasher-Trapp says. And that might help them forecast the weather.

Have children try this trick if clouds at two different levels are moving in different directions. Face the direction the lower level cloud is moving. If you have to turn counterclockwise to turn to the direction that the upper-level cloud is moving in, that means that colder air is blowing between those layers. If you have to turn clockwise, warmer air is blowing. Ahlquist says the same thing is likely happening on the ground, so kids can predict if it’s about to be warmer or colder.

Creativity in the clouds

If your child just can’t get into the science of clouds, that’s OK. Cloud watching offers ways to exercise their brains in a different way by fostering creativity. And in these tense times, that’s just as important as learning science. “For young children especially, creativity is one of the most important forms of relaxation,” Tudor says. Here are some ideas to have your kids try to foster cloud-based creativity.

—Have them photograph all the different types of clouds they spot in 5, 15, or 30 minutes for a virtual cloud collection.

—Let them take a sketchpad and pencil outside and draw the types of clouds they see. Use the basic cloud shapes to create other images. (A witch with wispy cirrus cloud hair? A train puffing out cumulus smoke?)

—Challenge them to give each type of cloud a new name. Kids can base the new monikers on mythology, cartoon characters, or even their friends.

—See if they can make up a story about the clouds, adding different scenes as the clouds change.

—Ask them to pretend that clouds are watching us. How would clouds describe mountains and rivers and other things they see on Earth from their view in the sky?