Allowing children to learn by discovery allows for some possible messes, but a lot of fun and that’s what learning is all about.
Float or sink?
Teachable Moments: A great tool when needing to occupy young children for a time is the float experiment.
o Paper and pen/pencil
o Children’s collections of small, waterproof and durable items from the house
o Large container
o Have your children go around the house collecting small items capable of being submerged in water
o Write each item down as they bring it to you.
o Once you have a pretty good list, go through each item: will this float? Or will it sink?
o Have your children guess and write float or sink by each item.
o Fill a large container with water (deep enough that if the item sinks, it can go completely underwater, and if it floats, it will not touch the bottom).
o Put each item in and watch!
o Have the children tell you what happened.
o If they guessed wrong, see if they can guess as to why they were wrong.
The Why: This is a great activity for children to learn how to predict and how to adjust their predictions as well.
Questions Kids Ask:
“Why did _________ sink (float)?”
Answer: Use this opportunity to teach your children about the material that the item is made out of and explain why it didn’t sink. If you are not sure, acknowledge the question and help them find the answer through research.
Teachable Moments: Weather is an awesome teaching moment.
Beautiful sunny days can be used to teach children why to not look directly into the sun. Talk about the color spectrum and temperature (see math on temperature). Look up information or check out a library book to go through and explain why the sky is blue and why the colors change at sunrise and sunset.
Cloudy days can lead to discussions on the difference between each cloud type and why some clouds rain on us and some don’t.
Rainy days can lead to discussions on staying safe when it is thundering and lightening, what makes some storms worse than others and the different types of bad storms. If you live in an area prone to a particular type of bad storm, teach your children safety precautions so they know what to do in the event of bad weather.
The Why: Because weather is constantly changing, this type of learning will help hone your children’s observation skills. Be prepared for lots of questions!
Questions Kids Ask:
“Where does the white go when the clouds go away?”
Answer: it went with the cloud!
“Why is the sky blue?”
Answer: Look up information about the color spectrum to find an answer to this!
“What makes it thunder during a storm?”
Answer: Lightening heats the air up quickly, causing it to expand suddenly. Thunder is the sound of the air rushing as the air contracts just as suddenly as it expanded. Lightening and Thunder actually happen simultaneously. How far away the lightening is effects how long it takes you to hear the sound of the thunder, because light travels faster than sound. The longer gap there is between the lightening and thunder, the farther away the storm. In order to estimate how far away the storm is, count the number of seconds between seeing the lightening and hearing the thunder. Then divide by 5. That answer will be approximately how many miles away.
Anything can be turned into an experiment within reason. This requires creativity, willingness to try things you’ve never tried before, and the ability to hypothesize, or make a statement saying what you think will happen given a set of specific parameters. Here are a couple experiment ideas for you to try with your children.
o Supplies: 3 potatoes, soap, and three plastic bags.
o Procedure: One potato will be the control. Wash your hands and the potato, then peal the potato and put it in a plastic zip lock bag without letting it touch anything else.
o The second potato is the germy potato. Send your children outside to play for several minutes (teachers would optimally do this potato after recess, to give you an example). When they come in, have the second potato washed and pealed, then have each child handle it before putting it in the second zip lock bag.
o Then have your children wash their hands with soap and water for 30 seconds (sing the ABC’s to make sure they wash long enough). Once they have thoroughly cleaned their hands, wash and peal the third potato and have them handle it before putting it in the third plastic zip lock bag.
o Now hypothesize: what will happen to the first potato? The second potato? The third potato? You can have them draw and/or write daily observations about changes in the potatoes over the course of a week.
o After a week, look back at your hypothesis: was what happened what you thought would happen?
What should happen is this: the control potato should look relatively clean and unchanged. This is because it was not exposed to many germs.
The second potato is the germy potato and should have grown multicolored patches and look rather gross. This change is from the germs that the children had on their hands when they touched it. This shows the transfer of germs from one object to another on contact.
The third potato should hopefully look similar to the control potato, because all the germs were washed off the children’s hands before they touched the potato. When I did this in my classroom, halfway around the classroom the clean potato fell to the floor. I continued on with the experiment and when we checked the potatoes a week later, the “clean” potato was more colorful than the “germy” potato. The students concluded that the reason was because there were more germs on the classroom floor than on their hands.
So if something seems to go wrong with your experiment, allow your children to think through the process and see if they can figure out what is going on.
Questions Kids Ask
“Why do the potatoes look different?”
Answer: Use this opportunity to discuss germs, where germs live and how to properly clean your hands. This may be all that is needed to get a reluctant hand washer in at the sink before each meal!
o Supplies: vinegar, baking soda, film canister with lid
o Process: Start with a hypothesis to this question: If vinegar and baking soda mixed causes a chemical reaction that creates carbon dioxide, what would happen when mixed together in a film canister, capped, and shaken?
o Now put a teaspoon of baking soda in the canister, add vinegar and close the lid.
o Shake, and aim away from you or put the canister on the ground (this is best done in your driveway so you can find the lid again). The lid should pop off suddenly in an exciting display.
o A Variation: get a scale or balance with the option of putting equal weight containers on either side. In a cup, mix the vinegar and baking soda and allow the reaction to take place. Then slowly pour (not allowing any liquid to pour off) the invisible carbon dioxide into one of the two containers, and watch the scale tip!
The chemical reaction causes a pressure build up inside the canister, popping the top off. The variation demonstrates the fact that carbon dioxide is heavier than air, even though you cannot see it.
Questions Kids Ask:
“Why does it do that!?”
Answer: See The Why for answers!
o Supplies: 2 paper cups or tin cans, long length of string.
o Process: Stretch the length of string between the two cups or cans. Now have someone hold each cup/can the length of the string apart and speak in a normal tone of voice like they were on the telephone.
This game displays the effect of sound waves. When someone speaks into one cup (or can) the sound waves are captured and travel along the string until they reach the other end, where miraculously, the other person can hear the message! To show your children what is happening, twang the string and watch the waves bounce, explain that is what is happening, but that we cannot see it!
Questions Kids Ask:
“How does it do that?”
Answer: see The Why to explain.
Friction in eggs
o Supplies: Several hard-boiled eggs and several uncooked eggs. Flat smooth surface.
o Procedure: Allow the hard boiled eggs to return to room temperature so that there is apparently no way to tell the difference between the cooked and uncooked eggs.
o Predict: Have your children look at the eggs and see if they can figure out a way to tell which are cooked without breaking them open.
o Then one by one, spin the eggs like a top. Eggs that slow down quickly are uncooked.
The Why: Here’s the trick: if you spin each egg on a hard surface, any uncooked egg will slow down quickly because the liquid egg inside causes friction and slows the egg down. The hard-boiled eggs will keep spinning longer because of a lack of friction inside the egg. Now have a discussion with your children about friction and gravity.
Friction: when two objects rub against each other the result is called friction. Friction causes a ball to stop rolling before hitting anything. Friction causes heat when you rub your hands together.
Gravity: what goes up must come down! Gravity is the force that causes all objects to tend to move in a downward direction when given the opportunity.
Questions Kids Ask:
“Why does the uncooked egg stop sooner than the cooked egg?”
Answer: See The Why on Friction.
For a fun afternoon activity, try making Flubber with your children!
In a large bowl, mix:
2 cups white glue
1 1/2 cups water
Food coloring (use sparingly)
In a separate container mix:
1 1/3 cup hot water
3 teaspoons borax
Add water and borax to glue mixture by hand, and mix well. Continue. Oobleck will change consistency over the next 30 minutes. Mix gently until there is very little water left. Let that small amount of water drip off. It will be sticky for a few moments, and be sure to place in a container a bit larger than the Oobleck’s initial size as it will swell slightly.
Store covered or in a zip lock. It seems to last for weeks, but it will have its best bubble blowing ability (use a straw and a large blob) within its first few hours.
This substance provides excellent opportunity for discussion on the terms “solid” and “liquid”. Is this a solid? Is it a liquid? Well, you can pour it, but you can hit it with your fist and it will be solid. Sure to occupy for hours, here is the recipe:
1 part Corn starch to 2 parts water. For one or two children, 1 cup corn starch and 2 cups water is a good amount.
Warning: this is very frustrating to mix up because as soon as the corn starch starts to mix with the water, it will try to mix like a solid. Be slow and persistent! For more watery consistency add more water, for a less watery consistency add corn starch.
Teachable Moments: The aquarium is a small piece of nature in your home that provides opportunities for learning in biology, chemistry, math and ethics.
The fish in the tank, as well as any plants or any other living organism provide an excellent start in biology. Have a discussion on how to keep the fish alive and what all that involves. Food, oxygen and clean water are all necessary for the health of the fish. If you feed too much or not enough, it can have an effect on the health of the fish. Lack of oxygen or dangerous (foreign) additives to the water can also harm the fish. This can lead to a conversation in protecting our natural water sources and preventing pollution. If it can kill your aquarium fish, think about the impact on the natural environment.
If you have access to a microscope, it is also possible to watch the blood flow through a fish’s fins (tail fin works best) but it must be done quickly to cause minimal stress to the fish.
For chemistry, all of the parameters of the water come into play. For example, you can discuss what the pH of the water is, and why it is important for the particular fish you are keeping. The use of a basic fish book as a resource can help you know what the pH should be and could also explain why.
The aquarium also provides an opportunity to look at both the nitrogen cycle and the water cycle. For the nitrogen cycle, when first setting up the tank, properly cycling the tank allows the water to go from ammonia to nitrite to nitrate. You can easily test these chemicals with simple aquarium kits and only when the cycle is complete is it safe to put fish in the water. This cycling process can take up to a couple of weeks.
The water cycle is also evident in an aquarium as water evaporates out of the tank and needs to be replaced. Talk about why the water level dropped (evaporation) and where the water went. Tie the weather into the discussion with conversations on humidity. Also discuss how adding water to the fish tank is tantamount to rain in replacing the evaporated water.
When setting up an aquarium, you can use basic geometry to figure out how much water the aquarium will hold. 10 gallons of water looks very different in an aquarium than in 10 one-gallon milk jugs. Also, most medicines or water conditioners suggest x amount per y gallons and require simple algebraic equations to figure out how much to add. Being able to perform these basic math skills may become more important and more enjoyable when applied to this real world use.
The aquarium can be a tool for teaching ethics as well. It is important to teach children to properly care for and handle animals and to give them the respect that they deserve. Aquariums provide an excellent opportunity for this discussion and also can lead into deeper discussions, such as when it is best to put down a fish. One note of caution – flushing a sick fish or any fish is extremely cruel. The chemicals strip the protective slime coating on the fish and in essence the fish will burn to death.
Having an aquarium in your home is not simply a relaxing part of your home decor, but can serve as an excellent learning tool as well!
The Why: Using daily norms in your lives, such as the aquarium, are the epitome of “Teachable Moments”. See each point above for specifics on how to use the Aquarium as a teaching tool in your house.
Questions Kids Ask:
“Why did the fish die?”
Answer: It depends on the situation. Check the water parameters, making sure all the chemicals you can test for are within normal ranges. Make sure the fish was not overfed. Was the fish sick? Did it not respond to treatment? Any of these could be reasons that the fish died. Use the experience to do some sleuthing to find out why, and then discuss how to make it better so the next fish or others in the tank do not die.
Tadpoles: Many pet stores sell tadpoles in various stages of the maturing process. This can be a great learning tool if utilized properly.
Before you buy your tadpole, there are a few things you need to have ahead of time.
o First, you need a fish tank. A five or ten gallon tank will suffice.
o You will also need a filter on the tank to keep the water clean, and
o You will need to be prepared to do weekly water changes to further help keep the water clean and free of the bacteria that can easily kill the tadpole.
o Second you need algae. You will need to feed your tadpole algae, which can be bought in wafer style at the pet store where you bought the tadpole.
o You will also need fake foliage, a rock or substrate of some sort for the tadpole to hide under as a mature frog.
Process: Once you have made the decision to purchase the tadpole, start an observation log with your children.
o Draw a weekly picture of what the tadpole looks like and write changes that you have noticed. Slowly over several months, the tadpole will begin to change into a frog.
o Read books with your child that discuss the changes you are witnessing and discuss the changes you see.
o Once the frog has more leg power than tail power, you will need to give the frog some land. When I did this, I surprised my class by making the changes after they were gone and they found it the next day for their weekly observation. I enjoyed the excited discussions that ensued! As a parent, you may want to elicit your children’s help in making the transformation, using it as a discussion time for why you are giving the frog land and why you are giving it something to hide behind.
o Now you will need to make a decision – will you release the frog into the wild? Or will you keep it as a pet? If you decide to keep the frog as a pet, be warned, it will need to eat a lot of crickets, (and if hungry enough, anything else alive and small that you put in the tank). The frog will most likely try to hide all day so you will need to provide some foliage or substrate (dirt) for him to dig in and hide in. Nocturnal animals will want to come out only at night to eat. If you decide to release the frog, you need to make that decision quickly simply because if you begin feeding the frog in captivity, it will have a difficult time surviving in the wild.
Children love being able to observe and care for animals, so the tadpole is a great learning tool. One caution though: Many of these tadpoles have difficulty surviving in captivity. Be prepared to have a discussion about death and the life cycle of animals if your tadpole doesn’t make it.
The Why: Utilize the tadpole as a “Teachable Moment”. See each point above for specifics on how to use the tadpole as a teaching tool in your house.
Questions Kids Ask:
“Why did the tadpole die?”
Tadpoles are difficult to keep and raise to maturity in captivity. Have a discussion with your child about why this might be the case.
“Why can’t I find the frog during the day?”
The type of tadpoles sold in most local fish stores are going to be nocturnal frogs when mature. Nocturnal means they sleep all day and wake up and look for food at night. To demonstrate this, and actually see the frog at night, try sneaking into the room with the frog making no noise after it has been pitch black in the room for a while. Then turn on the lights while watching. You should see the frog leap to find a hiding place. Also, as crickets disappear overnight you can deduce with your children that the frog must be coming out to eat them when it is dark, since you never see him during the day.
“Why would the frog not be able to survive if we let him go after keeping him for a while?”
Answer: Once the frog has gotten used to being fed and not having to hunt for food, he will have trouble finding food on his own in the wild.
Common difficulties and Solutions in Science:
*The child who is disorganized:
Create simple worksheets for him to write his observations on based on the type of observation. For example: the Tadpole observations lend itself to a page that has a box on top for a drawing and then lines on the bottom for written observations. Testing the water in the fish tank lends itself to a sheet with nitrate and nitrite columns to write in.
*The child who thinks science is boring:
Make sure you are doing hands-on activities. Also allow them to play with the science instead of direct teaching. Allowing them to be creative and experiment without “teacher” input can sometimes allow students who complain of being bored, the type of environment where they can truly learn best. Some students need more structure and some need less.