Day and Night: Summer and Winter

For an illustrated version, see pages 21-22 in The Environmentor, vol. 5, no. 2.

As the seasons change, we can think of ancient times. What did our ancestors think was happening?

Folktale: Day and Night 

Some people say that in the beginning, the world was dark all the time. The stars gave a bit of light, but not enough to see very clearly.

Bear liked having night all the time. Cool dark was good for sleeping. Other animals liked to use their keen senses of smell or hearing, or their very special night vision, to hunt in the dim starlight. (What are some animals that hunt at night?)

But other animals had trouble in the dark. They were afraid of the night-hunting predators. And the plants that they ate couldn't grow in the dark. (What are some animals that would prefer light?)

Rabbit was tired of bumping her nose on trees and rocks in the dark. She went to the Maker of Everything and asked for more light. But Bear came too and said, "No, my friends and I like the dark."

The Maker decided they should have a dancing contest to see whether Earth would be dark or light.

Their friends came to cheer for them. (Divide your group into Rabbit's friends and Bear's friends.)

First Rabbit danced, while her friends chanted "Light, light, light, light!" Then Bear danced, and his friends chanted "Night, night, night, night!" Rabbit danced again, faster, and her friends chanted louder "Light! Light! Light! Light!" Bear danced faster, his friends chanting "Night! Night! Night! Night!"

(Repeat, getting faster and louder.)

Finally the Maker of Everything said, "You both have danced and chanted very well. I love all my creatures, and I want them all to live contentedly. So you will both win: Part of each day will have light, and part will have night."

And so it has been, ever since.



How come we have sunlight during the day, and dark at night? Some ancient peoples thought that after the Sun traveled east to west over our flat Earth each day, it had to sneak back through an underground tunnel to start in the east again. But now that we know the Earth is a sphere constantly rotating in space, we can see that our day happens when our part of the planet faces the Sun, and we experience night when our part rotates to the shadowed side.

Earth continually rotates, completely around: day, night, day, night.

Hey kids, you can be the earth by dimming the room lights and placing a lamp (Sun) in the front of the room. When you face the lamp, you experience "day." If you turn to face away from the lamp, your faces are in "night." You can chant "Light, light, light, light!" or "Night, night, night, night!" as you turn when you read the story.

Or you can use a globe or a ball. There are beach balls printed like the earth. A sticker can mark your location so that everyone can see it travel from light to dark and back again.

Meanwhile, Earth orbits around the Sun.

How come we have longer, warmer days in summer, and shorter, colder days in winter?

It's not because Earth's orbit takes us further away from the Sun in winter. It's because Earth tilts to one side: our axis of rotation seems to point to Polaris, the North Star.

Do you know what the "axis of rotation" is? Tilt the globe toward a corner of the room (Polaris) while rotating it in front of the lamp/Sun. The actual tilt is about 23 degrees. Toothpicks can be stuck into a foam ball or a large piece of fruit to represent the north and south poles.

Notice that if the Sun is between the globe/ball and Polaris, it will be leaning towards the Sun. This gives longer exposure to light, and the rays are more direct: SUMMER! At the North Pole, the Sun never sets in mid-summer.

But when its orbital path takes it between the Sun and Polaris, the globe/ball leans away from the Sun. Days are shorter, and the rays come at a low angle: WINTER!


Folktales: There are many Native American stories about a dance contest to determine whether we get dark all the time, or light part of the time. I learned this one from Lynn Moroney (Chickasaw). Bear is usually the dark champion, But in many stories from further west, Ant Woman dances for light, fasting and tightening her belt. We remember this when we see the tiny waist on an ant.…

Facts: Lynn Moroney worked with NASA's Lunar and Planetary Institute to develop "Skytellers" astronomy teaching resources that paired Native American folktales with scientific explanations. The science text and diagrams are still available: