Parenting: Kids and Kites

(Kite-flying has a long tradition in Philadelphia, dating back to Colonial times.)

March 7, 2011 3:41:05 PM PST
The Murphy family has always loved kites. Now is the time to start thinking about the hobby again.

In general, the spring is the best season for kite flying because winds tend to be the most prevalent. March, in fact, is the windiest month in our area, on average, and though it's often still a little chilly, parents and kids can still throw on sweatshirts and jackets and take advantage of that blustery wind. Of course, spring time is also the season for thunderstorms, which urges caution (more on that in a moment).

Why is spring so windy?

The jetstream, a fast-moving ribbon of air high above the earth's surface, is often more or less centered over Philadelphia's latitude at this time. This dividing line between polar air retreating to the north at winter's end and tropical air advancing from the south as summer draws near, is always a focal point for turbulence in the atmosphere. Another lesser wind maximum occurs in the autumn, with October and November being the windiest months, as the jetstream migrates south.

The best location for kite-flying is an open field or playground, away from obstructions. Not only will you avoid landing your kite in a tree, you'll have a better chance of catching a good breeze since wind is slowed and deflected by trees and buildings.

Of course, if you want to fly a kite in the summer when there isn't as much wind, head to the beach during the afternoon. On hot days when the air is stagnant, the co-called "sea breeze" kicks in between noon and 1pm and lasts for the rest of the day. This breeze rides in from the ocean, the result of uneven heating of the water and the adjacent land. It's almost always strong enough to lift a kite.

Old habit

Kite-flying, of course, has a long tradition in our region, dating back to Colonial times. Perhaps the most famous flyer of them all, Benjamin Franklin, used a kite to conduct experiments confirming the electrical nature of lightning. Park Ranger Tom Degnan of Independence National Historic Park told me the exact location is not known (Franklin, oddly, did not leave much of a record of the event, save for a mention in his city newspaper). But Degnan says we know the experiment was performed in Philadelphia in October, 1752. Interestingly, while Franklin designed and published the experiment, he was not the first to perform it. His experiments followed word that a Frenchman had successfully conducted the exercise, following the famous Philadelphian's instructions. Degnan also says that Franklin brought along his son to help with the experiments, making kite-flying a local parent-child activity, even before the Revolution (although son William was a 21-year-old adult at the time, as opposed to the young child often depicted by artists). Of course, I wouldn't recommend repeating the experiments, giving the danger involved. And that brings me to my final point.

Flyer Beware!

A word to the wise kite-flier: only fly your kite during fair weather. If you hear thunder, immediately reel-in your kite and head indoors. Never wait-out the storm under a tree. Lightning from thunderstorms can travel sideways as much as 90 miles on rare occasions, and 10 to 15 miles relatively often. If you hear thunder, you are well within striking distance. Even a rumble of thunder on what appears to be a clear day should spur action; lightning can appear from a blue, cloudless sky (a so-called "bolt from the blue") if it strays far enough from its host thunderstorm. Lightning is attracted to any object that rises above the surface of a plane. That can easily be you on an open field or beach! In fact, most lightning-related injuries and fatalities occur in open areas. Standing beneath a tree is risky, because if the tree is hit, the charge shooting down its trunk will likely arc from the trunk to you. Most people, I think, would view this as a rather unhappy conclusion to a nice day of kite-flying! Thunderstorms can happen in any season, but they most commonly occur in the spring, followed by the summer.

Kite-flying is a hobby that has lot to offer kids and parents. It's fun, there's physicality to it, and kites get you outdoors with your kids in nice, breezy weather. Modern kites are often made of durable material and are relatively easy to launch if the wind is right. Assuming you have your eyes on the forecast before you go, head out and try your hand at kiting with your kids. You'll be joining in a long, Philadelphia-area tradition!

---David Murphy

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