Welcome to Stay-at-Home Science!

I wasn’t always spending my days scraping peanut butter off the mini-blinds and counting out seconds for time-outs.  As many SAHMs do, I fondly remember a time where I was required to comb my hair and put on non-fleece-lined pants before 8am.  I used parts of my brain other than those dedicated to replaying the theme song to Paw Patrol or negotiating which child was holding the pink crayon first.  For 10 years I taught high school science in Chicago and Kansas City, and before that I was an Environmental Engineer. But now my colleagues are a 3-1/2 year old boy and his strong-willed 17-month old sister.

So when my local group of SAHMs asked me to start leading science programs for moms and preschool age kids, I was at first hesitant. Mostly because I didn’t know if I could string enough words together to form coherent sentences…but also because I wasn’t sure if I could make the activities science-y enough to be more than a ‘craft’.  But as I started putting some of these lessons together, I saw how excited these little kids were to experiment and learn, say ‘big fancy words’, and then even teach their new words and skills to others.

I want to share some of these activities with the rest of you moms (and dads!) out there who want to guide your toddlers and preschoolers endless curiosity (and need to touch everything) towards something more constructive and educational.  I want to make each activity easy to understand and follow.  I have formatted all the activities to include 2-3 science vocabulary terms, a materials list, step-by-step instructions, and a short (preschooler-friendly) explanation of the science.  I know that most hard-working moms don’t really want to read about my own daily life of diapers and hot wheels, so I will keep the narratives to a minimum after this post!  I’ll just include a few pointers on where to get supplies and tips on how to best facilitate the activities.  Please feel free to leave comments or suggestions! I am a beginner to the world of blogging and have plenty of room to grow!

Answering the “Whys”: First Day of Spring

What do toddlers and astrophysicists have in common?  They both ask “Why?” 900 times a day!

One of the things I always taught my students when I taught high school was that science was simply one guy/lady asking “Hm, I wonder why this happens?”  and another guy/lady saying “Gee, I don’t know. Let’s find out!”

As any parent knows who has ever thrown their hands up in exasperation and said “Because I SAID SO!” …preschoolers are the kings and queens of asking WHY.  This has inspired my new series of blog segments entitled Answering the “WHYs“.  In these posts I will attempt to explain some of the everyday science phenomena that kids are often curious about.  Note: If you are already a science expert, please feel free to add your knowledge in the comments!  More info is always welcome, but before you correct me too much, please know that I am gearing my posts to explaining things to young children.

LEARN SCIENCE VOCABULARY:

Rotation – spinning around an axis (i.e. the earth completes one rotation each day)

Revolution – orbiting around another object (i.e. the earth completes one revolution around the sun each year)

  • Why is today the first day of spring?  (or…It already felt like spring weeks ago, why is spring starting now?  or… It’s snowing today, why is it spring already?)

The earth is tilted on its axis as it completes its yearly orbit around the sun. (You can use a globe or a basketball to show this ’tilt.’) The tilt of the earth does not change, but remains constant at 23.5º.  March 20, 2017 is declared the first day of spring (a.k.a. the vernal equinox) in the Northern Hemisphere because the earth’s axis is no longer pointed away from the sun as it was during the winter months.  Instead, the earth’s axis is positioned so that both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres receive 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of night.  The sun’s rays are hitting directly at the earth’s equator.  (You can show this by shining a flashlight right at the middle line on the basketball.)  This positioning will happen again on September 21st after the earth moves halfway around the sun. In the Northern Hemisphere we call that the autumnal equinox, or the first day of fall.

  • Why is there day and night?

The earth rotates once on its axis approximately every 24 hours.  I say approximately because it actually takes 23 hours, 56 minutes, 4.2 seconds to spin around exactly one time. In my town of Columbus Indiana, today’s sunrise was at 7:47am and sunset will be at 7:55pm.  As the earth spins from west to east, we move into the light of the sun in the morning at sunrise and spin out of the light rays at sunset.  The video below provides a really nice visual! (But beware…my 3-yr-old son could probably watch this for an hour straight!)

Baking Soda and Vinegar Bubbly Designs

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This fun activity is great for the whole family!  It’s very easy to set up and allows for a lot of independent experimentation.  Even the youngest child can have fun squirting the colored vinegar into the baking soda and watching it fizz.  Parents and older kids can use the baking soda as a canvas for creating bubbly and colorful designs.  But be aware, this one rates high on the messiness scale, especially if you are dealing with younger children who might ‘accidentally’ squirt their colors outside the pan.  I recommend using eye droppers for the littlest scientists in this case.

For St. Patrick’s Day you can stick with green food coloring, or use all the colors to make a Leprechaun rainbow!

 

LEARN SCIENCE VOCABULARY:

Carbon Dioxide (CO2) gas – The bubbles that form when the colored vinegar reacts with the baking soda are carbon dioxide gas. These are the same gas bubbles that make soda pop fizzy, and the same gas that we humans (and all other animals) breathe out!

Chemical Reaction – When two things come together and change into something else, this is a chemical reaction.  In this case, it is vinegar (acetic acid if you want to sound smarty-pants) and baking soda (sodium bicarbonate, for you smarties) meeting up to produce carbon dioxide gas to make bubbles!  (This reaction also produces salt and water, which will be left behind in your pan.). Things that have gone through a chemical reaction are permanently changed!

Effervescence – This is a fancy word for bubbles and fizzes. (And a great word to hear your 3-yr-old try to say!)

MATERIALS NEEDED:

  • White vinegar
  • Baking soda
  • Food Coloring
  • Any sort of pan or dish with sides (you may want more than one if you have several small children who don’t like to share… paper bowls would work great)
  • Plastic cups
  • Pipettes or eye droppers (Assuming you don’t have pipettes laying around, you could also use those plastic syringes that come with infant Tylenol… if you are like me, you have several of them hoarded away for just this kind of thing!)

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HOW TO MAKE IT:

  • Pour a hefty amount of baking soda into the pans or bowls to cover the whole bottom.
  • Fill the plastic cups with about 1/4-1/2 C of vinegar and add color to each one.
  • Pipette out the colored vinegar and squeeze into the baking soda to make your designs!

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THE SCIENCE BEHIND IT:

Mixing vinegar and baking soda is one of the most common household science experiments…it is the backbone to the classic paper maché volcano.  It is actually a rather complex chemical reaction, where each substance (the vinegar and baking soda) is trading molecules and becoming completely different substances, in this case carbon dioxide gas, salt and water.  Preschoolers may not care much about the molecular science behind the reaction, but this is a great opportunity to teach about identifying gasses as something separate from liquids and solids. Once the design has stopped reacting (bubbling), they will notice holes or craters.  These holes are formed by the escaping carbon dioxide gas, proving gas does have volume and take up space. The effervescence they can observe in this activity is similar to what they would find in a fizzy drink or even by blowing bubbles into their milk or water (as I’m sure all my readers encourage their children to do in the name of science!).

This activity is also a great one for experimenting with color mixing.  Kids will naturally want to mix colors together, either in the pan or by pouring the vinegars together.  I say, let them do it!  (I will post more activities on color mixing soon.)

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Tabletop Hovercraft

You know how you spend a bunch of money on a fancy toy and your toddler plays with it for 2 days then loses interest… but then they will never get tired of the empty Kleenex box? Then you will love this activity! This is such an easy and exciting project to do inside on a winter day. You can teach your kids about friction, force and air resistance while constructing a homemade toy that can be played with over and over!

LEARN SCIENCE VOCABULARY:

  • Force – any push or pull; friction and air resistance are examples of forces
  • Friction – the action of one surface rubbing against another, a ‘sticky’ force. Demonstrate friction by trying to slide the disc against the table or your hand
  • Air Resistance – the action of air pushing against a surface (in this case, the disc and the table)

MATERIALS NEEDED:

  • Old CD or DVD (it probably won’t play after this!)
  • Balloon
  • Wooden spool (about 1″ size – you can get these at Hobby Lobby or a similar craft store)
  • Duct tape

HOW TO MAKE IT:

Position the wooden spool so that its hole is over the hole in the CD/DVD and use the Duct tape to secure it.  Be sure to use enough tape so that there are no holes that may allow air to escape.

Blow up the balloon, but don’t tie it.  Stretch the end of the balloon over the top of the wooden spool while still holding the balloon closed.

Set the disc flat on the table surface (or smooth floor) and let go of the balloon.  As the air pushes out of the bottom of your Hovercraft, it will lift slightly and move about the table.  You can give it a little push to keep it going or to prevent it from falling off the table edge.

THE SCIENCE BEHIND IT:

When you push the disc around the table on its own, it will tend to ‘stick’ to the table surface.  The force that causes this sticking sensation is called FRICTION.  When the air comes out of the balloon it is pushed under the disc, lifting it slightly off the table.  The force of air resistance is much less than the friction force between the disc and the table, so it is much easier for the disc to slide across the table.

This is similar to how real hovercrafts work over land or water… or even the old Air Hockey tables we used to play with.

NOTES FOR MOMS:

This project is best for ages 3 and up, but most of the assembly requires help from an adult.  First graders and older should be able attach the spool with tape and even blow up the balloon (partially, at least!).  The balloons can be reused several times to power your hovercraft.  I have found that preschool kids like to play with the tied balloon after one or two times with the hovercraft… which gives you a great opportunity to teach static electricity!

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Step by step.

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Watch your Hovercraft zip around the table!