February 29: Why Do We Have a Leap Year, Anyway?

Plus 8 ideas for family fun on Feb. 29

By Kyrie Collins, publisher of Macaroni Kid Highlands Ranch-Parker-Castle Rock-Lone Tree, Colo. February 23, 2024

We know to expect a leap year every four years. But what is a leap year, anyway, and why do we do it? The answer is actually quite interesting and is sure to entertain your kids.

One trip around the sun is actually 365.246 days.

Hipparchus of Nicaea, an ancient Greek astronomer and mathematician, was the first to calculate that a calendar year (the amount of time it takes Earth to make one complete orbit around the sun) was actually 365.246 days.

If we ignored this fact, the calendar would shift by approximately six hours each year. After 100 years, January 1 would effectively come at the time that January 25 comes now. After 1,000 years, it would arrive in what is now September!

Another option would be to add a six hour day to the end of each year. The problem with this is that sunrise would come closer to noon in the second year, around dinnertime in the third year, and near midnight in the fourth year before returning to its "regular" time.

Julius Caesar to the rescue!

About a century after Hipparchus' discovery, Julius Caesar came up with a solution. In 45 BC, Caesar rounded the year up to 365.25 days and established the Julian calendar, which added a Leap Day every fourth year.

Well, maybe not...

But science needs to be precise. Since Caesar rounded up from 365.246, the Julian calendar was essentially losing days. To make up for it, the entire world (at least those still using the Julian calendar) completely skipped 10 days in 1582 and the calendar jumped from October 4 to October 15.

The Gregorian calendar to the rescue!

So in 1582 we began using the Gregorian calendar, which skips three leap years every 400 years. So the year 1600 was a leap year, but 1700, 1800, and 1900 were not. The year 2000 was a leap year, but 2100, 2200, and 2300 won't be.

Did you know?

Those born on Feb. 29 are called "Leaplings." The odds of a Leap Day birthday are one in 1,461.

Do something unique and special to celebrate Leap Day! How about...

  • Play leapfrog! Or try one of our fun and easy "leaping" games. 
  • Have everyone in the family write letters to themselves. Open them on Leap Day 2024.
  • Print pictures of things that leap — like rabbits, jumping beans, and children — and let your kids make a collage.
  • Find out if any of your friends are Leaplings, then have a birthday party!
  • Have a dance party using only songs with "Leap," "Jump," "Day," or "Time" in the title. Start with "Jump, Jive, and Wail" by Brian Setzer Orchestra, "Look Before You Leap" by Suicide Machines, "Jump Around" by House of Pain, "Time After Time" by Cyndi Lauper, and "One Day" by O.A.R.
  • Spend 24 hours sleeping, reading, watching movies, or hanging out with your friends. You can completely ditch your to-do list and still accomplish as much as you did last year.
  • Watch the romantic comedy, Leap Year (PG), starring Amy Adams, Matthew Goode, Adam Scott, and John Lithgow.
  • If you're an unmarried woman in love, propose! According to Irish legend, St. Brigid convinced St. Patrick to allow women to propose to men every four years. (Actually, I think it's a great idea anytime you're in love... Leap Day not required!)

Kyrie Collins is the publisher of Macaroni Kid Highlands Ranch-Parker-Castle Rock-Lone Tree, Colo.