Time for our second group of science with preschoolers! Yay! I am keeping it simple on purpose. We want science to be fun and accessible to everyone. This round we have an interesting mix. We have an experiment that, well, didn’t work quite how I thought it would. We have a guaranteed crowd favorite. And I made a baby focused toy to try out that can also be sued with older kids. Oh, and I’ll toss in an easy fall back activity that can be used anywhere. Let’s science!
Confession: I got a little cocky on this one. Science Thursdays had been going so well. Ben had been loving our projects. I felt like I had some good conversations going with him. We were rocking it. So I decided to try something I had never done before. I was going to make ‘plastic’ out of vinegar and milk. I told Ben about it, I got everything together and we got started.
The instructions for this one are really quite easy. (I couldn’t find the original post where I saw this idea, so I found instructions on wiki how.) Take 1 cup of milk and bring it to a boil. (I microwaved ours, just do it for a minute at a time until it boils, but doesn’t overflow the cup.) Then we had Ben add 4 tablespoons of white vinegar. We measured it out ahead of time so he could practice counting, but still dump it all in at once. Then you stir! Stir stir stir. And, well, I don’t want to say nothing. You could see little bits of solid forming, but nothing really big. When you are three, bigger is better for this kind of thing. I could see that yes indeed, the solid was formed, but I didn’t think it would be enough to form into a solid.
We decided to try again. I wondered if our milk wasn’t hot enough. I did bring it to a boil, but then I took the time to remind Ben not to touch it and basically spent a few minutes reviewing safety instead of just getting to it. That time lost might have allowed the milk to cool enough to slow the reaction. We microwaved some new milk and tried again. It was a little better! You could instantly see some solids found, which Ben thought was pretty cool.
While Ben did think the sudden change was neat, we were kind of losing his interest, so we took the advice of one site and just dumped in a bunch of vinegar. This did the trick a little better. We did get some solids. They looked like cottage cheese, which makes sense. More than plastic you are making cheese curds. (This technique follows some of the same ideas as making paneer.) What is happening is when the vinegar mixes with the milk it pulls the protein casein out, which clumps together.
Once we had some solids we strained it through a fine strainer with a paper towel liner. At this point it was cool enough to touch, so Ben helped us press lightly on the ‘plastic’ to get some of the liquid out. We left it to drain a little longer. An hour or so later we shaped it into a circle(ish) and poked a hole in the top. We had a very small amount of the plastic, hence the free-form shaping. None of my cookie cutters are small enough to be worth using. I poked the hole towards the top so when it was dry we could paint it and make a wall hanging.
As I said, this activity did not go as I planned. But that actually turned out to be a good thing. Ben got to see and participate in a real scientific process. We had to ask ourselves, what should we change? How much should we change it by? I took the opportunity to explain to him why we only change one thing at a time. We could have just heated up some new milk and dumped in ton of vinegar right from the start. Yes, we would get the same results, but we wouldn’t know for sure what was making the change- the heat, the vinegar, or the combination of the two. The takeaway from this is that making a single change lets us better track what is actually happening.
Now, I understand this idea might be a bit more than a three year old is interested in or even understands fully, but they are absorbing this. This is the basis of a methodical approach to problem solving. That is a big takeaway from this sort of activity. Pat was home while we did this experiment as well, giving Ben that added benefit of seeing us discuss what was happening. He saw two adults working through the situation. We didn’t panic, get mad, or quit. We talked it out and tried new ways to find a solution. This is something he might not have seen if everything worked perfectly the first time. So overall I would call this failure a big old success in terms of core concepts being taught.
A few final notes on this. This would be a great project close to the holidays. You can paint your product and make ornaments! It took a few days for the plastic to fully dry. It did not smell bad, which all the sources I referenced said would be the case. Just in case I gave it a base paint to be sure it was sealed before Ben painted it to hang in his room. While the solid did not smell, the warm milk and vinegar did have an aroma. I didn’t think it was too bad, but if you are having aversions to smells you might want to skip this one.
Build a Volcano
This one is a must do for most kids. I mean, who can resist making their own volcano? It can seem like a major undertaking, or at least a big old mess, but it can actually be very quick. You need water, baking soda, dish soap, and vinegar. If you want to go for a little more realism you can add in some red washable paint, but I think it is pretty cool without that.
The set up of this one is what makes it so easy. When I picture making a volcano I think of having to paper mache a big mountain and having it erupt all over the kitchen. Basically I think it will be a major undertaking and a giant mess. It doesn’t have to be! We took it outside. We put a plastic cup on the ground and built up rocks around it to hold it steady. Now that we live in the southwest our yard is basically all rocks. If you don’t have that you can use dirt or really anything to support the cup. The rocks made it look very mountain like, which was awesome.
Once you have your cup in place, fill it up about 2/3 to 3/4 of the way full with water. Add in 5 tablespoons of baking soda, a healthy squirt of dish soap, and mix it all up. Now the fun part, it’s time to make it erupt. Pour in a cup of white vinegar and watch it go! The more dish soap you add the more foamy it will be. The reaction is pretty immediate, making it a perfect activity for anyone with a shorter attention span. (Note it does work without the dish soap, but the soap adds even more fizz making it more dramatic.)
There are things you can talk about with this. I explained to Ben that we were seeing a chemical reaction take place. A chemical reaction is when two or more substances combine to form a new substance. (To be specific when you mix baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) and vinegar (acetic acid) you get water, carbon dioxide, and sodium acetate.) For preschoolers just learning that a chemical reaction took place is probably enough. You can compare that sort of reaction to changes in states of matter. For example when water freezes it is still water, just one is liquid and one is solid. You can also talk about real volcanoes. A volcano is a mountain that opens up into a pool of magma. When the tectonic plates shift that friction and movement can cause eruptions. (If you want to get into all the specifics check out this site with kid friendly definitions of volcanoes.)
Overall I found this activity to be a good one just to really get kids excited about science. It is a clear, fast reaction that really grabs your attention. Good questions to ask on this one are before and after type questions. What do you think will happen? What did happen? Can you describe what you saw? Were you surprised by this? While this is a pretty simple chemical reaction that sort of detail is a bit much. Simply seeing that we can create such a reaction can really peak a child’s interest.
‘Lava lamp’ Bottles
Ben had summer camp one week, so I decided to put together a little sensory activity for Ali and Sammy. Yes, you can start to introduce science to your one year old! I think most people actually already do this and don’t even realize it. We are encouraged to introduce our babies to different sensory experiences. Having them touch different textures or hear different sounds stimulates their development. It is also starting the foundation for their physical perception of the world. They are learning the difference between hard and soft, rough and smooth, loud and quiet. While they might not realize they are discovering these things, they are filing these experiences away into their collective understanding of how the world around them works.
These bottles are super easy to make. Fill a plastic water bottle about 2/3 of the way with water. I add some food coloring to make it more interesting to look at. Then add some oil to the top. I used vegetable oil because that is what I had, but I think most kitchen oils would work just fine. (If you want it to be more clear try baby oil.) One important step is to secure the lid. I use packing tape, but glue isn’t a bad idea. The last thing you want is to have colored water and oil spilling everywhere. (Now, I made these for the girls so I did it myself. If you want to do this for an older child they can totally help you make it. A fun thing to do is to put the oil in first, then add the water. They can watch the water pass through the oil. Then add in the food coloring and watch it fall too!)
Then you give these to your baby to explore! They can shake them up, flip them upside down, roll them around. Anything they want to watch the liquids move around. What they are seeing is that different liquids have different densities. They are also learning that just because something is a liquid, that doesn’t mean it will mix with every other liquid. If you want to take this up a notch you can add glitter, beads, or really anything you can think of. These also make great tools if your child needs help calming down. They are very soothing to watch.
Sometimes you want to do more science minded activities with your kids, but you just can’t. Either you don’t have the time, you don’t have the energy, or you just don’t know what to do. You don’t have to do great big grand experiments, you don’t even have to know a ton of detailed scientific explanations. Grab a book from your library. My favorite store Target sometimes has books in their dollar section even. Dinosaurs, space, plants, any topic can work.
Grab a book, sit down, and go through it with your child. Yes, that is the key, doing it with your child. Read together and talk about what you are reading. This week Ben and I read a book on the solar system. We talked about the planets in our solar system, the sun, and a bit about stars. Easy as can be. Kids are fascinated by this kind of thing. My favorite part is you don’t even have to know much on the topic. I mean, you are reading the information with them. This great to fill just a few minutes in the day, or to take on the go.
The important thing to remember is that this counts. Sometimes I feel like I am cheating or slacking if my activities with my kids are less that Pinterest perfect. But that isn’t what counts. It’s about exposing our kids to new ideas and teaching them about the world. You’re just opening up a dialog. More than that all these are about having fun with your kids.
We learned a lot with all these activities! Looking back I love that one didn’t go well, we learned so much. I am so happy I found out just how easy it is to make a big impact with the volcano. Ali and Sammy got some extra focus, always a good thing. It’s helpful to remember we can start learning at any age. And of course having an easy back up plan comes in handy. Time to see what we should try next!
Have you tried any of these at home? What worked for you or didn’t work? Anything you have tried that we should as well? Any topics you want me to cover? I love hearing from readers and sharing experiences! Here are some worksheets you can print out to do these with your kids.
Finally if you want the inside scoop on all things Team Cartwright Simple Science you can sign up for our TC science with kids mailing list. This gets you access to our free printables library which has the worksheets for the experiments we have done so far. These worksheets have the materials you will need, the steps to take, concepts explored, and guiding questions to lead your child through discovery. I’m trying to make it as easy as possible for busy parents. Plus when you sign up you’ll instantly get my easy activities to share some science with your kids when you are out to eat. You don’t need anything other than what you will find on the average restaurant table. Easy and fun!