Explain circuits like I'm 5

Hello, I am planning to do a paper circuit program on Tuesday. In preparation I’d like understand how circuits work. I’ve tried finding sources that “dumb” it down, but I’m still lost. I am not hard science minded at all, soft sciences are my jam. Can anyone please explain circuits like I’m five? Or direct me to resources that can that explain circuits?

This is the project I plan to do Christmas STEM: Gingerbread House Paper Circuits - Teach Beside Me I chose something super basic to dip my toes into circuitry. This is the first Plix activity I am trying. I’m also at a new library and not a lot of kids, tweens, or teens stop in. Any advice is much appreciated!


When I explain circuits to kids and teens, there are several analogies I use. First, I ask them to imagine water flowing out of a faucet. When the faucet is turned on, the water flows. When the faucet is turned off, the water does not flow out. Similarly, a light turns on/electricity flows when the switch it turned and stays off/electricity does not flow when the switch is turned off.

I also use a circle analogy. Electricity in a circuit flows from the positive end of the battery/power source to the negative like a big loop/circle (It can actually get much more complex, but this is fine for basic electronics like we see with a simple coin cell battery). The circuit is closed if there are no breaks in the path from the positive end/side to the negative/side of the battery. If there is a break in the path, the circuit does not make a complete “circle” all the way around and it is considered an open circuit. You need a closed circuit to make the light light up.

Does this help? Do you need more? I really like this tutorial from Sparkfun for talking points. That being said, I let the kids/teens try to figure things out and change things to see what works.


Like the water analogy @pdavislibrarian mentioned, I’ve also explained it as being like a model train on a track that needs every piece of the track in the right place for the train to make it all the way around.


Hi Emily, We just redesigned the PLIX Paper Circuits zine. The language is pretty similar to the old version for introducing circuits, but I wanted to be sure you saw it in case it helps.

I have used kids’ bodies to illustrate circuits in the past, having them act out components. This won’t work so well during the pandemic, but having them hold hands in a circle and “pass the pulse” is a very simplified circuit. I usually use this with the kids being the LEDs wired in series, so holding right hand to left is like connecting long to short ends. Parallel circuits are all the kids standing in a line, facing forward. Using ropes or other things to tug instead of holding hands would work, to signify the conductive foil tape / wire.

btw Some of my nerd friends have problems with the water analogy—they grumble something about the misconceptions… I couldn’t recall why, so I found this page from Victoria, Australia, is a bit wordy but the “Critical teaching ideas” section is helpful. Focus on the last two bullets:

  • In most circuits, the moving charged particles are negatively charged electrons that are always present in the wires and other components of the circuit.
  • The battery pushes the electrons in a circuit.

They later describe one way to use a rope:

  • the rope model - this model is helpful for explaining why heating occurs in an electric circuit. Students form a circle and loosely hold a continuous loop of thin rope horizontally. One student acts as a ‘battery’ and pulls the rope so that it slides through the hands of the other students, ‘the circuit components’. The students can feel their fingers getting hotter as energy is transformed when the rope is pulled by the student battery

I’m interested to hear what other ideas everyone has, and what you end up doing, @emicole08 emicole08!


Also I love that paper bag idea! So cute! Will you take pics of the finished projects and share as a remix, please?

I once made “gingerboard” houses out of cardboard with kindergarteners, but they had no LEDs, and it honestly took hours to make the houses! (I did do it with an x-acto knife by hand—had I used a laser cutter it probably would have gone faster. ) I also recommend decorating one big gingerboard house-shaped box as a group. If starting with blank (hopefully recycled) cardboard, here’s the PDF template I used, or here as a PNG.


Thank you! Yes it does help. I just want to be sure I’m correctly explaining how the light, lights up. I did came across Sparkfun in my research, but was a bit overwhelmed with all the information. I will be sure to go back an read through some of the articles!

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I did not know their was a new zine, and just made copies of the previous one. I’ll be sure to use the updated one in the future!

I love the example of kids playing pass the pulse, that is great visual for me to understand how circuits work. Maybe I’ll try the rope example! Thank you for sharing, this has helped a bunch!

I will try my best to take pictures and post a remix. Attendance has been very sporadic some programs I have no kids show up and I’ve had up to 5. So we’ll see what tomorrow brings!


I like the new zine design and all of its improvements, but I miss laser eyes kitty.

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Laser eyes kitty forever!!!