Light and Shadow


An updated version of this post appears at

This week, we got to play with light and shadows!


Shadow-making Screen. My co-teacher built a fabulous screen of a white sheet supported by a PVC frame. It was held up by two very heavy umbrella stands so even with a fair amount of rough-housing, it never came close to tipping over. (If you don’t have umbrella stands, you might be able to build PVC legs and duct tape them to the ground?)


Behind the screen, we had an LED shop light, which was very bright, but cool to the touch. (PLEASE don’t use an incandescent bulb or halogen shop light as they can get very hot!!) We happen to have an interior room with no windows, so it was easy to get the room dark enough to get good shadow effects – it might be harder in a window-filled room.

Challenge Activity: Experiment with shadow-making screen in Circle Room.

This was a free play station that was available for the whole class session.  We had stuffed animals and sample shadow puppets that they could use to make shadows. Or they could use their hands to form shadow puppets. (One thing I would do differently for next time is make a poster showing diagrams of hand positions for shadow puppets to inspire them to play more with that.)

Or they could just do crazy dances behind the screen! (Often kids on the “audience” side of the screen would mimic the motions of the child behind the screen.)

They could also make their own shadow puppets, or bring in other items from the classroom to see what shadows they would cast. (For example, in the photo of the shadow of the stuffed horse, you’ll notice some rainbow colors – those were the result of putting rainbow colored transparent “Legos” in front of the light source.)

IMG_20160423_103349338  IMG_20160423_110144883  IMG_20160423_110426846  IMG_20160423_110211894

Art Project – Shadow Puppets. We had white paper, markers, scissors, tape, and popsicle sticks so they could make their own shadow puppets. Next time, we’ll instead have black paper, because really the point of a shadow puppet is the outline / silhouette. Doing marker decorations on white paper is not something that will show in a shadow. I will also put up a poster with some sample shadow puppets to give kids a better sense of what kinds of designs to make. (We had two parents who did some great TMNTurtles and a great Darth Vader mask I didn’t get a picture of.)


IMG_20160423_140305081  IMG_20160423_140300222

Engineering Project: Sundial. Create a sundial with a paper plate, straw, tape, glue and glass globules.

If you’re with your kids / students all day on a sunny day, here’s the process: Poke a hole in the center of the plate. Tape a pencil or straw upright in the hole. On an hour mark (at 9:00 exactly or 10:00 or whatever), take the plate outside, and tape it in place in the sun. Mark a line where the shadow falls, and write the time. An hour later, come make the shadow and time again. Repeat on the hour all day long till your sundial is complete. The next day, check it again to show that it’s still working. You can pick up and move the sundial as long as every time you set it down, you orient it the same way. (More info on this project at: or

Since we only have our students for a couple hours, and since the weather forecast was gray skies and rain, my co-teacher prepped a template a few days ahead of time (on a beautiful sunny day) and we did a slightly different process. We put the pencil in the center, then slid on the paper template, which was smaller in diameter than the plates, then marked off all the times. Then we removed the templates and they decorated their sundials.

IMG_20160423_102157607  IMG_20160423_112520500

Optional Outside Activity: Students set-up their sundials in (hopefully) the sunshine and see where the shadow is falling – and check whether it’s correct about the time.

Art Project Hands on “Negative Art”.  (Source of idea:

We filled a spray bottle with white kid-safe / easy clean-up paint mixed with water… goal was to thin it enough that it would spray easily, but not so thin that it would run. We put up on the easel a piece of black cardstock (paper isn’t sturdy enough to support this much paint.)  The child would put their hand on the black paper with fingers spread apart, and we sprayed the paper around their fingers. When they lift up their hand, they see the “shadow” of it. (Note: the back of their hand will be covered with paint, so be sure to set up a tub of soapy water and a towel right next to this project!!)  You can also put a big piece of black poster board on the ground and spray several kids’ hands.


We had planned for the kids to do the spraying themselves (good fine motor practice) but with our sprayer, if you were too close to the paper (i.e. kid’s arm-length away), the paint stream was too focused. You had to stand back a few feet to get a nice spread-out spray of paint – and no kid could stand that far back and not make a big mess!

After these are finished, you can explain to the kids that light rays are like the paint – they spread outward and continue forward till they run into something that blocks them and that makes a shadow.

Sculptural-Engineering Activity:  Kids sculpted a shape or cut a shape from aluminum foil, then taped it to a cardstock square. Then they placed it in front of a bright lamp and traced the shadow then colored in the shadow. (Source of idea:


This activity is best for the 6 – 7 year olds. The younger ones had a harder time figuring out how to make a three dimensional sculpture. If you’re working only with little ones, you might find it better to just use plastic figures and have them trace and color in their shadows on paper.

STEAM Activity: Exploring Light Refraction: Fill several different sizes and shapes of glass jars with water and seal. Put them out with paper and marker pens. Have kids draw arrows or other pictures and look at them through the water filled jars to see how the images change. Some jars will distort images, some will flip them – some have very little effect. Have kids experiment with the different size jars, with different size drawings and moving the image closer or further away. (Idea:


Building Activity: We had translucent “Duplos.” The kids built towers with them, then shone a flashlight to see the colorful shadows. Key to the success of this activity was to just leave the flashlight on, shining through whatever tower was currently there… as kids looked over and noticed that colorful shadow, it intrigued them enough to come and explore. If the flashlight wasn’t on, they were more likely to pass it by as a familiar “just Duplos” activity.


Projector Shadows: We have an overhead projector, so set it out with some opaque items (blocks, etc.) and some glass tile samples that make really cool shadows. Here’s a picture of the items on the projector surface and then their image on the wall, and then a photo of all the projected glass tile shadows (sorry that some of the tiles still have their stickers on them in this photo…)

IMG_20160423_124526883  IMG_20160423_124534777


Light Table: We had the light table out with a variety of translucent items for free exploration.


Sensory Table: We had it filled with colorful water beads floating in water, and a couple flashlights to shine on them, to shine up through the bottom of the table, etc.


Optional Indoor Activity #1: Mural of kids’ shadows. You could tape a big piece of paper on the wall. Then shine a big light or projector at it. Have kids stand by the wall so their shadows fall on the paper. Trace their shadows.

Optional Indoor #2: Hanging shadows. You could hang a clothesline across a room and hang a lot of items on it. Hand the child a flashlight and turn off the lights – they can walk up and down the line, shining the flashlight at all angles, finding the shadow in the room.

Optional Outdoor Activity: Sunprints. You can purchase special photo-sensitive paper (called sun prints, or sun art paper.) You set it outside in the sunshine, with various items on it for a period of 15 minutes to a few hours (depending on the product and how bright the sun is), then you remove the items. and you’ve capture the image / shadow permanently. (See example here.)  They’re really VERY cool – I love them. BUT… in the Pacific Northwest, I find that they don’t tend to work most of the year – our winter sunlight just isn’t intense enough. I have gotten them to work on hot sunny summer days.

Opening Circle:

We asked the kids what makes light – what light sources could they think of. As they suggested them, we drew them up on the board to reinforce what was said.


We demonstrated a few light sources, including a flashlight that created a very diffuse light and a laser pointer which created a very focused light.

We then talked about shadows and when they see them, and what makes them, and so on. We demo’ed some hand shadow puppets on the screen. We did a little mini puppet show with some paper shadow puppets.

We talked about the difference between Opaque Shadows = No light getting through and Translucent shadows = Some light shining through, and demo’ed this with some colorful scarves and the translucent Duplos.


Song – We’re still looking for a great sing-along about light or shadows for circle. A couple options, both to the tune of Frere Jacques:  (Source 1; Source 2)

See my shadow, see my shadow
Move this way, move that way.
See it do what I do, see it do what I do,
It follows me, it follows me.

I see shadows,  I see shadows,
On the wall,  On the wall.
Some are short and scary,
Some are short and scary,
Some are tall, Some are tall.

Books (contains affiliate links)

Non-Fiction Books on Light and Shadow

  • Oscar and the Moth: A Book About Light and Dark by Waring. This book is a conversation between a cat and a moth that explains how the earth rotates and that causes day and night, explains that light can come from the sun, the stars, electric light, and animals that emit light. It also explains that shadows happen when something blocks the light. A nice overview of lots of scientific ideas, told in a way that not only makes sense to preschool age children, but is engaging as well.
  • Follow It!: Learn About Shadows by Hall. Non-fiction, covers all the basic ideas about shadows. Does a great job of gathering the key ideas about shadows, but the writing isn’t very engaging. Good resource for ages 4 – 6.
  • Guess Whose Shadow? by Swinburne. Pros – the book includes a basic introduction to the idea of shadows, with photos to illustrate the text, then it has a guessing game, where you see the shadow on one page and it asks you to guess whose shadow it is, then reveals the answer on the next page. The kids in our class (age 3 – 7) were definitely engaged in the guessing game during circle. Cons: the photos are a little dated, and not that great, and there’s just a grammatical incorrectness to showing a picture of a shadow of a swing-set and saying “guess whose shadow.” It’s almost tempting to write / photograph our own version of this guessing game.
  • Shadows and Reflections by Hoban. Like all Tana Hoban books, this is a wordless collection of photographs on a theme. Like all Tana Hoban books, I think this one is fine, and I get it to put on the bookshelf for kids to look at it, but I can’t say I love it.
  • What Makes a Shadow? by Bulla and Otani. A really nice non-fiction overview of everything having to do with shadows. Great for 5 – 7 year olds, or to read one-on-one to a younger child, but too long for a group time with preschoolers.
  • Day Light, Night Light: Where Light Comes From by Branley and Schuett. Branley worked at the Hayden planetarium and has written many kids’ science books. Like his other books, this is a really good summary of the scientific facts, for kids 5 – 8. We don’t read his books in class because they’re too long and over the heads of half our kids, but they’re quite good.
  • Science Chapters: All About Light by Halpern. The description says it’s for ages 6 – 9. I think it’s most appropriate for the older edge of that – it’s over the head of the kids in our class (age 3 – 7.)

Stories about Shadows

  • Shadow Night by Chorao. This book hadn’t yet arrived from the library when we had class… but oh, I’m looking forward to reading it in class next year! A boy sees shadows on his wall and is afraid that they are monsters. He yells for his parents, who come to reassure him, and end up showing him how to make shadow puppets with their hands, and then they tell a story with shadow puppets. The great part is that the book is also a tutorial in how to make those hand shadows yourself!! So, I think one teacher could be reading the book where the kids could see it, and the other could be creating the shadows on the screen for everyone to see. The book ends with the boy making shadows on the wall, including a shadow monster. Ages 3 – 7. Although it’s long for a read-aloud, I think it will work, when used in conjunction with the shadow screen.

IMG_20160513_162453401  IMG_20160513_162517308

  • Moonbear’s Shadow by Asch. When Bear is fishing, his shadow scares away the fish. So, he tries to run away from his shadow and tries to trap his shadow, but with no success. At noontime his shadow disappears so he takes a nap, but in the late afternoon, it’s back! But when he goes fishing, his shadow no longer falls over the water. So, he catches a fish – and so does his shadow! A cute story for ages 3 – 5 that also discusses how shadows change as the sun moves through the daytime sky.
  • The Dark, Dark Night by Butler and Chapman. Frog is headed home to his pond after dark and borrows a lantern. When he gets to the pond, he sees a huge black Pond Monster! (The kids in our class were delighted that they all knew this was Frog’s shadow, even though Frog didn’t know that.) He goes and gets friend after friend. They see bigger and scarier Pond Monsters and get more and more worked up. Then at the end, they realize that it’s just their shadows and laugh and laugh. A nice story about shadows and also about how sometimes a misunderstanding can lead to fear and then when we learn more it becomes less scary. Fun for ages 3 – 6.
  • Lights Out by Medearis and Tadgell. Part of the Just for You series featuring African American families. Nice illustrations, good rhythm and rhyme to the text. “‘Good night, sleep tight!’ Daddy tucks me in. Out go the lights. Now the fun begins!” Sweet story of a daddy tucking a child in to bed, then her sneaking out to look at the city lights and make hand shadow puppets and then sneak back into bed. Nice preschool read-aloud or easy read for a new reader.
  • Nothing Sticks Like a Shadow by Tompert and Munsinger. Age 5 – 7 – a much longer book than I would read at story-time, but might work well one on one at home or as a naptime read at a preschool. Fun, silly story about a rabbit who tries lots of ways to escape his shadow – leaping away, sweeping it away, pulling it off, cutting it off….
  • My Shadow by Stevenson. This is a poem from the late 1800’s by Robert Louis Stevenson, and many illustrated versions exist. Some of the words are dated: “he stays so close beside me, he’s a coward you can see. I’d think shame to stick to nursie as that shadow sticks to me!” but overall, still appealing to modern preschool-aged children if the illustrations appeal.

Videos and Apps

Kids’ Books about Inventors and Makers


On this site, you’ll find LOTS of recommended children’s books for kids age 3 – 7 (preschool to second grade). In each weekly blog post, I cover one particular STEM topic and all the activities we did to teach it, including books specific to that theme. So, be sure to check those out. On this page, I’ve collected some of my favorite books about people who dream, invent and build. Our Inventors class strives to inspire kids to explore and to “make things”, and the stories we tell are definitely an important part of that.

Most Highly Recommended Stories (Fiction)

ifhouseIf I Built a House by Van Dusen. A boy designs a house (we see his drawing, and the model he’s built with Legos, Tinker Toys and cardboard). Then we get to tour the inside of  the house he imagines. The Kitchen-o-Mat cooks and cleans, there’s trampolines and ball pits in the living room, and more. Groovy retro art, fun text for reading aloud, great flights of imagination, and great modeling of a kid with maker dreams. This is probably my favorite book for my kids’ inventors class! We read it on Build a House week. (Also  check out If I Built a Car by Van Dusen. The boy imagines then builds a fabulous car, with a swimming pool, fireplace, and instant snack bar. We read it in Build a Car week, along with Galimoto, another great maker book about a boy in Malawi who collects scraps of wire to build a toy car.)

rosierevereRosie Revere, Engineer by Beaty. Rosie dreams of being an engineer, and builds cool stuff out of trash, but then her uncle laughs at her and she stops inventing till Aunt Rose (Rosie the Riveter in her later years) comes to visit. They build a heli-o-cheese-copter. It only flies for a moment and Rosie is discouraged, till Aunt Rose says “it’s the perfect first try! This great flop is over, it’s time for the next”. They keep building together. (Great read for any of our Engineering classes or for Flight week, although there’s lots of other great flight books to choose from, like Violet the Pilot.) You might also enjoy two other books by Beaty:  Iggy Peck, Architect – we read it in Bridges week and Ada Twist, Scientist.

going-places-9781442466081_hrGoing Places by Reynolds. A class is challenged to a “Going Places” contest, then all given identical go kart kits. Rafael is very excited about the project, and assembles the kit PERFECTLY, according to the directions. Then he discovers his neighbor Maya is dreamily watching birds and not building her kit. She builds a fabulous contraption, but it’s not a go-kart. She and Rafael team up to build an amazing and unique go-kart… that FLIES! At the end, they get an even wilder idea for what to build next! This is a very engaging story, not just about building but also about inventing. Bonus points for ethnically diverse characters and gender balance. Age 4 – 7. A good option for Build a Car theme, or Contraptions or Flight.

papaPapa’s Mechanical Fish by Fleming and Kulikoff. A really well-written and enjoyable book that shares the adventures of a family where the father is an tinkerer. His inventions are never quite successful – they “almost work”. He is inspired to make a mechanical fish, and after several failed attempts makes a submarine the whole family can ride in. We read it when studying Sink or Float or Submarines.

Most-Magnificent-Thing-coverThe Most Magnificent Thing  by Spires. A little girl wants to make the most MAGNIFICENT thing. She draws it out, and knows exactly how it will work. But when she tries to make it she fails again and again and gets very discouraged. But then she looks at all the things she made, finds the best thing about each, tries again and succeeds. People love all her “failed” experiments and take them home to use. Great read-aloud for ages 3 – 7. I appreciate that it really shows her emotions and how she deals with them, and lets kids know it’s OK to make mistakes. (This could be a good read for Contraptions week, which also included some other great books, like Mechanimals.)

moatWhat Floats in a Moat? by Berry & Cordell. Very silly and entertaining, great read-aloud that tells about Archie the Goat (named for Archimedes) and teaches about the science of Sink and Float. “Archie the Goat stopped short at a moat. He measured and mapped. He doodled and drew. He sketched and scribbled and scrawled. ‘Aha. To cross the moat,’ announced the goat, “we build a contraption to float!” When Skinny Hen suggests they could take the drawbridge, Archie says “Bah… This is no time for a drawbridge. This is a time for science!” He proceeds through 3 attempts (“he hammered and nailed, clanged and banged”) till he successfully gets across the moat on a half full barrel of buttermilk.

fraidyzooFraidyzoo by Heder. Little T is feeling afraid of going to the zoo, but she can’t remember which animal she is afraid of. Her family says they won’t go to the zoo till they figure it out. They then spend THE REST of the day going through the alphabet, asking “does it start with an A (miming an alligator) or B (holding a red scarf for a bull) or C (using a blanket and three people to form a two humped camel). It gets more and more complex, as they build animals from bubble wrap, cardboard, oven mitts, mops, umbrellas, empty water bottles and more. By the end of it all, little T is excited to plan a zoo trip for the next day. But then at the zoo, her big sister is frightened away by the ticket sales lady. So, they go home and role play that out too! Nice book about a family playing together, building together and empathizing with each other’s fears. Age 3 – 7. May be a good read for Adaptations week, when we’ll be talking about various animals. Could be fun to try to build some animal costumes from our recycled materials supplies!

Also, check out the books from Robots week, like Awesome Dawson and Clink.

Other Good Stories That Didn’t Quite Make “Highest Recommendation”

Inventor McGregor by Pelley and Chesworth. A story of a man who lived in a higgledy-piggledy house with a cheery wife, five children, and a hen called Hattie.
They call him Mend-It McGregor because he fixes everything that breaks in his village. He also invents new things to fix his neighbor’s challenges. He is a very happy man. But then he’s recruited by the Royal Society of Inventors and taken to work in a lovely, quiet, well-furnished lab. Away from the chaos of his community’s life, he is lonely and sad, and also can’t come up with any ideas for what to invent, and returns to his village. Ages 4 – 8, but too long for circle in a group setting.

Anything Is Possible by Belloni and Trevisan. Age 4 – 6. A sheep watches birds flying. She runs to her friend wolf who is a scientist / inventor and asks him to build a flying machine. After initial reluctance, he gets out his triangle and protractor and they starts to sketch (cool DaVinci style sketches of gears, screws, wheels….) They gather materials and build. They launch and fail, rebuild, launch and fail, rebuild, launch… and fly! It’s a fun read, great illustrations (though I find adults like them better than kids do), and good modelling of trying again. Not much explanation of any science of how the thing is supposed to actually fly…. kids won’t care, but some adults prefer more practical books.

11exp11 Experiments That Failed by Offill and Carpenter. Here is a sample experiment: “Experiments with Perfume. Question: Will seedlings grow if given Eau La La instead of water? Hypothesis: Seedlings will like Eau La La better than water. What you need: pots, dirt, seedlings, water, fancy perfume. What to Do: Place dirt in pots. Plant seedlings in dirt. Water one pot with water. Water other pot with perfume. Watch. What happened: Mom cried. Seedlings died.” This is fun and silly and would be my recommended book to read on a week when you discuss the scientific method. We read it when talking about Chemical Reactions.

Henry’s Amazing Machine by Dodds and Brooker. About a boy who invents from the day he is born till his house is filled beyond overflowing with an “amazing machine” with “dripping things, dropping things, pushing, pulling, stopping things… you sure know ho to build things. But Henry, what does it do?” Henry hasn’t a clue until the local carnival announces it is closing down and he moves his machine there. This is a fun read that kids will engage in. Age 4 – 8. Could read for Contraptions week.

The Big Ideas of Buster Bickles by Wasson. A child is full of big ideas and invents crazy stuff. He takes it to show and tell and kids laugh at him. But then his Uncle Roswell has invented the “What If Machine” that can make any idea into reality, but Uncle can’t come up with any big ideas. So Buster shares plenty of his. Great read-aloud for ages 3 – 6.

The Dumpster Diver by Wong and Roberts. Tells the story of Steve the Electrician the dumpster diver, and his assistants: Hose Handler, Hose Handler 2 and Fauceteer. After he dives, they help hose him off. Then they build: they first draw, then measure, drill, and saw and build fabulous things. They turn a blender into a lamp, an old lamp into a table and so on. Pros of this book: encourages building and inventiveness, encourages re-use of used materials instead of sending to landfill. Possible concerns for some children / families: When Steve dives in a dumpster, LOTS of beetles, roaches, and spiders splash out. There may be some people who are troubled by this illustration. In the end, Steve gets cut up by broken glass and rusted metal in a dumpster. One Amazon reviewer liked that this was a cautionary tale that told kids that it wasn’t maybe such a good idea to dumpster dive. Another Amazon reviewer said her children found it very frightening. My 5 year old loved it – no worries for him. Would be a good addition to Contraptions week.

Ziggy’s Big Idea by Long and Joni. About a boy on a shtetl who loves to invent things – though they don’t always work, His father sells rolls for the baker, and Ziggy comes up with the idea of putting a hole in the middle of the boiled and baked rolls to help them cook evenly – inventing the bagel. It’s a fine story which highlights Jewish culture.

Marveltown by McCall. I LOVE how this book starts out: “In Marveltown… we were born to brainstorm: in a city created by inventors, we saw man-made wonders wherever we looked… from rocket-jumping by moonlight to fishing from a mile-high tower, Marveltown kids thought fun without a challenge was no fun at all.” Then it tells of the cool things it invents. So far – fabulous… but then it becomes another story about rampaging robots and how the kids defeat them with their inventions. If I read this in class, I might just read the first half, as there’s only so many rampaging robots stories you want to read in a year.

The Girl Who Never Made Mistakes by Pett and Rubinstein. This tells of Beatrice Bottomwell who is famed far and wide for never making mistakes. One day she slips and almost makes a mistake, but in the end catches four falling eggs before they hit the ground. She worries all that day about her “Almost Mistake.” She watches friends ice skating but is afraid to join them because she doesn’t want to risk falling. Then at the talent show: “for the first time in as long as anyone could remember, Beatrice made a mistake. And it was a big one!” She ends up laughing about it, then after that starts taking more risks, and trying things like ice skating – where yes, she falls down a lot, but she also has lots of fun. Great read-aloud for age 5 – 8. Good for a day when I discuss Willingness to Fail or the Growth Based Mindset in parent education. (The only reason this one is not in my top category of “highest recommendation” is that it’s not about an inventor / maker.)

Non-Fiction Biographies of Inventors

The Fantastic Undersea Life of Jacques Cousteau by Yaccarino. I love this book! The illustrations are fabulous, there are quotes from Cousteau mixed in that capture the magic of his work (“The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever”), it starts with Jacques as a young boy who likes to tinker and then moves us through the history of all of his inventions and research in a way that engages us in his dreams and his motivation to keep pushing science forward in pursuit of his dreams. Best for age 4 – 7.

Balloons over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy’s Parade by Sweet. A Caldecott Honor winner. Great story that starts with a child who “loved to figure out how to make things move….” As an adult, he becomes a marionette and makes his way to New York City, where he then makes window displays for Macy’s, and eventually invents the giant helium balloons that first appeared in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade in 1928. Engaging story-telling, nice illustrations and graphic design, and a celebration of both imagination and hard work. Plus, some American cultural history. Best for ages 6 – 8.

The Great Idea Series, includes books such as In the Bag!: Margaret Knight Wraps It Up and All Aboard!: Elijah McCoy’s Steam Engine by Kulling. Very nice biographies, that start with the inventor as a child, which helps students to relate to them, focus on one early invention, and then briefly address the inventor’s longer career. They’re pretty wordy. Best for 6 – 8 year olds. With my class of 3 – 7 year olds, I write my own abridged version of the story that’s only about 30 – 40% as long as the original, I print it up, and I tape it to the back of the book so I can hold up the book to show the pictures, but read a much shorter and simpler language story. Bonus: includes female and African-American inventors.

Now & Ben: The Modern Inventions of Benjamin Franklin by Barretta. (And his other books, Neo Leo: the ageless ideas of Leonardo da Vinci and Timeless Thomas: How Thomas Edison changed our lives.) These books are well written, with nice illustrations and an engaging style. They’re best for ages 6 – 9, and a bit long, so I don’t use them as read-alouds in my class for 3 – 7 year olds.  Now and Ben has a fun approach where the left page in each spread talks about “Now” – something we do or use now, and the right page talks about “Ben” – what Ben had to do with the invention or implementation of that idea.

Great Imagination Books

These are great books! They’re more about imagination than they are about actually building and inventing real physical objects, so they don’t make my cut of books for inventors and makers, but are well worth the read.

Not a Box and Not a Stick by Antoinette Portis. These two books have an unseen adult asking questions like “What are you doing on top of that box?” “Are you still standing around in that box?” “Hey be careful with that stick.” “Look where you’re going with that stick.” And our protagonist (bunny in Box, piglet in Stick) repeatedly responds “It’s not a box / stick.” And we then get to see what they are imagining it is. (A pirate ship, hot air balloon basket, drum major’s baton, caveman’s spear). Very fun books about imagination, and about the idea that a simple toy can inspire all sorts of imaginative play.  If you like these books, read 5 Best Toys of All Time.

Roxaboxen by McLerran and Cooney. A story of a place that to adults might appear to be a rocky hill in the desert with some trash in it. But to the children, it’s a magical village. “A town of Roxaboxen began to grow, traced in lines of stone… the old wooden boxes could be shelves or tables or anything you wanted…. Frances built herself a new house outlined in desert glass… Later on, there was a town hall. Marian was mayor, of course, that was just the way she was. Nobody minded.” A celebration of imagination and children’s creations when left to unsupervised play. Ages 4 – 8.

The Tin Forest by Ward and Anderson. The books on this list tend to be energetic and rollicking adventure stories. The Tin Forest is something very different. It’s a quiet, gentle parable of an isolated man who lives alone by a junkyard who dreams of forests, then builds a forest from junk, then the real animals and plants come to live there. Lovely. Ages 4 – 8. Great read-aloud. Could perhaps read in Plants and Seeds week?

Another classic is Harold and the Purple Crayon (Purple Crayon Books)

Non-Fiction Biographies of Inventors


Inventor / Maker Books I’m Not a Fan Of:

    • The Greatest Inventor of All Time: Flint Lockwood is based on The Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs movie, and just isn’t that great a book.
    • The Extraordinary Mr. Qwerty. I want to love this book. But it’s just too metaphorical, and although kids are fine with reading the book, I just don’t think they grasp the meaning it or really engage with the story.
    • Sydney’s Star by Reynolds. Another one I want to love. It starts so delightfully: “Sydney loved to build things. She made brilliant birdhouses, charming cheesecakes, and all sorts of wonderful inventions. Sydney was inspired by the world around her.” Sydney invents a great mechanical star that floats and blinks and spins. She takes it to the science fair. Great book up to here. But then somehow, the star hears a distress call out at sea, flies out, communicates with the captain using Morse code and leads him safely to shore. There’s absolutely no reason for us to think the star she invented could do any of these things, so the lack of logic means the book doesn’t work for me.
    • What You Do With An Idea. Some people love it. It feels to me like a book that’s trying to inspire discouraged youth / adults to follow their dreams, not something that resonates with small kids.

Note: I’ve included Amazon Affiliate links for all the books I recommend, so you can learn more about them, and either purchase them (I get a small referral fee) or check them out from your local library.

Great STEM Resources from Massachusetts


Check out this resource: Preschool STEM curricular on the STEM Nexus from the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education:

Links to lots of good stuff, but I’m particularly excited about the Preschool STEM teaching units from the Mass Audubon Society which includes 20+ pages worth of curriculum ideas on EACH of these 4 topics: Our Feathered Friends, Digging into Soil, Tree-mendous Trees and Wicked Cool Weather.

And I’m also really excited about the CEES Curricula on

Each of these booklets contain ideas for art projects, stories and games, finger plays and songs, dramatic play, math focus, outdoor play, links to online resources, and tips for teaching concepts to preschool aged children.

Chemistry – Dramatic Reactions

[An updated version of this post is at:, but it does not include all the experiments in this post, so read them both. 🙂 )

During our Chemistry unit, we did States of Matter, then Mixtures, then Reactions, and now Dramatic Reactions. At the beginning of the year, I’d written a flyer for our Family Inventors’ Lab, which said amongst the activities it listed, that we would “make things go boom.” And this was the week to fulfill that promise!

We began with 20 minutes of gathering time, where we had just some simple activities inside: invisible ink with lemon juice and melted crayon drawings, Magna-Tiles and Slot-Together Translucent Builders (aka Crystal Climbers.)

IMG_20160416_134451475  IMG_20160416_135020509

We also made rockets with card stock. (Click here for a printable rocket template you can cut out and assemble. PDF also includes a pattern for making a rocket with craft foam)


You shape these rockets around a film canister, but then you can take the film canister out. You CAN use these rockets for the film canister rocket launch I describe below. I don’t recommend it, because a) it makes it harder to fill and seal the canister for the launch, b) with the paper rocket, the canister will only launch about 6 – 12 inches into the air instead of 6 – 12 feet, and c) using it this way pretty much ruins your lovely little paper rocket – they end up wet and crumpled.  (You could fix issues c by making rockets out of craft foam, and they could be infinitely re-useable.)

Opening Circle

We sang “boom chicka boom“, an easy and fun call and response, that tied into our theme of making things go boom.

We reminded them of two weeks ago when we mixed materials together, and some mixed and some stayed separate we reminded them that last week we talked about reactions – how when you mix two things together, they react (make noise, fizz, change temperature, etc.) and that it changes them. We told them that this week we’re going to go outside, and use chemical reactions to “make things go boom.”

Demos and Experiments Outdoors

Film canister rockets:  First, you need film canisters. (It’s best to use the style used for Fuji 35 mm film. where the cap fits down into the canister instead of like a Tupperware lid like the Kodak ones do.) If you don’t happen to have a stack of these almost-obsolete items sitting around, you can easily order them from Amazon or elsewhere. Break Alka-Seltzer tablets up into quarters. Fill the canister halfway with water. Drop in two quarter-tablets. Seal the canister. Flip it upside down so it’s resting on its lid. Back away. As soon as enough pressure builds, the canister will blow off the lid, launching up to 20 feet in the air with a great popping sound! (This MUST be done outside.)

It takes about 15 – 20 seconds on average. If you want the reaction to be quicker, then after you put on the lid, give the container a little shake before you set it down. We had adults actively leading this – see my notes on group process later in the post.

Math extensions: Measure how far away the canister lands. (Have a long tape measure! Ours landed 10 – 15 feet from where they were launched.) Count how many seconds it takes for one to pop. Try adjusting variables such as using just one quarter tablet and three quarter tablets to see how many seconds that takes.

Note: If you don’t have alka-seltzer, try it with a tablespoon of vinegar and 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda:

Exploding paint bombs. Take a film canister. Put in a water-based paint (we used tempera mixed half and half with water). Add an alka-seltzer tablet. Seal. Shake a bit. Set down upside down on a piece of paper. Move away!;

Note: this could make a very big mess. Since we meet in a public park, we wanted to contain our mess more, so we were so glad to come across this YouTube video which demonstrates how to contain this experiment inside a plastic tub (so it can even be done indoors.). It’s also lots of fun because the containers go off gradually over a long and unpredictable period of time, and each makes the pop when it launches, then a loud THUNK when it hits the top of the tub! We did this one as a demo, not hands-on for the kids.

Ziploc time bombs: and

  • Take one quarter of a paper towel. Put 1.5 tablespoons of baking soda in the middle of it. Fold it into a packet that holds all the baking soda. Set aside.
  • Put ¼ cup of water and ½ cup white distilled vinegar into a Ziploc brand sandwich-size baggie. Seal it most of the way.
  • Now, working very quickly… put baking soda bundle into the baggie. Zip it closed. Toss it aside. Start counting till it explodes. It will take 20 – 30 seconds, unless you shake it first – the more you shake it, the quicker it goes. When you do the film canister rockets, it can be hard to tell exactly when they’ll pop. The fun thing about the Ziplocs is they build anticipation as the kids see the bag swell, and swell more, until it’s bulging and straining, then it starts rocking, then it blows.


We did have all the kids make their own time bombs. with lots of adult support. See notes below on group process.

Notes from our experimentation: Quantities matter a lot. We tried to find ways to reduce the amount of vinegar to reduce cost / supply use, but you really need this much. Bag choice matters: we tried using non-Ziploc brand baggies – we discovered that all the bags (or at least the five we tested) all had a minor manufacturing defect which meant they weren’t quite air-tight. Would be fine for bagging a sandwich, but doesn’t work at all with this experiment as the pressure couldn’t build enough to blow. We tried using snack size baggies – just not enough room to work in. We tried using quart size freezer bags. They’re a little too sturdy and you would have to increase your ingredients to use even more. What you wrap the baking soda in matters – Kleenex and fast-food napkins both melt into this nasty shredded pile that leaves a mess that’s hard to clean up – the paper towels stay more intact, so easier to clean up. (Note, we gathered up the bags, poured as much of the liquid down the drain as possible – not on the lawn, and threw away the baggies and paper towels. You could do this inside – I’d toss the bags onto a oil drip pan or into a sensory bin to contain the liquid that blows out of them.)

Tool of the week option: use a thermometer to check water temperature.

Elephant toothpaste.

Although this seems like it would be a huge mess, it’s actually an easy clean up IF you set the bottle inside a cake pan or plastic tub so it contains it all.

  • In one container, mix 1 package of dry yeast and 4 tbsp of warm water (it needs to be between 100 – 110. If it’s colder, it won’t wake the yeast, if it’s hotter, it kills it. We explained this to the kids, describing the yeast as “little tiny bugs” that we’re waking up. They all got the idea. But one tender-hearted child then worried about whether our experiment would be hard on these little bugs…)
  • Then tell a story about an imaginary elephant who needs to brush his teeth, and say you need to make a bunch of pretend toothpaste. (i.e. stall for a few minutes while yeast activates)
  • Put an empty soda or water bottle on a tray (we used a 1 liter Dasani water bottle). Add 1/4 to 1/2 cup hydrogen peroxide (note: it’s gotta be the strong type you can get from beauty supplies, not the weaker 3% concentration you find in the grocery store. In a beauty supply store, it’s called “clear developer“. You’re looking for volume 20 which is 6% hydrogen peroxide.)
  •  To the hydrogen peroxide, add about 10 – 15 drops of food coloring. Then add a couple big squirts of dishwashing detergent. Swirl to mix the contents.
  • Set bottle of peroxide mix into tray. Pour yeast water into bottle. Step back!
  • It oozes and oozes and keeps on oozing.
  • After explosion / extrusion, feel the bottle – it’s warm. Exothermic reaction.
  • We did just one batch of this per class as a demo, not hands-on.


Mentos and Diet Coke: We ended with this outdoors-only demo. Many of our older kids (5 – 7 year olds) have see YouTube videos of this. Either very simple demos, or amazingly intricate Mentos fountains. We had 20 ounce bottles of diet coke. I opened one, tried to drop in three Mentos – as soon as the first two hit, it exploded, so number three got blown right out – geyser went up maybe 12 inches? Then I used this Geyser Tube, loaded with 6 Mentos. When we pulled the launcher, the geyser only lasted for a few seconds, but it shot many feet up in the air. If you want to play more with this experiment, you could also compare how different sodas react:

Pop a cork: As always, we had more experiments than we had time for. You could use a test tube with a stopper or a glass bottle with a tight-fitting cork. Fill with either citric acid, baking soda, water or vinegar/baking soda. Test to see what quantity you need to pop the cork.

We also considered melting Styrofoam with acetone, and playing with the polymer. But given concerns about acetone toxicity, we decided not to do this. But, in case you’re considering it, I have to tell you that when I tested it, it didn’t work as I expected. When I was a kid, you could take regular nail polish remover, dip a Styrofoam cup in it and it would dissolve away. I bought nail polish remover from the drug store, being sure to get the acetone sort, and it didn’t work – it did have other chemicals mixed in, so maybe modern remover is just not a high enough concentration acetone – others recommended that I get acetone from a chemical supply company instead if I wanted to do this experiment.

Snack and Circle Time

After our experiments, we came inside for snack. While they ate, I read the book 11 Experiments That Failed by Offill and Carpenter. This is fun and silly and would be my recommended book to read on a week when you discuss the scientific method. Here is a sample experiment: “Experiments with Perfume. Question: Will seedlings grow if given Eau La La instead of water? Hypothesis: Seedlings will like Eau La La better than water. What you need: pots, dirt, seedlings, water, fancy perfume. What to Do: Place dirt in pots. Plant seedlings in dirt. Water one pot with water. Water other pot with perfume. Watch. What happened: Mom cried. Seedlings died.”

Fizz. Then we made something that website in Australia and New Zealand call Sherbet but that isn’t what I think of when I think of sherbet. It’s a fizzy powder not an ice cream substitute. With the kids, I called it fizzy candy powder and compared it to Pop Rocks and Zotz. The recipes I found were for citric acid crystals, sugar, baking soda, and drink crystals (koolaid?) to give it a little flavor.

In my grocery store, I found “True Lemon” which is citric acid and lemon oil. We mixed 1/2 teaspoon True Lemon, 2 teaspoons sugar, and 1/4 tsp baking soda.

I reminded the kids of last week’s experiment where we cut open lemons and sprinkled baking soda on them – as soon as the baking soda hit the juice it fizzed. I told them the true lemon was lemon juice that was all dried out, and that it needs water to react. So then we sprinkled a little into a cup of water – it fizzed. Then I had kids open their mouths, I sprinkled just a little on their tongues and they closed their mouths and let it fizz. In the morning class, 80% of the kids tried it and the 5 – 6 year old boys wanted to try it again and again. In the afternoon class, I first offered it to some hesitant kids and they refused, so only about 25% of the kids tried it, and one of the young ones was a little distressed by the experience – we had to encourage him to rinse the taste quickly by drinking water and eating more snack. 

Class Structure

Because young children thrive on routine, we try to have the same structure to our class every week, where they explore all our activities hands-on for 20-30 minutes, then we do an opening circle where we explain the science behind what they’ve been experiencing, then they do them all hands-on for another 30-40 minutes then outdoor time and closing circle. But this week, we had several activities that a) would require very close supervision, b) could only be done once or twice so we wanted everyone to see it, and c) could make a really big mess. So, we needed to do things differently, with 20 minutes of hands-on projects, 5 minute circle, 60-70 minutes of outdoor demos and hands-on alternating, 10 minutes of circle and snack and a very quick outdoor hike.

Group Process

If you’re working with just a couple kids, you can ignore this section – but if you’re working with a group, be sure to think about process!!

In the morning session, we were differing from our normal routine and we failed to think through the kid-management process in detail. And even though only 5 kids were there that day, it was pretty chaotic. When I was trying to do a demo, they’d all be swarming up around me. When they were doing hands-on experiments, they weren’t listening well and were trying to jump ahead in ways that would make the experiment fail. And when I was cleaning up one experiment and prepping the other, they were running around in circles. It was crazy!

So, for afternoon class, we made a plan and had a whole different approach. And with 11 kids, it was MUCH calmer than our 5 kid morning!

Prep: I’d done most of this for morning, but refined it more for afternoon. Here’s what I ended with… For each experiment, I had all the materials I would need for it in its own designated plastic tub, out of the kids’ sight. Each tub had its own measuring spoons and cups and everything so NOTHING needed to be moved between tubs. I did things like open and break up all the alka-seltzers in advance so I didn’t have to do it while kids waited. I had a classroom volunteer who I’d told ahead of time that when I finished each experiment, I would hand him a tub and he’d carry it away and handle all the clean-up while I went on to the next one. My co-teacher was my designated assistant during experiments, and during transitions between experiments, she would lead the kids in a sitting-in-your-chairs Simon Says game, which helped to keep them focused on listening!

Opening Circle. In the morning group, I was in a hurry and tried to do opening circle at an activity table and without doing a gathering song, and I just couldn’t get their attention focused on anything I was saying! In the afternoon, we gathered in our regular circle area. We did a call and response song, and it made all the difference in getting all the kids’ attention focused on the same thing!

During opening circle, I explained that outside we would be doing some demos and some hands-on, but that some were messy and some were dangerous, and all would only work if they could do a good job of listening and paying attention. I had each carry a chair outside, and put all the chairs in a line and each sat down. Then we took some PVC pipe and made a safety line halfway between them and my work area, telling them not to cross that without permission.

I would do a demo while all were sitting, then call up a group of four or five kids up to the line to do the experiment while the others sat in their chairs and watched. My 5 – 7 year olds came up to the line on their own. For the 3 and 4 year olds, I asked the parents to help them one-on-one.

For film canister rockets, we assembly lined: I would go down the line, hand each kid a canister and a lid. My co-teacher would go by with the pitcher of water and fill each halfway. Then we’d work together. While the child held the canister, I’d drop in the tablet, cap it, and hand it to my co-teacher. She’d flip and set down. She’d be careful not to shake the first couple, then shake a little and the last one got a bigger shake, so they’d all blow at about the same time. Then we’d have to find all the film canisters, which can travel quite a way! Then we’d bring up the next line. Every child got to do the experiment twice.

For Ziploc time bombs, we had four kids on the line, and I took one up to make a baking soda packet then sent them back behind the line, then the next made a baking soda packet, and so on. Then I called up child A and gave them a bag to hold. I added the water, my co-teacher added the vinegar. The child went back to the line, holding the bag. Once everyone had a bag, I went down the line, doing a quick: drop the baking soda bundle into the bag. Seal tightly. Toss to the ground behind me. And then watch them all explode! Every child did the experiment once.

All in all, it was a fun ending to our chemistry unit!

I wish I had more pictures, but our hands were busy! Many of the posts I link to above have photos and videos of the experiments in progress.

Chemistry – a Sequence of Experiments

In our class, we did four weekly sessions on chemistry: States of Matter, Mixtures & Solutions; Reactions; More Reactions.

Another way to approach chemistry would be as a sequence of experiments, either done all in a row in a single session, or one experiment per day for several days running, or whatever. These start with a basic concept, then build on it.

Oil and Water (Immiscible Substances)

  • Concept 1: Water will combine with water. Oil will combine with oil.
    • Take two containers. Put water in each. Then pour the two containers together. They mix – water likes water. (To make this more interesting: Color one container yellow with food coloring or liquid watercolors. Color the other blue. Then mix them together – they immediately intermingle, and make green.)
    • Take two containers. Put vegetable oil in each. Use a food coloring that will combine with oil, such as Americolor Candy Oil. Color one container one color, and the other a different color. Mix the two container together – they immediately intermingle.
  • Concept 2: Oil and water don’t combine. Pour water in a jar or clear container. Gently pour in some oil.  (Can re-use water and oil from experiment above.) Do they mix? No. Explain why. (For a 3 or 4 year old, you just say some substances don’t like each other, and won’t mix together. For older children, you can get into more of the scientific detail about positively and negatively charged molecules)
    • You can point out that the oil always floats to the top, because it’s “lighter weight” or less dense. (Again, the older the child you’re working with, the more sophisticated your description of density can be.)
    • Put a lid on the container, and gently pour it back and forth, making “waves.”
    • Shake the container really hard – can you mix the oil and water? At first, it might look like you have…
    • Then set the container down and watch what happens. The small bubbles of water find each other, and grab hold of each other and sink toward the bottom. The small bubbles of oil grab each other and float to the top. Pretty soon, you have your two layers back again.
  • Concept 3: Oil and water-based things don’t mix
    • In one container, pour a small amount of oil. Then drip in either food coloring or liquid watercolor. Explain that these are colors mixed with water. Will they mix with the oil? No. Take a fork or whisk and beat them together (or seal the container, and shake it lots.) Did they mix? Nope – just made lots of little bubbles of colored water in the oil. Kids can use toothpicks to push the little bubbles together – they grab hold of each other and make bigger bubbles in the oil
  • Experiment 4: “Fireworks in a Jar”
    • Put some water in a see-through container. In another container, mix together oil and water-based coloring (you can re-use your mixture from concept 3 experiment. Then gently pour the oil on top of the water. The food color bubbles gradually sink through the oil. When they hit the water, the color will disperse through the water. To see pictures of this in action, just search for “fireworks in a jar.”
  • Experiment 5: “Lava Lamps”
    • You can use your “fireworks in a jar” mixture for this (or make a new container of colored water and oil.) Then add an Alka-Seltzer tablet (or some table salt). It will create bubbles, which carry the colored water up through the oil, then it pops and they sink back down, etc. To see pictures of this experiment, just search for “lava lamps kid science”.
  • Experiment 6: At some point, you’ll be cleaning up. If your child got oil on their hands, you can have them wash their hands with just cold water. When they’re done washing, show them that their hands are still oily. Now wash again with soap. Now the oil is gone. Why? The soap helps the oil and water combine, and the water rinses away the oil. (Science of this described here.)
  • Experiment 7: Take a container with oil and water in it. Shake it to show they won’t mix. Now add some liquid hand soap or detergent. Shake it. They’ve combined. (Learn about the science here.)  Soap is an emulsifier. It helps oil and water stay combined.
  • Experiment 8: Vinegar and oil don’t mix either.
    • Do an experiment like concept 2, except with vinegar and oil.
  • Experiment 9: A Jar of Bubbling Goo. (See more details here.)
    • Make baking soda ice cubes. Fill a container with an inch of vinegar and an inch or two of oil. (You can re-use your mixture from experiment 8.) Drop in a baking soda ice cube, and watch it bubble and ooze.
  • Experiment 10: An emulsifier can connect vinegar and oil
    • Beat together oil and vinegar – they won’t stay combined. Add an egg yolk. Beat with an electric mixer… for a while, nothing happens, then suddenly, it will turn into a mayonnaise like substance – the egg yolk is the emulsifier which holds the oil and vinegar together.
    • You can also make real home-made mayo (find recipes online).

Acids and Bases

Introductory Experiments:

  • Taste: give your child a spoonful of lemon juice or lemonade. Ask them to describe the taste – is it sour? Then give a spoonful of milk? Is that sour? No. Acidic things taste sour, base things do not.
  • Smell: Have them smell lemon juice and vinegar – strong smell wrinkles up their nose. Have them smell milk, and soapy water or bleach water – milder smell.
  • Feel: make small dishes full of vinegar, lemon juice, soapy water, and bleach water. Have them try rubbing the fingers of their left hand in the vinegar and lemon juice, and the fingers of their right hand in the soapy water or the bleach water. The base items (soap and bleach) make their fingers slippery.


  • Baking soda and vinegar react. Mix some together in a dish. Observe the reaction. What do you notice? (Fizzy sound and foam.)
    • you can also cover a shallow tray with baking soda, then mix vinegar and food color or liquid watercolor and let them drip the vinegar on the baking soda with pipettes
  • When baking soda and vinegar react, they create a gas. Do the self-inflating balloon experiment described here. Explain that the reaction is creating a gas which is filling the balloon.
  • When gasses expand they can fill a space. You could put vinegar and baking soda inside a test tube with a stopper or a bottle with a cork. As the gas expands, the container will blow its top.
  • Make Ziploc time bombs:
  • Make baking soda ice cubes (make a paste of baking soda and water, freeze it.) Then drop one in a container of vinegar for a “time release” reaction
    • Then put oil and vinegar in a jar with some food coloring. Add a baking soda ice cube for a jar of bubbling goo (see video here.)
  • It’s not just baking soda and vinegar that react – most acids and bases will react
    • Do erupting lemons experiment described here
    • Curdle milk (a base) with lemon juice (an acid). Then make milk plastic with it, as described here

Testing for Base vs. Acid

  • There are multiple ways to test whether a substance is acid or base. You could, of course, use litmus paper or ph paper.
  • You can also make an indicator using red cabbage. Learn more here or here.
  • Or you can make an indicator with turmeric

Chemistry: Reactions

[An updated version of this post is at]

In our last session, we covered Mixtures and Solutions. This class was all about Reactions. One of the great things about most of these experiments is that they’re really easy for parents to re-create at home with inexpensive materials you probably already have in the cabinet.

Some of the reactions are quick and dramatic, others are more slow and subtle and require a little patience to observe. Before you start experimenting, you may want to do a very brief explanation of reactions: “we’ll mix two or more ingredients together, then we sit back and watch and see what happens. Sometimes something happens right away – sometimes we’ll have to count to ten and see what happens.”

What’s the Big Idea: When some chemicals are mixed together, they “react” and the substance changes in some way. That’s the fundamental idea we’re hoping that our 3 and 4 year old students grasp.

As you might guess, we’re going to use lots of acid and base reactions in this class – vinegar and baking soda, lemon juice and baking soda, lemon juice and milk, etc. If you have 6 and 7 year old students you can explain more about why those react. There are lots of ways to explain this (see some here on the UCSB Science Line). You might say “vinegar and baking soda both have energy they don’t want and they can help each other get rid of it. Vinegar is an acid and it wants to give away a proton. Baking soda is a base, and it wants a proton. When they meet, the baking soda grabs the proton, and then they release a water molecule and some carbon dioxide gas, which makes the bubbles.”

Question of the Week: What are the signs of a chemical reaction? Answer: Some examples are – the color changes, there’s a different smell. there’s a change in shape or texture, a change in temperature (it becomes warm or cold), the substance makes sounds, or it starts giving off light.

You can use baking soda and vinegar as your example: When these are mixed, they produce foaming bubbles (and carbon dioxide gas) and also make a fizzy sound. If you mix them in a plastic bag, and seal it, the children can also notice that it is an endothermic reaction – the mixture gets colder as it reacts.

Classroom Activities

A Jar of Bubbling Goo (Vinegar, Baking Soda, and Oil): This is really cheap and simple, yet really dramatic – check out the video at the top of this post! Some of our students loved this so much they wanted to do it over and over. It requires some advance preparation of making baking soda ice cubes: Use water, baking soda and blue food coloring to make a thin paste. Freeze in ice cube trays.

At class: Pour into a jar one inch of white vinegar, two inches of vegetable oil, and a few drops of yellow or red food coloring. Point out that the oil and vinegar don’t mix – this is a flashback to last week’s class when we learned water and oil don’t mix. Then drop in a baking soda ice cube. Sit back and observe. As the baking soda and vinegar react, they release lots of bubbles. Note: you can set a lid on top of the jar but don’t screw it down – you want the gas to be able to escape, not build up pressure.


“Lava Lamps” Another bubbling bottle activity we didn’t do in class is to pour oil, water, and food coloring into a jar or water bottle. (Like the “Fireworks in a Jar” activity mentioned in last week’s post.) Then add an alka seltzer tablet. Here’s how Steve Spangler describes the science of what happens: “the Alka-Seltzer tablet reacts with the water to make tiny bubbles of carbon dioxide. These bubbles attach themselves to the blobs of colored water and cause them to float to the surface. When the bubbles pop, the color blobs sink back to the bottom of the bottle.” It’s infinitely re-useable. Any time you want more bubbles, just add another Alka-Seltzer. If you don’t have Alka-Seltzer, Hands On As We Grow says salt works too. To find pictures of this in action, search for “lava lamp science project.”

Fizzing Powder: Fill a shallow tray with baking soda. Then mix liquid watercolors with vinegar. Let the children use pipettes, eye droppers, turkey baster, or spray bottles to drip colored vinegar on the baking soda and watch it fizz. (Note: we tried taking coffee filter prints of the product, but it wasn’t a very interesting art project, so we decided to just leave it as the basic tray of fizzy powder activity.) See more pictures of this at Hands on as we grow and Creatively Blooming.


Engineering Discovery – Making Plastic from Milk.

  1. Heat one cup of milk in the microwave till it’s quite hot, but not boiling. (90 seconds?)
  2. Add four tablespoons of lemon juice or vinegar. (Our math practice for this week is this measuring and counting needed for this recipe.)
  3. Stir for about one minute till it curdles.
  4. Put milk in a strainer, press out as much moisture as you can. Discard the liquid.
  5. Then put clumps on paper towels, and squeeze out all the moisture.
  6. Either press into a mold, or flatten into a slab and cut with a cookie cutter.
  7. Let dry for a few days.

 Self-Inflating Balloon – Blow up a balloon with a chemical reaction.

  1. Pour one inch of vinegar into an empty water or soda bottle.
  2. Then spoon a small amount of baking soda into a balloon. (Optional tool of the week: you could use a funnel to make this easier.)
  3. Put the balloon on the top of the bottle, being careful to have most of the balloon dangling off the side so the baking soda doesn’t fall into the vinegar too early.IMG_20160409_103718366
  4. Once balloon is attached, hold it up. Shake it so the baking soda falls into the vinegar.IMG_20160409_103734142
  5. Sit back and watch the reaction. As bubbles form, pop, and release gas, the balloon will inflate. (The balloon also gets colder.)

You could try this experiment with other liquids. What happens if you put water in the bottle instead of vinegar? [Nothing.] What if you use lemon juice? What if you add detergent or bubble solution to the vinegar? [You end up with a balloon full of bubbles…]

There’s a great description of the science of this experiment on the Science Club website:

Extension: you could see what happens if you “turn this around”: put baking soda in the balloon, use a pipette to squirt vinegar into the balloon, then hold the balloon closed.

Sensory Tub – Erupting Lemons: Partially core a lemon. Sprinkle some baking soda into it. It will produce a fizzy mini-eruption. If you want more reaction, squeeze the lemon to release more juice, or add more baking soda.

IMG_20160409_141825912 IMG_20160409_141756594

Art Activity: We reprised “Milk Fireworks” from last week just because it’s so fun and easy and we had leftover milk. I wish I’d found this post on Babble Dabble Do before class: it talks about how to make marbled paper with the milk fireworks.

Glitter Volcano: If you have a child who loves pink and sparkly things, then get the prettiest clear bottle you can find. Put in baking soda, then just a little red food coloring, then some pink or silver glitter. Then add vinegar. It’s a pretty and sparkly chemistry experiment. (Source: Geeks Raising Geeks.)

Big Motor Activity / Snack Prep – Make Ice Cream. Mix 1 cup of whipping cream, 1 cup of half and half, 1 tsp vanilla and ¼ – ½ cup sugar. Put in a small container with an airtight lid. (If it’s not watertight, seal with tape.) Put it inside a bigger round container (like a coffee can.) Fill the large container with layers of ice and rock salt. Roll the can back and forth between students (or up and down a slide) for about 15 minutes till ice cream hardens. Then eat it! (You can also make ice cream in Ziploc bags – see our directions in the States of Matter post.)

Circle Time

We explained the big idea and discussed the question of the week, discussed at the top of this post. We didn’t have a song of the week, because we didn’t find any good songs on chemistry reactions – if anyone knows of one, let me know!

Recommended Books. As with last week, we found it challenging to find many kids’ books about chemistry. Here is the one we used.

  • The Secret Science Project That Almost Ate the School by Sierra and Gammell. A silly story about kids preparing for a science fair. Our protagonist has no ideas for projects. She orders a super slime from the internet that eats her cat, her sister, her teacher… and is finally vanquished when the children feed it too many sweets.

Group Parachute Game: Endothermic and Exothermic Reactions: Have all students stand in a circle and hold onto a parachute. Toss some balls in the middle: One person flicks a spinner with red or blue spaces. If it comes up red, students imitate a ‘hot’ excited exothermic reaction with balls bouncing up and down, if it comes up blue, they imitate a cold endothermic reaction by slowly rolling the balls around the center.

Naming Your Experiments

We’ve noticed that kids tend to engage more with an experiment if it has a good name. For example, the “Egg Drop Challenge” is more likely to engage than saying “over at that station, you’ll make a container to protect an egg, and then try dropping it.” The “Dino Dig” is better than “go rummage through that shredded paper and find the plastic dinosaurs.” This week, we were calling the vinegar, oil, and baking soda ice cube experiment  “Fireworks in a Jar” and the kids were very excited by that name, and were talking about it over and over. “Erupting Lemons” was also exciting.

So, I’m thinking about names, and they’re tricky sometimes. For example, if you say to any American over the age of 10 “I made a volcano in science class”, they all know that you mean you did a baking soda and vinegar reaction. Maybe in a papier-mâché volcano, but maybe just in a dish. But when you think about it, it’s probably not right to call a baking soda and vinegar reaction a volcano, since it really has nothing at all to do with the hot lava and volcanic ash that comes from a volcano.

After we spent the day calling our experiment “Fireworks in a Jar”, I discovered that online, lots of people use that term to describe an experiment I added to last week’s post on Chemistry Solutions that is water, oil, and food coloring that sinks through the layer of oil and diffuses in the water, looking more like fireworks than our bubbling experiment did. So, I thought of changing the name to Lava Lamps, but discovered that online, that’s usually used to describe an experiment with oil, water, and Alka-Seltzer (see above). I thought about using the word magma, because the red jar at the end of the video reminded me of magma. Or, even better, Magma Mines, which is the name of one of my son’s favorite levels in Mario Party. But, again, that would be scientifically inaccurate, since bubbling vinegar, oil and baking soda have no relation to molten rock. Can’t call it Boiling Bubbles either, because it’s cold, not hot. So, I’ve settled for now on “A Jar of Bubbling Goo.”

Over time, I’m hoping to go back through old posts, and think of good names for all our experiments, because it definitely makes a difference in how “fun” the kids perceive the experiment will be.