Dams 101 for Kids

Dams 101 for Kids

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Hey Kids!

My name is Bucky Beaver, and I want to tell you all about my favorite subject, DAMS! Although the dams I build are for my protection and are small, I know a lot about human dams!

Dams help control water, our most important resource. Water is important because plants, animals and humans need to drink it to stay alive. We also use it to cook, clean and bathe. We also use water to have fun. What fun would a swimming pool be without water?

It is important that we have just the right amount of water. Having too much water will cause a flood. Having too little will cause a drought. We need a way to have just the right amount.

Building a dam can help control the flow of water and the amount of water that we have available!

Do You Have Questions About Dams?

What are Dams?

Dams are structures that hold back water, or other liquid material!


Dams are built on rivers so that the water in the river can be controlled. When a dam is built, it creates a reservoir of water, also called man-made lakes. Dams help us store water when we need it and help prevent droughts and floods. When too much water is in a reservoir, it can be released safety through gates.

They can be built from many different materials, including earth, rock, tailings from mining or milling, concrete, masonry, steel, timber, miscellaneous materials (such as plastic or rubber) and any combination of these materials. The material that is used depends on how the dam is going to be used.

Some dams are used for water supply, others for energy for a town or even for recreation. Some are used to prevent flooding. It is up to the engineer to know what the dam is being used for and choose the best design.

Here are some of the parts of a typical dam:

CREST -  the top of a dam
ABUTMENT - the part of the valley side that meets the dam
BERM - a nearly horizontal step in the sloping profile of an embankment dam
OUTLET - an opening where water can be released
SPILLWAY - a structure that allows water to be released from a reservoir
EMERGENCY SPILLWAY - An extra spillway 


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Emergency Spillway
Emergency Spillway

When did People Start Building Dams?

People started building dams a very long time ago. The ancient Egyptians built simple dams of earth and stones to store water from the Nile River well over 4000 years ago! Dams were also built in ancient times in Mesopotamia (now Iraq), Italy, and India. These early dams were built mostly of stone, earth, and gravel and were used to water crops.

Many dam builders then learned from people before them and continued to pass along the practice. Once modern engineering came along, the size and abilities of dams improved.

Dam engineering is still improving today. Below are some old pictures of dams in the United States. Thanks to the help of very smart engineers, the dams we build today are bigger, stronger and safer than these dams!

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Where are Dams Built?

Did you know there are more than 90,000 dams in the United States alone? This map shows where the dams are located. 

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Why do People Build Dams?

Humans use dams for a lot of reasons! Millions of people depend on dams to help provide the right amount of water in the right place at the right time.  

Most dams do more than one job! We fish, swim and boat on about 1 in every three lakes formed by dams. Lots of dams provide water for growing crops and for farm animals to drink. They also store water for fighting fires and can help control floods.

Dams also give us hydroelectric power! U.S. dams provide almost 10% of the nation's power needs.  Hydropower is a renewable source of electricity that is friendly to the environment. It does not contribute to global warming, air pollution, acid rain or ozone depletion.



How Can I be Safe Around Dams?

Although the water around dams may look peaceful and fun, it is very dangerous!!

Don't ever play near a dam! Even if you aren't in the water, you could slip and fall in. This doesn't mean just big dams. Even small ones can be very dangerous!

You should always have a parent with you when you are near a dam!

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Here Are Some Fun Activities That Will Help You Learn More!

Let's Build A Dam!

Don't just take my word for it!  Put on your work clothes and build a dam. Here are some instructions, but you'll probably have ideas of your own, too!
Easy Version - Instructions
Hard Version - Instructions

Take the Dam Challenge!

The humans at PBS made a game that lets players pretend to be a real dam engineer!  It's fun - try it now!
Click here! 
For other PBS resources click here!

Activity Pages

Then sit down, grab a pencil and some crayons, and try these activities!
Activity Book (Low-Head Dams)


What is a Dam?
What is a Dam Engineer? Part 1 and Part 2
Who Owns Dams?
What Motivated You to Become a Dam Engineer?
What Do You Enjoy About Working on Dam Safety Projects?
What Do Dam Engineers Work On?
Interesting Facts About Dams