Leap day, Feb. 29, happens every four years because of a mismatch between the calendar year and Earth's orbit. Learn how it works, and get students engaged in leap day STEM.
You may have noticed that there's an extra day on your calendar this year. That's not a typo – it's leap day! Leap day is another name for Feb. 29, a date that typically comes around every four years, during a leap year.
Why doesn't Feb. 29 appear on the calendar every year?
The length of a year is based on how long it takes a planet to revolve around the Sun. Earth takes about 365.2422 days to make one revolution around the Sun. That's about six hours longer than the 365 days that we typically include in a calendar year. As a result, every four years, we have about 24 extra hours that we add to the calendar at the end of February in the form of leap day.
Without leap day, the dates of annual events, such as equinoxes and solstices, would slowly shift to later in the year, changing the dates of each season. After only a century without leap day, summer wouldn’t start until mid-July!
But the peculiar adjustments don't end there. If Earth revolved around the Sun in exactly 365 days and six hours, this system of adding a leap day every four years would need no exceptions. However, Earth takes a little less time than that to orbit the Sun. Rounding up and inserting a 24-hour leap day every four years adds about 45 extra minutes to every four-year leap cycle. That adds up to about three days every 400 years. To correct for that, years that are divisible by 100 don't have leap days unless they’re also divisible by 400.
If you do the math, you'll see that the year 2000 was a leap year, but 2100, 2200 and 2300 will not be.
Have students learn more about leap years with this article from NASA's Space Place, then have them do the math for themselves with this leap day problem set. You can also have students write a letter or poem to be opened on the next leap day or get them learning about orbits across the solar system.
And since we've got an extra 24 hours this year, don't forget to take a little time to relax!
- Problem Set
Leap Day Math
In this problem set, students calculate the difference between the calendar year and Earth's orbital period to determine when leap years occur.
Time Less than 30 mins
Solar System Scale & Size Lessons
Explore a collection of standards-aligned lessons all about the size and scale of our solar system.
- Educator Guide
Have students write a poem they can open and re-read next leap day!
Time 1-2 hrs
What Is a Leap Year?
Get the answer in this article from NASA Space Place. Plus, learn if other planets have leap years!
How Long Is a Year on Other Planets?
Get the answer in this article from NASA Space Place.
All About the Size and Scale of the Solar System
Learn how big and far away the planets are with these projects and activities.