What is a Scientist? (FIL)

Collection of images from the post

Exploring Science Tools

In our STEM enrichment class, the T stands for Tools (non-electronic Technology). We have a Tool of the Week plan, where I encourage parents to let their child try out a new tool. These might be office tools (a hole punch), kitchen gadgets (an egg beater) or hardware (a screwdriver). Using the tools builds small motor skills and hand strength, plus a knowledge base for future problem solving. We start with science tools. Here are some play-based explorations.

Chemistry Lab

photo of pretend lab equipment in sensory table

Offer your child some containers of colored water, some funnels, and something to mix into the water. A non-messy option is to mix in something like marbles or dried beans that you can later strain out of the water. A messier option is to give them things like flour, or sugar, or corn starch to mix in and explore how those substances change as they get wet.

If you have real science tools or toy science tools, you can use those. In the picture, you’ll see toy beakers, test tubes, petri dishes, and funnels from this Lab Set. We added pipettes and eye droppers, and handy scoopers. We also include water beads which are tiny polymer beads that if you soak them in water for a few hours swell up (learn more in that link about water beads.). But it’s also fine to use measuring cups, mixing bowls, and slotted spoons, or whatever you’ve got in your kitchen. Kids can scoop and pour and mix and strain and dump to their heart’s content.

Balance Scale (A Math Activity)

If you have a balance scale, they’re a great thing to explore with kids. If you don’t have one, you can easily make a balance scale with a hanger and some cups, like this one from jdaniel4smom.

Balance scales are all about comparison: which is heavier, X or Y? You can also weigh things with various units of measure – this toy weighs 5 pennies, or this toy weighs 10 paper clips.

Microscopes and Magnifying Glasses

photo of classroom set-up for kids to test microscopes

If you have a microscope or a magnifying glass, set it out with interesting items to examine like printed words on a page, rocks or shells, or plastic bugs. (If you don’t have either tool, you can use a camera on a cell phone and zoom in on something to magnify it.)

You can help your child notice the fine details that they can see in a magnified image of an object and talk about how looking more closely helps scientists to learn.

Protective Equipment (A Dress-Up Activity)

We had a variety of kids’ lab coats, safety goggles and safety glasses, rubber gloves from the dollar store, and a clamp to hold plastic test tubes with. We just used them for a dress-up imaginary play activity. But you could also use: an apron, oven mitts, face shields, knee pads and wrist pads, bike helmets – any kind of safety equipment. Then give them some (safe!) activities to try with and without the protective equipment and see how it helps.

You don’t have to spend a lot on a dress-up lab coat. You can simply take an adult large size white t-shirt and slit it down the center of the front and it makes quite a good lab coat. If you have older students, they could decorate these by drawing on pockets full of lab supplies like beakers, magnifying glasses and safety goggles. (On More Time to Teach, they use washable markers – I recommend using color-fast fabric markers.)

Science Tool Sort

Five and six year olds could do a sorting activity, where you describe the categories of science tools, and then you show them a tool (or a picture of a tool) and ask them what category it goes into. There are a few online resources you could use for this game (Science Tool Sort, Science Tool Workstations, and Science-Tools-Differentiated.) but it’s easy enough to wing it on your own. Here are some ideas:

  • Gather Information / Observe: magnifying glass, binoculars, microscope, telescope
  • Test / Experiment: pipettes, funnel, beaker, test tube, syringe, tweezers
  • Measure: ruler, measuring tape, scale, balance, measuring cup, thermometer, stop watch
  • Record Results: Graph / chart. Calculator. Camera. Science journal.
  • Protect: Goggles / Safety glasses, Lab Coat, Gloves.

Science Experiment

Shrinky Dinks

photo of shrinky dink item

If you’re not familiar with this idea: kids draw on a special piece of plastic, then put it in an oven or toaster oven at 325 degrees for just a few minutes, and it shrinks down to about 1/3 its original dimensions and 9 times thicker. We use Shrinky Dinks Ruff n’ Ready  You could also use #6 plastics from the recycling bin – take out sushi containers and the plastic clamshells they use for salads work best.

You can trace something with a Sharpie, then color it in with Sharpies or colored pencils. If you’ll want to use the final produce as a keyring, then punch holes in it – remember the hole will SHRINK. So, when I’m using a hole punch, I cluster three holes together in a triangle shape. Put the finished product in a pan and put it into a 325 oven. Make sure the child is watching – it’s fun! Ask them to predict: “what do you think will happen?”

picture of tracing of original art and shrinky dink

Then tell them “Let’s start the experiment. You watch it and tell me as soon as it starts to change.” As it heats, it curls and rolls. (You can find videos on YouTube, such as www.youtube.com/watch?v=hXiEqJfg-pM) Then we say “tell me when it gets flat again.” And wait till it’s completely flat before you take it out. That’s what tells you it’s done. (And if you take it out while it’s curled, it can stick together in that position.) Use a spatula to remove it from the pan.

Then ask the child to observe: “what’s different about it than before?” (For the older, kids, we had them trace their original art and measure it so that they could compare the original with the result.) Read about the Science of Shrinky Dinks here.

Big Idea – The Scientific Method

You can talk about the Scientific Method. (We made a Scientific Method Poster to show the steps.)

  • Ask a Question
  • Gather information – look, listen, taste, touch, smell, read, ask an expert
  • Form a hypothesis – guess the answer
  • Test the hypothesis – do an experiment to see if you’re right
  • Share the results – tell other people what you’ve learned

And then, do some experiments to try it out! Some good options are: how many times can you jump in one minute? Which member of our family can jump the farthest? Which of these toys is the heaviest? If you flip a coin how likely is it to come up heads?


To reinforce the ideas about the scientific method, sing our Scientific Method song (which we wrote, to the tune of What Do You Do with a Drunken Sailor.)

Books and Videos

For non-fiction, I like Scientists Ask Questions by Garrett, which introduces science tools and the scientific method, or What Is A Scientist? by Lehn which talks about scientific thinking and shows kids doing easy experiments. For fiction with a lesson, I love Charlotte the Scientist Is Squished by Andros. Charlotte the rabbit has a hard time doing science because she’s always squished in with all her brothers and sisters and there’s just not enough room to experiment. So, she build a rocket ship and flies into space. This is an engaging story for age 3 – 6 and does a a nice job of reviewing the steps of the scientific method. Here is a YouTube read-aloud of Charlotte. I have more book recommendations about scientists here.

Sid the Science Kid has a full episode on Super Science Tools. Or, for a quick introduction, try this 2.5 minute video on “The Nature of Science.” www.youtube.com/watch?v=fpeLuU6hxkA

More Science Activities

This post is to accompany my online Family Inventors’ Lab class. For more activities on this theme see my full What is a Scientist post.

I have 40+ complete lesson plans on all sorts of science topics. You can find links to all of them on the Inventors of Tomorrow home page. Just a few of the science themes are: Planets and Space TravelHuman BodyChemical Reactions Light and ShadowSink or Float.

Note: This post contains Amazon affiliate links. If you click on these and then purchase an item, it doesn’t cost you anything, and I get a small financial kickback.

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