Geology for Kids – Learn About Rocks


Our theme this week was the Earth, Earthquakes and Rocks. We had so many ideas, I’ve separated them into two posts. This one is on Rocks, click for ideas for Earth Science and Earthquakes.

Observation Table – Rocks. One of the key skills we need to build in a young scientist is observation – learning how to look at an object in depth, describe it, and sort it by multiple criteria. Rocks are a great opportunity for this. We put out a collection of rocks, magnifying glasses, and a book to help them learn more: We used Rocks by Rosinsky (see below for more info). The older kids were actively using the book as a resource for their exploration – especially the chart at the end of the book.

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Note: you can click on any picture for a bigger image…

Other things you could add to this station: a sensitive digital scale to weigh the rocks, a tape measure, a copy of the MOHS hardness scale, a nail to see if you can scratch the rock, a streak board or a test plate to see if rock will scratch it. A worksheet for tracking observations and illustrating the rock. An identification guide, or a laptop with an interactive tool, such as this.

Kids can interact with the rock station in lots of ways: they can just look at rocks, or can fill out worksheets, including doing nail test and scratch test. Or they can sort into categories: sort by size, then mix back together, then sort by color, then put in order smallest to biggest and so on. Read a really nice description of this process at Rhythms of Play. Can look at identification guide to figure out what rock it is.

Rock Sifting: In the sensory table, we put sand, then tossed in some pebbles and bigger rocks, then added scoops and sifters. They could fill the sifter with sand, shake it till all the sand fell out, and see the pebbles and rocks.

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For our three year olds, this is mostly just a sensory experience, though we did point out to them that the little rocks would fall through the big holes in the white strainer basket though it still caught the big rocks, and the other strainers caught all the rocks. For the 4 – 5 year olds, we talked about the idea that big rocks get broken down over time into smaller rocks, and small rocks get broken up into sand, and sand breaks up into dust. I made a poster to illustrate this. (Here’s a printable PDF)


For 6 – 7 year olds, you can also talk about rock formation with this… here’s a site that discusses erosion, transport, deposition and cementation:

Craft: Terrarium

As well as being a fun process, this also produces a nice product – worthy of gift giving, so you could choose to do this project right before a holiday and make them as gifts.

Students were asked to bring a clean glass jar from home. I told them it should be a big jar with a wide mouth, such as a peanut butter jar or a canning jar. (We’ve also used  spaghetti sauce or applesauce jars, plastic tubs, and plastic cups.) We explained that the earth was made of layers of different kinds of rocks, and this layering activity was a way to experience that. (You can also tie it in to the ideas from above about how mountains break into boulders into rocks, etc.)

We set it up assembly line style, where kids went down the line, and put in first sand (this is an optional layer – it’s an inexpensive way to fill a little space at the bottom of the jar), then rocks and pebbles (important for drainage), then charcoal (to reduce odors and mold), then cactus soil, then the plant. (We used cacti and succulents.) When you remove the plant from its little pot, you do need to shake off some of the extra soil to expose the roots and make it easier to nest down into your soil. You should pack plenty of soil in a little around the plant, or water it to compress it a bit – otherwise, the first time they water it at home, the soil compresses and leaves the plant poking up out of it a bit.



Note: This project is more expensive to do than most of the projects I discuss on this site. (Especially if you buy all the products at a specialty garden store two days before the class, which I mistakenly did my first year.) As an FYI, here’s the products / quantities we used to make 20 terrariums.

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Horticultural Sand – 1 quart ~ $6. (If you have clean play sand, that may be a cheaper option.) Decorative garden rocks – 2 pounds of pebbles, 1 quart of larger rocks ~ $9 on Amazon, cheaper craft rocks at Michael’s. (Again, you could probably “wild gather” your rocks, but you’d want to clean them so the terrarium is a pretty clean system.) Horticultural Charcoal – 1 quart – $10. Cactus Soil – 3 quarts ~ $9. (Note: those are approximate costs you’ll pay in a store – if you buy from Amazon, you may have additional shipping costs.) Succulents – $37. (The $37 is if you order a week in advance from Amazon – I paid $60 buying them at the garden store just before the event.)  So, it works out to $4.50 or more per kid.


Art – Pet Rocks. Gather some nice round rocks that are around the size of a child’s fist. Put out with Chalk Markers if you want markers the child can wash off their hands and clothes or paint markers if you want the paint on the rock to be waterproof – the chalk marker will wash off it left in the rain, glue, googly eyes, and other décor items of your choice – pipe cleaners, feathers, jewels, pompoms, etc. You could also make nests for your pet rock with various craft materials or recyclable items.

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Snack Demo – Starburst Rock Cycle Use Starburst minis.

Have a collection of rocks that show sedimentary layers, conglomerate rocks, metamorphic rocks, and igneous rocks. Try to find examples that look as similar to the Starburst (SB) Demo as possible, like those in the picture below. Also, have a picture of molten lava.

Clockwise from top left: sedimentary, conglomerate, metamorphic, igneous, lava

Clockwise from top left: sedimentary, conglomerate, metamorphic, igneous, lava

Show the kids the layered rock. Then stack three Starburst (SB) in layers – squash together into a sedimentary rock. Then show them a conglomerate rock – then tear up the SB and wad them into a ball. Show them the metamorphic rock – explain that you’ll apply heat and pressure to make a metamorphic rock (i.e. you’ll roll the SB candy in your hand to form a smooth ball) Then show them the picture of molten lava. Put the candy on a napkin and microwave it for about 30 seconds till it’s molten. Show it to them. (Warn them that it’s too hot to touch!!) As it cools, show them the igneous rock. Once the candy has completely cooled, it becomes hard and brittle.

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After you’ve done the demo, make sure they’ve all got clean hands, then give them all 3 candies, and let them do the sedimentary, conglomerate and metamorphic levels for themselves. Then they can eat it. (I didn’t melt their candies.) Note: I thought this demo would make your hands terribly sticky with sugar, but they weren’t sticky at all when I finished it.

Soil Exploration from “Dirt” by Lawrence

  • What is soil made of? Dig up some dirt. Empty a cup of it on white paper. Look closely at it with a magnifying glass. Separate types of items (rocks and stones from plant matter from bugs.) Place 2 inches of soil in a jar. Describe it. Add water till jar is 3/4 full. Shake for 30 seconds. After an hour, examine with a magnifying glass. Describe.
  • How do rocks become soil? Collect 10 different kinds of rock. Put in a metal container with a lid. Add water to cover. Shake 1000 times (get 9 friends to help so you each just shake 100 times. Then take the rocks out of the water. Pour the water through a coffee filter. What do you observe in the filter?
  • Are dead plants in soil? Put leaves and grass in a mesh bag. Tie a string to it. Bury it ten inches deep, leaving the string above ground. Mark where you buried it. Once a week for a month, dig up the bag, examine its contents. Then pour a cup of water in the hole and re-bury it.
  • What type of soil holds water best / is best for plants? Get 3 – 4 types of soil, such as potting soil, soil from a garden where plants are growing, soil from an area where plants don’t grow, potting soil mixed with sand. Put in flowerpots with holes in the bottom, set pots in a bowl, and pour a cup of water over each. After 30 minutes, check the bowls, and measure how much water is in the bowl – then subtract that from 1 cup to determine how much water the soil retained. Which soil holds water best? Now plant 2 bean seeds in each pot. Put near a sunny window, and water as needed. Predict which will grow plants best, and track your results.

Opening Circle

Rhythm Activity: We always start circle with a rhythm activity of some sort. Not only is rhythm a good brain-building musical-skill-building activity, it also serves to gather all the kids’ attention, and get them all focused on the teacher before starting circle. Today, we taught the rhythm for Queen’s “We Will Rock You.” (Clap thighs twice, clap hands once.) We played the music from this video about the rock cycle and clapped along.

Book: If your students are 3 – 5, I’d read Rocks by Nelson. If they’re 5 – 7, I’d read Rocks by Rosinsky. (See below.)

Then do Starburst demo.

Closing Circle

Rhythm Activity: We reminded them of our “We Will Rock You” rhythm, but had them try it standing, where they go stomp-stomp-clap. This time we played a different song about the rock cycle: Note: there are two other (written) versions of lyrics for a rock cycle song set to this music. They can be found on Beakers and Bumble Bees, and on the National Park Service website.

Book: If You Find a Rock by Christian. Talks in an engaging way about all the rocks a kid can find. “If you find a rock – a big rock – by the edge of the water, then you have found a splashing rock. When it hits the surface, the water jumps out of the way… the bigger the rock, the wetter you get. If you find a rock – a great rock – that towers over you, then you have found a climbing rock. Hold on with your toes and fingers, grip hard as  you stretch and pull until you reach the top, where you feel much grander than you did on the ground.”

If you can’t find this book, a nice alternative is  Everybody Needs a Rock by Baylor. This is a lovely book about finding a very special rock to carry with you. “Don’t get a rock that is too big. It won’t fit your hand right and it won’t fit in your pocket. A rock as big as an apple is too big. A rock as big as a horse is MUCH too big. Don’t choose a rock that is too small. It will only be easy to lost, or a mouse might eat it, thinking that it is a seed…”

(Either book would also be a great read before a hike to somewhere your child could find a special rock. They both do a nice job of making rocks feel special and uniquely important to a child.)

Rock Exploration: We brought in the rocks from the exploration table, and discussed as a group their colors, we found the biggest and smallest ones, we picked out all the rough ones from the smooth ones, and so on. This is great pre-academic skill building. Another activity you could add here is to ask each child to pick out one rock to study in detail and talk over with their parent or another child. Then put all those rocks into a basket of rocks, pour it out on the floor, and ask them to find their own rock again. This is a good test of their observation skills, and teaches visual discernment of details.


  • If You Find a Rock by Christian. (See above.)
  • Everybody Needs a Rock (See above.)
  • Rocks: Hard, Soft, Smooth, and Rough by Rosinsky. Great non-fiction for ages 4 – 6. Engaging writing, kid-friendly illustrations, a chart at the end which describes 5 rocks (e.g. obsidian, quartz) by kind of rock, colors, what it feels like, and uses. “A lot of things can happen to rocks. They can crack. They can break into a million tiny pieces. They can be pressed or squeezed together. Rocks can even melt.”
  • Let’s Go Rock Collecting by Gans. Age 6 – 8. Describes rock collecting, types of rocks, differences between rocks, some historical uses of rock (Roman roads, Egyptian pyramids). Includes both illustrations of kids exploring rocks, and photographs of many types of rocks.
  • Dave’s Down-to-Earth Rock Shop by Murphy. This has been recommended to me by a geology professor mom, but I haven’t read it yet. It’s for ages 6 – 10. It includes info about rocks, and also focuses on classification, which is a key science skill.
  • Rocks by Nelson. A nice intro to rocks for 3 – 5 year olds, with simple words and good photos. “We live on Earth. Earth is made of different things. Earth is made of water, gases, soil, and rocks. Most of earth is made of rock. Rocks are hard. Rocks can be different sizes… shapes… colors….” Ends with a page about igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic rocks and some rock facts for little ones who want to learn more after reading the main book.
  • Rocks by Walker. For 6 – 9 year olds, so above the level of our students. But parents and teachers might like reading it before teaching these topics, because it’s a good basic overview that’s one level above what they’ll be teaching.
  • The Rock Factory: The Story About the Rock Cycle by Bailey. I haven’t read it yet, but I liked Bailey’s Fossil book which we used in Dinosaur week.
  • Rocks and Soil: Real Size Science. Preschool age book, Amazon description: “Instead of using words alone to explain the appearance and composition of different types of rocks and soil, this book conveys information with accurately-sized photographs.”
  • Jump into Science: Dirt by Tomecek. Good for 6 – 9 year olds, so too old for my students. Talks both about the geology side: earth’s layers, rock cycle, and so on. Also talks a lot about plants and soil, so would be a nice part of a gardening unit.
  • Dirt: The Scoop on Soil by Rosinsky. Rosinsky’s book on Rocks is great, so I look forward to checking out her take on dirt.
  • Dirt by Lawrence. From the Fundamental Experiments series. Writing is best for 6 and up, but includes lots of fun, easy experiments, some of which I reference above.
  • Other good online resources on rocks for older kids are: School Yard Geology and Every Pebble Tells a Story.


For a good 3 minute overview of the rock cycle for 5 – 7 year olds, check out this video. For a 25 minute episode, check out Bill Nye on Rocks and Soil.

Earth and Earthquake Science for Kids


Our theme this week was the Earth, Earthquakes and Rocks. We had so many ideas that I have separated them into two posts. This one covers Earth and Earthquakes, the other focuses on Rocks.

As always, we began class with Discovery Time, where we let kids explore all our activities hands-on (activities are described later in this post), before we talk to them about the day’s concept or the scientific theories we’ll be discussing. This raises their curiosity, allows for a-ha moments of independent learning, and raises questions which helps them engage more with the answers we give. Then we have opening circle, then tinkering time to explore more.

Weekly Engineering Challenge – Every week, we have a challenge activity which encourages kids to build something, test it, re-build it…

Shake Tables: I built shake tables (earthquake simulators). What the pictures below show: For the first, I took two duplo base plates (green and yellow) and rubber-banded together, back to back. Then inserted four rubber bouncy balls in between them, one at each corner. For the second, I cut the cover off an old three ring binder to get two stiff “boards.” Then I placed two dowels between them for them to roll back and forth on, then rubber banded that together, and taped a Duplo base board to it. The third one was the binder covers, rubber bands, and balls, but no Duplo base board. On each of these shake tables, if you bump a corner or pull back then let go of one side, it would jiggle and shake.

We also had a wobbly lazy Susan in our cabinet and it was a great earthquake simulator.

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We had Duplos out, so they could build Duplo towers. If they built a very tall tower, the “earthquake” would knock it down. Unfortunately, Duplos are pretty sturdy (especially when you attach them to the base plate!), and it was easy to build towers that could withstand the shake.

The wooden blocks were a more effective demo. For our little kids (age 3 – 5), we just had them build with the wood and knock it down. We had our oldest kids (age 6 – 7) try building with Duplos too to see the difference that materials make in earthquake safety.

In the IMAX movie “Dream Big – Engineering Our World”, they showed a class project where they set large jello molds on top of the shake table and jiggled them.

For detailed instructions on building shake tables, and related activities / discussions, see or or the video here:

Science Exploration Activities

Earthquake on Sand: Last year, we filled a large pan with sand, then placed nearby plastic fences and trees and some flat rocks. We also put a back massager tool next to it that could be used to create a vibration. If you held the back massager to the side of the pan, the sand would start to jiggle, then shift and move, knocking over the trees and fences, carrying the rocks across the pan – flowing almost like water. Clear evidence for why not to build on loose soil in an earthquake zone!

With the pan, you had to hold the massager just right to get a response, and we worried about a big spill. This year, we used a big plastic tub that was half full of sand and other sensory materials. The tall edge was much easier to place the massager on, so worked better for our little ones. If you try this experiment, definitely try a variety of containers to find the best effect!

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Seismograph: On the table with the back massager activity, we placed our home-made seismograph which could be used to track the vibration of the “earthquake.”

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The seismograph on the left is built with a cereal box, a plastic champagne glass, string, pennies for weights, and a marker. You feed adding machine paper through slots, and the marker tracks the vibration. The one on the right (version 2.0) was made with a sturdier cardboard box, a pencil, a pill bottle with a lid to hold the pencil upright and weighted with marbles. It worked better, but the pencil marks were very pale. (I couldn’t find a marker that was long enough to extend through the pill bottle from top to bottom. That will be next year’s improvement… )

Here’s the sign I made to go with the seismograph. Find directions to make your own seismograph here: and and

Note: building the seismograph is a lot of work, and so far I haven’t got one to work well enough to really engage the kids, but I want to play with it more, because I think they could really love seeing the difference between little shocks that create squiggly lines and big shocks that really jerk the pen back and forth. Plus, it’s good for me to challenge myself just like we try to challenge the kids to take a design, test it, improve it, test it again, and improve it again.

Understanding Earth’s Layers. We put out 4 ways to illustrate earth’s layers – an illustration, nesting easter eggs, a model of the earth, and a puzzle of nesting rings. The model was made with Model Magic  – on Monday, I made a ball of white clay for the inner core and let it dry overnight. On Tuesday, I covered that with a layer of red for the outer core – you’ll see that my proportions are off – I need less white or more red. On Wednesday I added the yellow “mantle” and let it dry. On Thursday, I painted it – the paint layer is the Earth’s crust. On Friday, I very carefully cut it in half with a bread knife.

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Understanding Tectonic Plates – a jigsaw puzzle. This is easy – just find an illustration online of a world map with the plates shown. Print it, laminate it, cut it along the fault lines.


Make a Tsunami Wave – we filled the water table with water and some glitter. We made sailboats like we did for Wind week. We added anchors to two of the boats – we wrapped up pennies in electrical tape, and tied them to the boat with string.

You can create a wave by simultaneously lifting and pushing one end of the table. (The kids can also drop the koosh ball to make waves, of can just splash in the water.) There is more you can do with this idea… just go to YouTube and search for tsunami science fair.


Art Activities (Process-focused – not beautiful products!)

Puffy Paint Earth: We mixed shaving cream, Elmer’s glue, and liquid watercolor to make puffy paint to paint on to blue cardstock circles. (Later in the day, we switched to using big easel paper, and drawing a big circle in the center for them to paint – this was easier than trying to keep all the pain on the circle.) We had a photo of the Earth posted next to the table for inspiration. You could do more with this by having cotton balls to pull apart to make clouds, and pebbles to build mountain ranges on your continents.

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Coffee Filter Earths: Last year, we put out coffee filters, liquid watercolors and pipettes, plus pictures of the Earth for inspiration. Kids could drip on watercolors. With little ones, they tend to use a LOT of watercolor when working with pipettes, and soak the trays, so after they finish with a coffee filter, you need to use paper towels to mop up their extra color. You could reduce this issue by using eye droppers with a slow flow rather than pipettes. If it’s warm out, you can hang coffee filters on a string, and let kids spray them with spray bottles of diluted colors.


Craft: Terrarium We made a terrarium, where we used layers of sand, rock, charcoal and dirt, and talked about how this is similar to how Earth is made of layers. These are described in detail in my post about rocks.

Snack – Layers. You can either do a yogurt parfait where kids layer together yogurt, fruit and granola, or a mud cup where they layer together chocolate pudding, bananas, crumbled graham crackers, and a gummy worm.

Opening Circle

Today’s question / Big Picture Ideas: What causes an earthquake?

To answer the question, we have to step back a little and talk about the plates of the earth’s crust. Before we do that, we have to step back and explain what the earth is and what it’s composed of. (When working with young children, it’s important to do this stepping back – don’t assume they already know science basics – be sure to cover them!)

So, the order of ideas we wanted to express were:

  1. Earth is the planet that we live on.
  2. It’s shaped like a ball, but the ball is made up of many layers.
  3. We live on the top layer, the crust.
  4. The crust is made of several big plates that fit together like a puzzle.
  5. When those plates bump up against each other, or rub against each other, they cause earthquakes. Little earthquakes happen all the time, and mostly don’t cause damage.
  6. But, a big earthquake can knock over trees and buildings, so we do need to know what to do to stay safe if we feel an earthquake.

We read Earthquake! by Bauer, which covered all the ideas we wanted to cover in simple-to-understand terms. It had pictures of buildings that had fallen over or been damaged in earthquakes, but they were not frightening (many kids’ books about earthquakes have pictures or words that could cause a lot of fear and anxiety.)

When reading through the book, you can incorporate hands-on visual aids. There was a picture of a globe, and if you have one, you could pause a moment there to explain what a globe is. When it discussed the layers of the Earth, we showed our model magic sphere  – we could have also used the rainbow puzzle (see above). We then passed around the sphere for them to touch. We also talked about our terrarium project, where we put rocks down in layers.

When the book talked about how the crust is broken into pieces that fit together like a jigsaw puzzle, we showed our tectonic plate jigsaw (see above). When it talked about plates bumping up against each other, we demo’ed that with tumbling mats. (You could also demo it with crackers, as described on Mad Sci Network. There’s a more complicated graham cracker demo on Homeschool Den.) The book also showed a picture of a seismograph, so we reminded them to check out our DIY seismograph in the other room.

Tumbling Mat Demo of Tectonic Plates: We had set up the mats on the floor in advance for the kids to sit on during circle. At this time, we had them get off the mats, and told them to imagine that the blue mat and the rainbow mat were two tectonic plates bumping up against each other… we pushed each one toward the other… The rainbow mat buckled up to relieve the pressure – creating a mountain! Sometimes the rainbow mat will slip and land on top, with the blue mat going under, which can also happen in earthquakes.


Earthquake Drill: We talked about how today we’re playing with the idea of earthquakes, and having fun knocking over Duplo houses and plastic trees with fake earthquakes. But, we said, real earthquakes can be scary when they happen and can be dangerous, and you need to know what to do. We explained that when the ground shakes it can knock you over, and also things can fall on you, and you could get hurt. So, if the ground starts shaking, you need to drop, cover and hold on. We practiced doing this together during circle (in a room with no tables) and then practiced again later in the day while the kids were in a room with tables.

I have a post where I discuss all the details of the current recommendations on earthquake safety (note: if you’re still teaching to hide in a doorway, or to move across the room to an interior wall, then you’re not following current recommendations.) That post also includes a book that you can download to read to your child(ren) and use when practicing earthquake drills – it’s called “Rabbits in a Hole”.

Click here: for all the information about earthquake preparedness for preschool.

Closing Circle

Book: You could read Round Like a Ball, a nice book about the Earth, or Roslyn Rutabaga and the Biggest Hole on Earth! by Gay – a silly little book about digging a hole to the center of the earth.

Slinky Waves: You can use a slinky to illustrate two kinds of earthquake waves. For a p-wave, you stretch it out, then give a quick push-pull on one end – the wave travels to the other end and back again. For an s-wave, you swing it side to side – this works better if the slinky is laid on a table or on the ground than if it’s held in the air. Here’s two detailed discussions of this activity: and  (Note: this second link is also just a great overall resource about earthquakes.

The Human Wave: This is good IF the kids have recently studied States of Matter. Have the kids put their arms over each other’s shoulders, chorus line style. (They’re solid matter.) Put one teacher on each end of the line. Push on the shoulder of the kid on the end – they all rock toward the other teacher – she pushes back… this is how a P wave moves through solid. Then have the last person in line bend forward at the waist, then straighten up again – that spreads down the line – this is an S wave moving through solids. Then have kids stand shoulder to shoulder but without linking up – they’re now a liquid. The p-wave will still travel through them, but the S wave will not. Learn more here:

Parachute earthquake: Get out a parachute. Throw a soft ball or other object in it. Make an earthquake, shaking and shaking till the object flies out. Repeat endlessly. 🙂


  • Earthquake! by Bauer. (see under Opening Circle)
  • Earthquakes by Schuh. I strongly prefer Bauer, because Schuh has several photos of collapsed buildings and bridges which might be concerning to some children. The tone of the words is reasonably reassuring.
  • Pandas’ Earthquake Escape by Perry is about a mama panda and her babies escaping an earthquake. The nice thing is that it’s an engaging story about a mother and her children (the kids really enjoyed listening to it), but I think it’s a bit long for circle, and it also shows animals running away in an earthquake to try to find safety, when we’ve just taught that the best thing is to drop, cover and hold. So, I cannot recommend this book.
  • Round Like a Ball by Ernst. “Let’s play a guessing game! I’m thinking of something that is… round like a ball. ‘I love balls’ barked the dog.” Nice illustrations and graphic design elements. Appealing and engaging read-aloud.
  • Our Earth by Rockwell. A nice simple book about the Earth. Appealing to animal lovers, as there are animals pictured on almost every page.
  • Earth by Taylor-Butler, Earth by Roumanis, and Earth by Bloom are all early-reader non-fiction books that are part of series that cover each of the planets of the solar system. I like Roumanis best, because it has a section at the back for parents/teachers that gives more detail about the basic facts on each page. All these books are fine, none are great.


Dinosaurs – Science Fun for Kids


How could you teach a kids’ science class and NOT include dinosaurs??

This was our week to cover this topic – a perennial favorite class topic for preschool and elementary age kids. (Most of these activities are also great for a dinosaur themed birthday party!)

Here’s what we have done in our class over the past three years. Note: There are more activities in this blog post than you can fit into one two hour class!

Dress-Up / Imaginary Play: Most of our STEM topics don’t lend themselves to dress-up, so this was a chance to bring that in: we had dinosaur tails we made (like these), dino hood and gloves, and masks, plus roaring dinosaur hobby horses from the dollar store.


We also read the book I Am a Tyrannosaurus by Hines, and encouraged the children to act out different dinosaurs as the book describes. And we set out a collection of toy dinosaurs, toy trees, and wooden blocks for kids to build scenes with.

Science Exploration

Dino Dig: There’s lots of ways you could have children “dig” for dinosaurs (for example, Party Ideas by a Pro recommends casting plaster dinos and burying them in sand.) We kept it cheap and simple (easy to set up and easy to clean up) by filling a plastic tub full of shredded paper and then burying plastic dinosaurs in it to dig up. (I’ve also done it with shredded paper in a cardboard box and we hid wooden dinosaur skeleton puzzles that we had pre-assembled and glued together. Kids love this simple activity!

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Fossils or “Dino Bones” in the Sensory Tub: Last year, we buried dried pasta in sand in the sensory tub and gave them paint brushes to clean the “bones” with and sort them into a dish. (Note on the picture below… we put in too many noodles – they were too easy for the kids to find – it would have been more fun if they’d had to hunt for them. Also, they were a lot of work to get OUT of the sand when it was time for clean-up.)  This is a cheap, easy, fun activity.


You can also purchase real fossils for less than $20 – read all about the fossil kit here. We used those this year. Again, we placed them in the sensory table with sand and paint brushes and had an identification guide nearby.

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Making fossil impressions: You can make play-dough or use an air dry clay like Model Magic for making impressions. You can press noodles, or shells, or leaves, or pine needles, or fossils into it to make an impression. Interestingly, we had planned this as a take home project, and kids ended up turning it into a process play activity instead. They would roll a ball of clay, press in an object, admire it for a moment, then roll the clay back into a ball, and do it again.

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Building: A Dino Skeleton from TP Rolls. Give them a large box of toilet paper and paper towel rolls, and a poster with a few sample ideas. See what they build. Sample ideas from: A Day in First Grade and Your Modern Family. We had multiple attempts, including one attempt at a three dimensional T-rex.

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Building / Art: A Dino Skeleton from Pasta. Give them cardstock, lots of shapes of noodles, glue, and pictures of dinosaur skeletons and pasta dino skeletons for inspiration.

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Make salt dough bones: For an ambitious project, try making your own set of dinosaur bones out of salt dough. Children can use them to assemble skeletons. We haven’t tried this.

Art Projects

Footprints: We cut out large dinosaur footprints. Then we had kids trace their own footprints and cut them out and compare them to the size of the big footprint. Then they could decorate the footprints. (We also had in the room a paper tracing of a real triceratops footprint, that was about 3 foot by 3 foot.)


Molded Dinosaurs: We’ve used plastic molds of dinosaurs that kids pressed Model Magic air drying clay in to make take-home dinosaurs. (On Amazon, search for “dinosaur molds” and you’ll find several options.)


Rubbings: We’ve used plastic rubbing plates that kids lay paper over and use crayons to make rubbings of birds and reptiles. You can also find Dinosaur Rubbing Plates.


Make a Triceratops Mask: With a paper plate, paper triangles, and popsicle sticks.


Color a Dinosaur Mask: There are LOTS of free printable dinosaur masks online. You can get some that are already colored in, and some that are black and white line drawings the kids can color in. Then they cut them out, add elastic ties, and wear. Here are some options: Mother Natured, Itsy Bitsy Fun, DIY Fashion, and Mask Spot. Interestingly, in the morning class, this station was pretty much ignored – one child made a half-hearted attempt at it. But in the afternoon class, with a sample mask on the table to try on, we had a lot more interest.


I also really like this 3-D dinosaur mask based on Paul Strickland’s art in the book Dinosaur Roar – it would be too difficult for this age group to assemble one, but I made one for them to try on.

Assemble a paper skeleton / add pasta bones: We printed out materials from Prekinders. We cut some out in advance, so the younger kids could just assemble a skeleton, while the older kids were encouraged to use their scissor skills cutting out the pieces and assembling them on a paper. After gluing together the paper skeleton, kids were given the option of adding noodle “bones” to their picture.

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Other Activities

Sorting Activity: I made up a dinosaur family tree, plus 10 cards describing categories of dinosaurs. (See my sample cards. Note: I do not have copyright permission to the images included, so you should find your own images to use for your cards.)  We set them out on a table, along with a big pile of plastic dinosaurs and encouraged kids to sort them into categories.


Flying Pterodactyl: Just for the fun of it, we tied a string up near the ceiling with a straw mounted on it, then taped a plastic pterodactyl to it. We could hold the kids up and let them push the toy to make it fly.

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Excavate a dinosaur from ice: Freeze big blocks of ice with plastic dinos embedded in them. Use ice, water, and tools to excavate. We didn’t do this activity in our dinosaur class because we had a similar project in States of Matter week.

Tar Pits: You could use “non Newtonian fluid” colored black, to sink dinosaurs in the “tar pit” (see quicksand idea in States of Matter week.)

Science Display

We had multiple displays to illustrate how big some dinosaurs were.

Walking Footprints: We took the stegosaurus feet illustration from this image then blew each one up to fill a full sheet of paper (i.e. about 11″ long) and printed several pairs. Then we taped them on the floor from the front door to the table, to show the stride length of a stegosaurus – 6 feet. (source)

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Big Footprint: Draw a t-rex footprint that is 3 feet long. Ask kids to guess how many kids’ footprints fit inside a T-rex footprint. Then have them take off their shoes and set them on the big footprint to compare. (Idea from Mrs. Lee and 4.bp.blogspot)

Rope to show length: Take a long rope and stretch it across the room. Tell kids it’s as long as [pick a dinosaur that’s about the length of the rope you happen to have.]

Posters: I printed a collection of posters – some about how big a footprint was, how big dinosaurs were, and one showing a life-size picture of how big a t-rex tooth was. You can see the posters here.

Nature Activity – Tracking: Print this puzzle on 11 x 17 paper and laminate it, then let children use white board markers to trace the path of footprints to see which dinosaur made the tracks. Note: children of all ages (3 and up) enjoyed this activity. But it was only the 6 – 8 year olds who were able to trace all the lines back accurately.

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Outdoor Activity: Search for Signs of Wildlife: Once a month, our class meets at a park with nature trails, and we do a nature-based activity. This month, we talked about how you could tell an animal had been in the woods: if you saw tracks, scat, signs that animals had been eating (like stripped bark or chewed leaves), homes (spider webs, nests, etc.) and eggs. We looked for signs of real animals (mostly dogs and rodents in this suburban park, although we did find a tree stripped of bark, so it’s possible a deer has also been there – I’ve seen them a mile away from this park), but also “signs that a dinosaur had been in our woods”.

I found pictures of items online, printed and laminated them, and hid them in the woods. We found t-rex footprints, sauropod footprints, dinosaur poop (really a picture of crocodile dung), dinosaur eggs (a photo of an alligator nest), a photo of chewed up leaves, and a photo of stripped bark. (Here’s a pdf of the photos I used, but again, I don’t have copyright privileges for these images, so would encourage you to find your own.)

I wanted to take the kids to a clearing in the woods, but when I checked it before class, I found that there was a lot of trash there. I took the kids there anyway, and used it as an opportunity to talk about the fact that animals sometimes leave waste behind, because they can’t help it. But, we as humans can choose to leave no trace – picking up and carrying out all our trash. We cleaned up the clearing before returning to the classroom.

Big Ideas

In circle time, you’ll discover that you have some kids who know next to nothing about dinosaurs, and others that know more than most adults! There’s a few messages that should be made clear to all.

  • First, dinosaurs are extinct. They lived a really long time ago, but they are not alive now. The closest thing we really will see is a crocodile or an alligator, although birds are also descendants of dinosaurs.
  • They weren’t ALL really big. Some dinosaurs were the size of a chicken.
  • The way we know about dinosaurs is by finding and digging up bones and fossil evidence, and then attempting to assemble them into full skeletons and gather data about things like what they ate, how they walked, and so on.
  • When talking about dinosaurs, it’s pretty hard to avoid the idea that some dinosaurs lived by eating other dinosaurs. Parents can sometimes get skittish about the “violence” of dinosaurs, especially since movies make millions of dollars by showcasing this violence. But you can also be pretty matter of fact about it. Just as we can say “frogs eat bugs” or “eagles eat mice”, we can address that carnivorous dinosaurs ate other dinosaurs.

Circle Time:

Rhythm Game: We asked kids to tell us the name of a kind of dinosaur, then we clapped the syllables, from t-rex to pach-y-ceph-a-lo-saur-us.

We talked about the big ideas (above) and read Digging Up Dinosaurs (see below)

In closing circle, we read When Dinosaurs Came with Everything.


There must be hundreds of children’s books about dinosaurs! Believe me, I read most of them when my son was three… we’d walk to the library twice a week and bring home a giant stack of nothing but dinosaur books. (If you live in King County, and you don’t know how to go online and put books on hold for pick up at your local library, go to the library now and learn how!!! It’s just as easy as ordering from Amazon… go online to, search for any book you want, place a hold on it, and in about 2 – 4 days, you’ll get an email saying it’s ready for pick-up at the library branch you chose. In the library, they’re set aside on special shelves, and it takes just minutes to pick them up. We get literally 100’s of books a year this way, including almost every single book I’ve talked about on this blog. If you prefer ebooks, you can also check out plenty at

Here’s photos of just a few dinosaur books.

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Here’s some good overviews that I would recommend for varying age groups. They cover basic ideas like what dinosaurs are and how scientists know about them.

Dinosaurs, Dinosaurs by Barton. The best dinosaur book for toddlers, age 2 – 4. Simple primary color illustrations and simple text.

Let’s Talk About Dinosaurs by Teckentrup. Good for ages 3 – 6, although we skipped some pages when we read it in circle.

Digging Up Dinosaurs by Aliki. A nice overview of both dinosaurs and paleontology: now how bones are excavated and transported to museums. We’ve used it as a read-aloud for ages 3 – 7, but we skip over or shorten parts of it. (And it’s probably over the heads of our youngest kids.)

Dinosaurs!  by Gibbons. A nice overview of dino facts, at a level preschoolers can follow but kids age 5 to 7 will also like.

Monster Bones: The Story of a Dinosaur Fossil by Bailey and Lilly. Good for 5 – 7 year old. Begins with a dino dying and sinking to the bottom of the river. Covers the fossilization process in detail, then the discovery, the dig process led by the paleontologist and preparing the skeleton for display. I may like this better than Aliki’s Digging Up, but it’s even longer – I would only read it aloud to first grade and up.

Fossils Tell of Long Ago by Aliki. Similar quality to Aliki’s other book – talks more about the fossilization process than Digging Up does.

In addition to all the non-fiction books, dinosaurs also feature prominently in LOTS of story books. Dinosaur Roar! by Strickland is not educational, but it’s one of my very favorite books to read aloud. Captain Raptor by O’Malley is entertaining space opera with dinosaurs. Also check out When Dinosaurs Came with Everything.


Again, there are LOTS of TV shows and movies that incorporate dinosaurs. Many kids love Dinosaur Train on PBS, and the Land Before Time series of movies. When my son was four, he loved Walking with Dinosaurs from the BBC. It’s done like a nature documentary, and it doesn’t shy away from the fact that some dinosaurs eat other dinosaurs, so it might be frightening for some little ones, but will work well for others, and they definitely did their research to get things as scientifically correct as possible. On YouTube, you can find “Andy’s Dinosaur Adventures” from cbeebies, which is also documentary style, but a little sillier / kid-friendly. (Both these shows do a good job of animating dinosaurs, and it might make your child think that dinosaurs are actually living somewhere on the planet now, so you may need to clarify that they’re extinct.)

There are also countless videos on YouTube if you search for “dinosaur songs for kids.” I have some of the ones we liked on a playlist here:

Fossil Kit

I teach a STEM enrichment class for preschool and elementary age kids. Last year in our dinosaur themed class, we buried pasta “bones” in the sand in the sensory bin and had kids dig up the “fossils.” This year, I discovered you can easily buy real fossils for cheap. This Fossil Sorting Kit has 2 pounds of fossils that are around 300 million years old, and you can order them for $19… cheaper than a Shopkins 20 pack!

Here’s what they looked like straight out of the box (click on any photo for a larger image):

img_20170115_132756067_hdrThey were a little dusty (as would be expected), and I wanted good photos, so I gave them a quick scrub with a veggie brush, and a solution that was one part vinegar, 10 parts water, then rinsed. Here they are after cleaning…. there’s about 95 fossils.


The kit included an identification guide. You can see it at Based on it, the kit included about: 9 brachiopods, 4 rocks with fossil fragments, 10 gastropods, 13 snails, 9 ammonites, 15 orthoceras, 20 crinoid stems, 12 pieces of coral. There weren’t any trilobites.

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We put these in the sensory bin with sand and paintbrushes, and the identification guide on a table nearby. Our three to four year old students mostly just played in the sand. Our older kids (age 5 – 7) found and cleaned fossils and used the guide to identify some.

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For lots of cheap, easy, hands-on science experiments for kids, just click on any of the links in the right hand side bar. (Or the bottom of the page on mobile devices.)

Sorting – A Core Math & Science Skill


At many preschools and elementary schools, you’ll see a wide variety of sorting activities, where children are asked to classify different objects into categories. Let’s look at why this classification skill is so vital.  (Note: you can see our lesson plan on Animal Classification here.)

As infants begin to experience their world, they begin trying to make sense of it. When they encounter something new, you can see the wheels turning in their head, as they try to determine whether it reminds them of anything they have seen before. You see the a-ha lightbulb when they make a connection. For example, seeing a lion on their first trip to the zoo: “A-ha! I know about dogs. This is a very strange looking dog, but it has four legs and fur all over, so it must be a dog!”

So yes, sometimes they make mistakes in their labeling and classification – don’t worry, they’ll get those figured out over time. But the important thing is that they are starting to make connections and draw conclusions. They are noticing that some things match (are the same based on some criteria) and some don’t match (are different in some way).

We want to help our child(ren) develop all their science process skills. Classification is the beginning of logical thinking – it’s about understanding relationships and seeing connections. It is absolutely core to the study of math and science. But it’s also essential for life – it’s a model for organizing things in the real world. (Sorting your laundry, splitting the silverware up into separate slots in the drawer, and putting paperwork away in file cabinets are just some of the ways we help our days function more efficiently by sorting.)

Teaching Sorting and Classification Skills

These are in approximate order from least complex to most sophisticated. Start on the easier side with your child, then gradually escalate up the complexity over time.

  • Noticing similarities: When your child sees something like something they have seen before, help them to recognize it and make a connection. “Look, it’s a cat like Grandma’s cat.” “Yes, those blocks are both blue.” “That’s like the one we have at home.”
  • Noticing differences: “Is that cat the same color as Grandma’s cat? Is it bigger or smaller?” “That blue block is a square. This blue block is a triangle.”
  • Comparing related objects: this is bigger than that; this is heavier than that.
  • Put things in order: from smallest to biggest, from lightest to heaviest.
  • Sort into categories that you tell them, such as color. First, do only two categories (separate the grapes from the strawberries.) Over time, add more categories. (Sort the plastic bears into the red, blue, yellow and green bowls.) Or separate the musical instruments from the scarves, then separate instruments, scarves, shakers, and bells.
  • To start with, use materials that are really easy to tell apart. For example, only two types of items, where ALL of group A is identical, and all of group B is identical, such as Blue Unifix cubes and Red Unifix cubes. If you want them to focus on learning their colors, then give them things that differ ONLY by color… For example, sorting M&M’s by color, not sorting red twizzlers from yellow lemonheads and green jolly ranchers. Over time you can choose more complex items, or choose things which are harder to classify. Natural materials provide a very diverse experience: even if you’re only sorting maple leaves, there’s a lot of variation from one to the next in color, size, and shape. [Note, it’s always better with small children to work with real objects than with photos of objects.]
  • Let them decide which characteristic to sort by…. This blog post on Rhythms of Play does a lovely job of describing a sorting game with a three year old.
    • “Instead of telling your child(ren) how to sort the rocks, ask them if they see any differences in the rocks.” Then let them sort based on that criteria. Her daughter first sorted by size, sequencing them from smallest to largest.
    • “Place the rocks back into a pile and ask what other differences they see. Sort again based on their answer. You don’t need to sort every last rock each time. Some rocks may be difficult to sort depending on the classification. Repeat until you run out of ways to sort and classify the rocks.” Let them know that there’s no right or wrong answer about what criteria to sort by.
    • Her daughter then sorted by color.
    • Then into one pile where all the rocks were one homogeneous color, and one of multi-colored rocks.
    • Then by shape.
    • You can suggest new ideas – if your child has been sorting by what things look like (using vision), can they sort by what things feel like (using touch to determine which are rough and which are smooth.)
  • Do multi-stage classification. First make sets of all the plastic toys and all the wooden toys. Then sort out the plastic blocks from the plastic animals. Then sort out the plastic mammals from the plastic fish.
  • Sort by two criteria. Separate into big blue, small blue, big red, and small red buttons. (This may be beyond the capabilities of a preschooler.)
  • Think about sequencing skills. At the beginning of a preschool year, the teacher might first focus on having children look at two objects and describe – what’s the same? what’s different? Then they’d move up to three objects and the game “one of these things is not like the other.” (check out YouTube for classic clips from Sesame Street). Then they’d look at groups of four objects and find the pairs – which ones match. Then sort 6 – 8 objects into two categories. Then sort 12 objects into three categories, etc.

Games and Activities to Practice Sorting

  • Puzzles and shape sorters are all about sorting by shape
  • Memory game / Concentration: This is the card game where you deal cards face down. Each player can lift one up to look at it, then look at another to see if they match. If they match, the player keeps both (“scores” them) and if not, he returns them to place, face down. Start really easy, with 6 cards / 3 pairs. Add more as your child gets better at the game. This is great for learning matching skills, and building memory, and building game strategy skills. A younger child will just pick cards at random, often picking the same ones over and over. An older child will start developing a strategic plan – start in the upper left corner, look at #1 and 2 – remember them! On the next turn, look at 3 – if it matches 1 or 2, choose those and get a match… if not, look at #4. That’s fabulous training in logical thinking. Online you can search for free printable memory games and find lots, or it’s easy to make your own card deck by just gathering a few pictures of your child’s favorite objects. (I’m thinking it may be time to make a Pokémon memory game for my son…)
  • Go Fish, Uno, and other card games: Most card games require that children learn to understand sets and different ways to sort them. Sort into suits – hearts, spades, diamonds and clubs, or by color in Uno. Sort by number / type: your king matches their king; you can play a red card OR a 6 on their red 6; you can get a “straight” of numbers 3, 4, and 5, but only if they’re all the same suit. Again, you can start by either making your own cards, or just use a sub-set from a deck of cards. For example, starting with just ace through 10 in the deck may be easier for your child than trying to understand face cards and remember how many points a jack, queen and king are. Or, when you start playing Uno, only use the number cards – leave skip, draw two and wild cards for the future.
  • Household tasks – ask your child to help you with sorting laundry, putting away silverware, putting toys away in the right basket. Label bins so they understand categories – update labels as needed. Help children notice how being organized helps us save time. (It’s faster to get dressed in the morning when all our clothes are put away in the right place, and we don’t have to rummage through a whole basket of clothes to find a matching pair of socks.)
  • Find sets – have them look around classroom (or bedroom or restaurant – wherever you find yourself) and find things that come in sets, like a box of crayons, 6 pack of soda, salt and pepper shakers.
  • Make patterns: If you give your child a bowl of beads, and ask them to make a pattern of black then white then black then white, they have to sort those colors from the bowl.
  • Read books that sort into categories: animals that live on farms and in zoos; trucks and cars; evergreen and deciduous trees, dog breeds by group.
  • Talk about it. Sorting is not just about moving objects around – It can also happen in discussion – name the people in your family and some people not in your family; look at this picture – point to all the animals in the picture.
  • Notice spontaneous sorts. If you happen to notice that your child has sorted objects into groups, comment on it. “I see you put all the dice together there.”
  • Puzzle cards: Many commercial products (like Laser MazeTumble Trax, and Snap Circuits) come with a series of instruction cards that teach skills sequentially – the child first does card #1. Then once they’ve learned that concept, they move up to card #2, which adds one element, and so on. You could create puzzle cards for a sorting activity. For example, put out a set of Counting Bears. Puzzle card #1 says / shows a picture of: Sort the bears by color: red, yellow, and green. Puzzle card #2 says: Sort the bears by size: small, medium, large. #3: Put all the small green bears here and all the big red bears there. And so on.
  • Parts and wholes: Put out several containers and several lids. Have them match the container to the lid.
  • Matching lists: Hold up one familiar object. Ask them to describe it, writing down what they say. Then hold up another object, do the same. Now compare lists. How are they like each other and how are they different? Could also do with a worksheet / form that asked questions in order: color, shape, texture, etc. That would make it easier to compare the lists side by side.
  • Recycling: Help children learn about, and follow, the rules for what gets recycled, what gets composted, and what gets thrown away.
  • Sorting Math Tokens: Teach Preschool has a great post on asking kids to bring in small items for counting games and math games. She describes how they took a big box of miscellaneous stuff, observed it to discern possible categories, then sorted it.

Check out all my other posts on this blog about teaching STEM concepts. They are organized around weekly theme, but almost all the themes include a sorting activity! Examples: Solid, Liquid, or Gas? Can the Wind Move It? Rock sorting and dinosaur sorting.


Peaceful Parenting has a great collection of ideas for things to sort: coins, buttons, straws cut to different lengths, sorting by weight or sound, and more.

Sorting Activities for Preschoolers by NAEYC

Developing Classification Skills on Design a Study.

Zero to Three has a great collection of ideas for how to Help Your Child Develop Early Math Skills.

Science Process Skills

img_20160614_192612976In our Family Inventors’ Lab, the topics we teach (our weekly themes) are from the fields of science and engineering. There are some basic scientific concepts we hope to teach each week. That’s the “what” kids are learning. But at least as important is

  • the attitudes we try to convey about science – the “why”

The [attitudes about science] include such things as being curious and imaginative…  enthusiastic about asking questions and solving problems. (Source)

  • and our process of learning – the “how”

The processes of doing science are the science process skills that scientists use… Since science is about asking questions and finding answers to questions, these are actually the same skills that we all use in our daily lives as we try to figure out everyday questions. When we teach students to use these skills in science, we are also teaching them skills that they will use in the future in every area of their lives. (Source. Italics are mine.)

There are thirteen science process skills, six of which are appropriate for young children. In order from least to most sophisticated, they are: Observation, Communication, Measurement, Classification, Inference, and Prediction.


Observation is the fundamental skill of science. We observe with all our senses.

One of the best things we can do for our children’s science learning is to help them observe more closely – look for more details. We do this by asking questions.

When a child is looking at something new, we can ask them to tell us what they notice about it. They may begin with only the simplest observation – often a label, if they know what the object is called. “It’s a leaf.” If we ask them to describe it, they might just choose one way to describe it: “it’s green.” We can encourage them to think about it in more depth by asking them what they can observe with each of their five senses: what does it look like? smell like? taste like? sound like? feel like? We can show them more ways to explore it… pick it up, turn it over to look at it from all sides, take it apart (what happens if you tear the leaf), see how it interacts with other things (can you cut the leaf with scissors?), shake it or crumple it to see if that changes the noise it is (or isn’t) making. We can introduce them to tools they can use to enhance their observation, such as a magnifying glass or microscope. We can encourage them to draw a picture of it or write a description. The process of trying to draw an object usually brings up questions for the child which motivate them to look more closely to figure out how to get the drawing right. As they write or draw, we can ask more questions to help them notice finer details. We can ask them to break it into parts and make observations about just one part: instead of describing the whole cat, can they just describe a cat’s paw?

We did a full unit on the five senses and observation. Find our lesson plan here.


Observing and communicating those observations go hand-in-hand. Children need to learn lots of adjectives… lots of commonly agreed upon ways to describe what we observe so that others can understand us. When talking with a child about what they observe, we often teach new vocabulary. If we ask them to describe a color and they think it’s kind of blue-ish, kind of green-ish, we can teach words like teal and turquoise. When I show children how to identify an Oregon grape plant, they need to learn the words serrated and glossy. When describing different types of music, we can talk about tempo, mood, etc.

When we’re sitting side by side with someone looking at the same thing, it’s easier to use a made-up word to describe something we can both see… last night, I was working on a jigsaw puzzle with my husband and son. I said “why can’t I find this piece?” They asked what I was looking for, and I said – “this kind of brownish-beige-ish donut color with this hooked dog leg kind of shape coming off of it.” In context, where they could see the rest of the donut, and see the space into which that shape would fit, that made sense. But out of that context it means almost nothing.

So, to communicate, not only do we need to know the words, we also need to be able to understand the perspective of our listener. What do they already know about what we are trying to describe? If I’m talking to an outdoorsy kid from the Pacific NW, and I say that I saw a banana slug, they know what I mean and can visualize it. But if I was talking to a kid in Arizona, I would need to describe it in detail. If I describe a tree as “big”, that also might conjure a different image for each of those two kids.


Measuring is a special case of observing and communicating. Observing how big something is by measuring it against something else, and then communicating that information to someone else using commonly agreed upon units. So, I could describe my big tree as being 12 foot tall, or as being 40 feet tall. Counting and weighing are part of measurement.

We can show kids that sometimes it is entertaining or even useful to use non-standard measurements. But they also have to know standard units. In our house, my son could probably tell you that a snake puppet he has is 12 Shopkins long. If you know what a Shopkin is and how big they are, you’d have a guess that the snake was around 10 – 12 inches long. But if you don’t know what a Shopkin is, we’d have to do that translation into standard units for you.

Here’s a lesson plan full of activities about measurement with information about what concepts of measuring kids get depending on their age.

Classifying Into Groups / Sorting

Sorting is a way of creating order, or making sense out of a large collection of objects by using your observation skills to notice what things have in common with each other and how they are different from each other.

A simple method of classifying is putting things in serial order: lining them up from smallest to biggest, or arranging them by color in the order of the rainbow (Roy G. Biv), or smoothest to roughest.

Objects can be sorted into binary categories: magnetic or not magnetic; plastic or wood, vertebrate or non-vertebrate. These sort by a single criteria – you could also have more than two categories, such as sorting into: red, yellow, green or blue or reptile, mammal, bird, fish, insect. You can also do a multi-stage classification. First, sort out the plastic from the wood, then sort the plastic ones by color, then sort the red plastic ones by size. Or sort out the mammals from other categories, then find the canines, then find the dogs. Or sort out mom’s clean laundry from kid’s laundry, then sort kid’s socks from kid’s underwear, then find the matching pairs of socks.

Check out this link to learn a lot more about: sorting and classification. Or check out our lesson plan on Animal Classification.


An inference is an explanation or interpretation that follows an observation. We observe with all five senses, but we interpret what we sense based on our prior experience and knowledge. Observation results can be called data or facts. The inference is what those facts mean.

On our walk to school, we observe that this plant dropped things sort of like pinecones. But as they dry out, they open up and reveal bright red berries that we can observe. But, we had to infer that the red color probably attracts birds who eat the berries and carry them other places to spread the plant. We can infer that because we know that is often the evolutionary purpose of brightly colored fruit. Also on our walk, there was a sign about a lost cat. We can observe that the sign has been there for a long time. My son infers that is because the owners are still hoping to find their lost cat. I infer that the owners have given up on the cat, but either forgot about the sign, or find it too depressing to take it down.

Ask your child about their assumptions: why do they think that? Ask: what does this remind you of? Help them sort out the difference between facts – anyone looking at this object would see the same thing – and inferences – different people could interpret this data in different ways, based on their experiences.


A prediction is an educated guess, based on our observations and inferences, about future events. It is always based on data. We identify trends in the data which let us predict what will happen. Predictions can be tested: if I do X, does Y happen?

Our mail usually arrives after 2:00 pm but before 4:00 pm. If our son asks to go check the mail at 3:00, we tell him that it may or may not be there. His grandma sends him the Sunday comics each week (it’s a tradition going back almost 20 years to when my oldest child was in preschool). So, if he asks whether he has mail on any given day, we can ask him to think about whether he’s gotten this week’s comics yet or not. If not, it’s more likely there will be mail for him (the comics). If so, then it is less likely that he will be receiving a random unpredictable piece of mail. Each time we check the mail, we have a chance to check our assumptions (inferences) and adjust our prediction about future phenomena.

How do children benefit from learning science process skills (source)

First, they learn science better. Hands-on process based learning is much more effective than textbook-based science. The hands-on experience also builds small motor skills as they manipulate a wide variety of materials.

Math is the language of science. The more science kids do, the more proficient they become with the language of math. But hands-on science also teaches literacy skills: as they communicate about their experience, they are building vocabulary, building oral and written language skills, and learning how to describe detail in depth.

They also learn critical thinking skills.

These include inductive reasoning, formulation of hypotheses, deductive reasoning, and a variety of mental skills such as analogy, extrapolation, synthesis, and evaluation. (source)

Every one of the science process skills is a skill we can use in many contexts in our lives. They are all about much more than learning “science.”

Read more about process here and about tinkering here.

Resources for learning more:

Rainbow – Science for Kids


At this week’s Family Inventors Lab, our theme was Rainbows. This followed last week’s session on Light and Shadow and we were able to reflect back on what we learned there about light reflection and refraction, and extend it here.

Challenge Activity: Build a spectroscope.
Last year, we built  spectroscopes from paper towel tubes, tapes, and old CD’s. (Read here about what we did, or go to my source for the idea – Buggy and Buddy.)

This year, we used these Rainbow-Scope Kits. You can read all about them in my review of Rainbow-Scopes. It was a fun, do-able project for all our kids, with nice results.

spectro-header  img_20170116_180805676   img_20170116_184145494

Exploration of Colors and Light: We had an overhead projector, so we set it up with our screen from last week’s Shadows class. We put out a wide variety of colorful items that could be set on the projector and seen up on the screen. We also had a top that kids could spin on the projector and see the spinning shadow. This activity was a big hit.

IMG_20160430_104907063  IMG_20160430_104940846  IMG_20160430_110828373  IMG_20160430_104914997

This projector idea was from a children’s museum we visited somewhere on our travels. They also had x-rays that kids could project on the wall, and these cool wood blocks with translucent shapes.

Exploration / Art: We had diffraction grating peepholes. When you hold these up to your eye, then look at a light, the light is broken up into rainbows. Different lights produce different patterns… ambient light may create spread out rainbow colors. Looking at a ceiling light, you might see circular rainbows; an LED flashlight on a cell phone can create six rays of rainbows radiating out. (Learn more about diffraction lenses here. Sorry that it’s a marketing post where they’re trying to sell a product… but the site does do a nice job of describing how these lenses work.) This photo is a view of our overhead projector image from above, seen through the diffraction grating:


We also put out kaleidoscopes, spectroscopes, and prism viewers for them to look through. We had crayons / markers and paper out so the kids could draw what they saw. It might also be fun to give kids a camera and let them take pictures of what they can see. You’d need a camera with a small lens (like a cell phone) to line up with viewing holes on things like kaleidoscopes.


Group Art – Mural: The first year, we had a painting of a rainbow on the wall, then had a black and white line drawing of a rainbow below that they painted in to match the one on the top. The second year, we offered a drawing of a rainbow and colorful post-it flags to fill it in. (Post-it flags are a good small motor skill builder. Buy them at a dollar store, don’t pay office supply prices!) It was easier to set-up and clean-up, but not as satisfying a project, so this time we went back to painting, just drawing an outline of a rainbow and adding a color dot and a label onto each stripe so they knew the color to paint that stripe. We also had the easel next to it for anyone who wanted to paint their own rainbow to take home.


mural rainbowmural

Science Exploration / Small Motor: We “made it rain” by filling a big vase with water, spraying shaving cream on top, and using pipettes to drip diluted liquid watercolor on the shaving cream clouds. It slowly drips through, creating swirling “rainfall” below. For more pictures and thoughts on talking to kids about the science of rain, check out this post. Be sure to get shaving cream, not gel. One can was enough for 20 kids worth of experiments, but I always buy two cans, just in case. If there’s leftovers, it’s great for puffy paint. (Mix equal parts glue and shaving cream for a fun 3-d paint – great for collages!)

IMG_20160430_104802937 clouds

butterflyArt: We used eye droppers to drip liquid watercolor onto coffee filters, which creates some beautiful color mixing. (Don’t dilute the liquid watercolor – use it straight.) Then we used clothespins to turn the coffee filters into butterflies. (I like the old-fashioned Clothespins a little better than the spring-loaded ones for this project.) Add googly eyes (or draw on eyes) and pipe cleaners to finish the project.

I didn’t get a picture of our butterflies, but here’s a sample of what they could look like. (Source for idea)

Picture from Thoughtful Spot Day Care

Picture from Thoughtful Spot Day Care

More Color and Light Exploration: We had jars of colored water and a bright light to shine through them. We used a mirror to reflect the light to “mix” colors. This experiment was not yet a success. We needed a flashlight with a really tight, bright beam, not a broad angle shop light, and we needed a darker space with less ambient light.

IMG_20160430_101130244  IMG_20160430_104750580

We put colorful translucent items on the light table. After I took the picture, we added Color Paddles which are fun for color mixing.


Pattern-Making / Art / Small Motor: We had pipe cleaners and beads out and kids could choose to make a patterned bracelet, or choose to make rainbows on Styrofoam bases.


Writing tool: We made a rainbow tray, like in this Nurture store activity, with the intention of filling it with salt for kids to practice drawing letters in. But, we discovered we didn’t have salt in the classroom. We tried flour, which I’ve used successfully with one toddler but in the classroom setting with multiple kids, it was too messy. We tried white plastic beads (like you fill beanbags with) but they were too messy. We tried rock salt, but you couldn’t effectively trace letters in it. So, we’ll try again next time.


Rainbow Songs: There are so many songs about rainbows! I made a playlist of rainbow songs and we just had it playing in one room while kids played.

Other Ideas: Other activities we’ve used for this theme were magna-tilesrainbow crayons, rainbow colored blocks, rainbow puzzle stacker, and a sensory table or water table full of anything colorful.

blocks  sensory-bin

One year we tried color your own playdough, where we gave them balls of white playdough and they mixed colors in. (We used liquid watercolor for this, which was not a good idea as it made the playdough too wet. We may try again in the future with gel or powdered color.) We had blocks of ice that they could sprinkle salt onto and pour water onto, and drip liquid watercolor on to help it melt. Even better would be to make rainbow colored blocks of ice. We also a rainbow colored tumbling mat with colored hoops to jump into for some big motor play. We played a little spontaneous Twister on the mats: Put your left hand on the red part, put your right foot on the blue part, and so on.

Circle Time

Gathering Song: For our gathering activity, I gave all the kids colorful scarves, and told them that when I called their color, they should wave their scarf, and when I said “rainbow”, everyone should wave their scarves. We practiced that, then I put on this song, and we waved our scarves. Note: it was hard for our little ones to keep up with the speed of this song, so another one from the playlist might work better if you’re working with 3 – 4 year olds. I prefer:

Understanding the Big Idea: You could choose to show a simple video, such as this one or this one:

I just talked about rainbows, asking questions – the older kids knew these answers:

  • “To see a rainbow outside, you have to have a specific type of weather – what do you need?” We discussed sunlight and rain. I explained that you see a rainbow when the sun is behind you, shining on water droplets in front of you. (This ties into what we learned last week about how when the sun is behind you, your shadow is in front.)
  • “What are the colors of the rainbow?” We wrote them on the board, and I explained that all rainbows always have the color in that order. (I told them about Roy G. Biv mnemonic.)
  • I reminded them that last week we learned that if light shines straight at a mirror, it bounces straight back (reflects). But we also learned that light can bend (refract) when it passes through water. I drew diagrams on the board showing this. (Note: this would also be a good opportunity to read another great Vicki Cobb book called I See Myself which is all about light reflecting.)
  • Then I showed them the flashlight on my phone and asked what color the light was – white. I told them it was made of many colors, and if we could bend the light, we could see all those colors.
  • We turned out the light, I held up a glass of water, and shone the flashlight through it to make a rainbow. (Note: be sure to test out a variety of glasses to see which gives the best rainbow effect – I had the best luck with a stemless wine glass, and shining my light through the curve at the bottom.) I also showed how the reflection off a CD can create a rainbow, and how a prism creates a rainbow. (With each, I pointed out the order of the colors.)
  • Sunlight (and most lights) are made up of several colors of light. When a ray of sunlight hits a droplet of water it bends. Each wavelength bends at a slightly different angle, so they separate out by color. (I add this to my diagram on the board.)

Book: We read A Rainbow of My Own by Freeman. It’s a nice story of a boy who imagines having a rainbow follow him and play with him, but then his imaginary rainbow disappears. When he goes home, he finds a “rainbow of his own” in his room as the sunlight shines through the goldfish bowl, creating a rainbow. It’s a sweet story, and our kids totally got that real rainbows don’t behave like his pretend one did, and they liked that it ended with the rainbow and the goldfish bowl, which echoes the demonstration we just did.

Song: Barney’s Rainbow Song:

Oh, I like red, it’s the color of an apple. Orange, it’s the color of an orange.
Yellow, it’s a lemon, and a wonderful sun, sun, sun.
Green, is the color of the trees, and lots of things that grow.
And then there’s blue for the sky, And purple, that’s a color that’s fun, fun, fun.
And when we put those colors side by side, Now, what do you think we’ve done? We’ve made a rainbow, and it’s a really beautiful one, one, one.

There’s some other nice song options on Preschool Express and on Perpetual Preschool, or on the YouTube playlist I mentioned earlier.

Closing Circle: We read Planting a Rainbow by Ehlert, about planting a colorful garden. It tied in nicely to this week’s rainbow theme and an upcoming Seeds and Plants theme.

Then we got out the parachute (it’s rainbow colored) and played the song Somewhere Over the Rainbow by Israel Kamakawiwo’ole. We waved the parachute up and down gently with kids under it. We put balls on top of it and bounced it wildly, and we played a variation of Red Rover under it. (When I called Red, everyone holding onto a red part of the parachute had to let go, run under the parachute to another red handle.)

Rainbow Books (contains affiliate links)

      • Rainbow by Bauer and Wallace.  A simple non-fiction read-aloud that overviews the basic science of rainbows. Good for a preschool STEM class.
      • Take a Walk on a Rainbow – A First Look at Colors – a fine non-fiction book about science, rainbows and colors.
      • A Rainbow All Around Me by Pinkney. What I like: photos of kids painting rainbows, brightly colored photos for each color. What I don’t like – I find it doesn’t flow well for me to read out loud. We do some colors, yellow, blue, red, then a little refrain of “colors are you. Colors are me.” Then orange, purple, black (not in the rainbow). Refrain. Green, pink, brown. Refrain. White, tan, ending page… it’s fine, but I don’t love it.
      • I Am a Rainbow by Dolly Parton. A feelings book. Talks about when we’re tickled pink, seeing red, feeling blue, green with jealousy, scared yellow and when everything is rosy. Nice little book about emotions but my 5 year old wanted to know why it didn’t include orange if it’s called a rainbow book.
      •  Rainbows Never End: and other fun facts by DiSiena and Eliot. A science trivia book for ages 6 – 7. A couple pages on rainbows, and more on snow, rain cycle, thunder and lightning, tornadoes, solstice, the North and South pole, deserts. and so on. A good general purpose collection of “fun facts”.
      • Rainbow Shoes by Stone and Czernecki. A collection of silly poems, each tied into a color. Do Robots wear red rubber boots? Orange socks. Purple pants poem, my underwear is dingy and so on. Fine for a poetry unit, not really for a STEM class.
      • Elmer and the Rainbow by McKee. There’s a rainbow in the sky that has lost its colors. Elmer goes on a quest, and then shares his colors with the rainbow. I’m all for fantasy (see “A Rainbow of My Own” that was my favorite for this week) but this book managed to just be too scientifically inaccurate for my taste.
      • Curious George Discovers the Rainbow adapted by Cherrix from aTV episode. Really wordy in the main text – maybe suited for 6 – 7 year olds, plus lots of wordy side bars of additional facts. The content is good – there’s just a lot of it.
      • Weaving the Rainbow by Lyon and Anderson. Pretty watercolor illustrations, and a story about raising lambs to adulthood, shearing the sheep, spinning the wool, dyeing it with goldenrod and madder, and weaving a pastoral picture. Would be a good book to accompany a class in the traditional arts.
      • Maisy’s Rainbow Dream by Cousins. If you have a Maisy fan, they’ll love this book, which is full of lots of big, bright, colorful illustrations. I don’t love it. The page says something like “Maisy dreams about an orange fish.” And there’s a picture of an orange fish with a panda bear / mermaid and an alligator on an airplane, a squirrel in a boat and a ladybug. Who knows why. Ages 3 – 4.

Rain Books. If you’re talking about rain as well as raindrops, here are some good options.

  • Raindrops Roll by Sayre. Absolutely gorgeous nature photography combined with a nice read-aloud about rain for preschoolers. Lovely.
  • Who Likes the Rain by Etta Kaner. Nice non-fiction.
  • What is the Water Cycle by Ellen Lawrence

Videos: There’s a Sid the Science Kid episode called What is a Rainbow. It’s available to stream for a fee on Amazon, but I have not found a free version. Also, check out the links above in the opening circle section.

We always have more ideas than we have time and space for, but if you’d like more ideas for rainbow-themed activities, look on our Pinterest page:

Affiliate Links: In my posts, you’ll see lots of links to products on Amazon. I do get a “kickback” – a referral fee if you click through and buy these products. However, my primary goal is to make it easier for you to find the materials, or sometimes just to illustrate what I used. For example, in my post, I don’t want to spend a lot of time describing the best brand of shaving cream to buy at your local drugstore. It’s easier to put an affiliate link to the Barbasol on Amazon so you can see what I used, and you can know whether that’s something that’s easy / cheap for you to pick up at a local store.