Submarines and Ocean Life

We had two weeks in a row of beach-themed activities. The first was Sink and Float, which included discussion about boats, and some activities with seashells that might wash up on a beach. This week, we went “Under the Sea” and talked some about coral reefs, fish, scuba divers, and submarines.

Challenge Activities

Each week, at our STEM enrichment class, we issue one or more “challenges” – a “can you build it” test. We put out a variety of materials and kids try to create something that works. It usually involves lots of tinkering and trial and error. You build a sample, test it, adjust, test it again, and adjust again. I always test these at home in advance so I know it’s do-able, but sometimes, like this week, getting one to work takes a lot of repetition and patience. In our morning class, I worked on a diver bottle with an almost-five year old for 15 minutes, then handed off to a dad who worked with that boy for another ten minutes to get a working prototype to show in opening circle. I was so proud of this boy for how long he stuck with this project and how well he worked with two adults who were not-his-dad. This is big progress since the start of the year for this child. We were so excited when we got the diver to work!

Diver Bottles. I will cover the basic details here. There are lots more details in this post.

Build your diver: Cut a straw into short lengths. Take a bit of Silly Putty to cover/seal one end so air can’t escape. Put a paper clip on the other end to weigh it down. Now, set this in a cup of water to see if it floats. If it sinks, use a smaller paper clip or less putty (less weight) or longer straw (traps more air, making it more buoyant). If it floats too high and tips on its side, then use a bigger paper clip or shorter straw. Keep adjusting till the straw stays upright in the water, just barely floating.

Assembling the bottle: Fill a water bottle almost all the way.  Gently add the diver. It floats. Screw lid on tight. Squeeze bottle hard. The diver will descend to the bottom of the bottle. Here’s a video of our final product in action:

Build a watertight sub from a plastic Easter egg: We did a variant of this activity last year. Read about it here:  Here’s how we did it this year:

We cut small people shapes from construction paper. I told the children that the person wanted to go under water in a sub and not get wet. I picked a Tupperware container I knew was watertight. We put the person inside, sealed it and held it under water and counted to ten. We took it out, dried it off the outside, then opened it and ta-da – there’s a dry paper person inside.

But then I took a plastic Easter egg, and said “let’s test this without a person yet.” We held the egg under the water, and immediately a stream of bubbles came up. I said “uh-oh, what does that mean?” They knew air was escaping because of experiments we did in the States of Matter week. I showed them the holes in the egg, then I said… “if water is going out, what’s going in?” Then I lifted it up out of the water, and the water poured out through the hole. Phew – thank goodness this was an unmanned test. So, then we figured out together how to plug the holes. (I made it easy, because the only useable hole-filler on the table was Silly Putty, which I knew would do the job. If you wanted to, you could also offer tape or glue or other substances to plug the holes and encourage them to test them all.) We plugged the holes, put a little paper person in. Sealed the egg and held it under the water for ten seconds. Results – it “almost worked”. (This phrase is a reference to the book we read – Papa’s Mechanical Fish.) The paper person may be dry, or just damp on one edge, but there will be a little standing water in the egg. We work out the idea that the water is getting in through the seam between the two halves of the egg. We cover the seam with a ring of silly putty to seal it. Success! Dry paper people!

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Build a Ballast Tank Submarine: Drill / cut a hole in lid of water bottle. Thread a flexible tube or bendy straw through that. Seal around the opening with silly putty or tape. Punch two or three holes in one side of the water bottle. Add weights. The weight wants to be enough that the sub will sink as it takes on water. (IMG_20160604_122447127The first year we did this, we put several marbles inside the bottle to be weights. This year, we taped five nickels together and five quarters together to make two weights. We rubber banded the quarters near the bottom of the bottle, and the nickels near the top. Put them near the holes. This keeps that side facing down in the water.) Place the “sub” in a tub of water – let it sink, but keep the end of the straw above the water. Once it sinks, blow air through the straw – this forces the water out, so the sub will float back to the surface.

This experiment relates to how submarines work. When they want to dive, they fill ballast tanks with water to increase their density and sink. When they want to re-surface, they pump compressed air into the tanks, which forces the water out. Since air is less dense than water, the sub rises.  This experiment is not a perfect re-creation of that… since they’re not watertight… the water bottle has big holes in the side, the second you stop blowing on the straw, the water rushes back in and the sub sinks.

If you’re up to the challenge, you can make a sealed submarine with a water bottle, balloons as air tanks, and syringes or pumps to fill the balloons. See the video at or the challenge here:

Other Science Activities

Science Observation: I purchased two Toysmith Diving Subs. These are toy submarines, based on toys that were distributed in cereal box or through cereal box mail-aways in the 1950’s. (Read all about them here: It’s a small plastic sub,  where you lift the top off and fill a chamber with baking powder. Then you put the lid back on, place the sub in the water and swish it back and forth. It is heavy enough to sink to the bottom. But when the water hits the baking powder and reacts, it creates a carbon dioxide bubble under the sub, which brings the sub to the surface. When the bubble escapes, the sub sinks back down. Once you get it started, it will go up and down every minute or two for 15 minutes until the baking powder has all reacted. (Here’s a video of one in action: There’s more about them on In Lieu of Preschool.)

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Note: baking soda will not react with water (though it would react if you put it in a container of vinegar.) The baking powder contains both baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) which is a base and cream of tartar, an acid. When the water reaches the powder, it activates the reaction.

It’s a cool little experiment, but a couple caveats… the chamber for the baking powder is small – it’s hard to fill it using a spoon or funnel. I had good luck using a pipette at home, but it didn’t work as well at class. This is also slow… you have to wait probably 60 – 90 seconds before anything happens (the sub rising or sinking). This worked out fine for my five year old’s attention span when he was home eating a snack and watching it. It was harder in the class setting for kids to stand and pay attention long enough. And often they would wait 60 seconds, then turn away for one second and turn back, and discover it floated to the top when they weren’t looking. From now on, rather than using it as a classroom station, we’ll do it at the snack table for low key entertainment.

If you don’t want to buy the toy, you could try making one….

Tool of the Week – the Periscope. I purchased two: the Backyard Safari Periscope and the Elenco Adjustable Periscope. The Elenco is much cooler because it’s much bigger, but the Backyard is more manageable for the three to five year old’s motor skills. See “circle time” below for how I introduced these.

periscope1 periscope2

You could choose to make periscopes. Here are some options:

Art Projects

Playdough Sculpting. The illustrations in the book Over in the Ocean are photographs of amazing Sculpy art by Jeanette Canyon. We put the book, samples of the art, white play-dough and blue play-dough on the table and encouraged the children (and parents) to try to recreate Canyon’s style.

Fingerprint Fish. I put out blue paper, ink pads for rubber stamps, and markers. Kids could make fingerprints, then turn them into fish by decorating with markers. I used a picture from as inspiration.


Watercolor Resist Fish. We put out white paper, oil pastels, and paint brushes. We mixed liquid watercolor, warm water, and Epsom salt to make a diluted blue paint, with some sparkly-ness. Kids could draw fish with the pastels, then paint over with the blue “water.”

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Paint Waves. Add fish. At the easel, we had blue, green, and blue glitter paint. We encouraged kids to paint water. Then we had paper fish cut out and jewels to glue on to make a sea scape.



Math skills:

Fish match and sort. I made cards with pictures of fish / sea life on them. (Two of each) Kids can sort into categories, or find the matching fish.


Observation/math: I used artwork to create a mural of a coral reef. Then I used this field guide to make counting sheets so they can tally how many of each fish they see.


Imaginary Play: One year, we had an ocean theme rug and brown mats, so we set up a “beach” and “ocean” and put out sea life puppets – some on the shore and some in the ocean. Another time we set up the climber to be a submarine, and added a steering wheel, and “portholes” (plastic hoops) that they could look through to see the coral reef (the mural.)


Free Play Activities

Puzzles and Manipulatives: We used sea life related items from class supplies.

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Sensory Table IdeasWe could have done sand with shells mixed in, but we’d done that the previous week, so we used rock salt and mixed in shells.

Water Table: We filled it with plastic fish, fish nets.


Game: Somethin’ Fishy was a card game from Simply Fun. I can’t find it on their website, so it may be out of print, which is a shame, because it’s a great game for 4 – 6 year olds. You could make your own… here’s how it works: The cards have a picture of a fish on them. There are four species of fish. In each species there are big fish, little fish, and hungry fish. You draw a card and start a line of fish in front of you. Then draw again. If that card matches the last fish in your line (same color or size) you add it to the line and you continue your turn or, if you have more than three cards in your line, you can choose to collect your cards (i.e. pick up all the cards in your line, set them aside to score later.) If it’s a different color or size, hand it to the person on your left and your turn ends. If it’s a hungry fish… if it is the same species as the last fish in your line, your turn ends, but otherwise you’re safe. Hungry fish don’t eat their own species. But, if it’s a different species than the end of your line, it eats all the fish in your line till it gets to one of its own species. Your turn ends. At the end of the game, you count cards in your score pile.



Outside Play – Beachcombing: Print paper seashells and items to find on a beach. (I used these: Scatter them outside in sand play area.

Opening Circle:

Gathering: A Sailor went to sea sea sea clapping game. (clap right, clap left, clap both hands three times, and so on.) Here’s a tutorial:, and here are kids doing it full speed:

If all your students were 6 or 7, you could probably just teach this as it is. But our kids range in age from barely 3 to almost 8, so here’s how we did it: First, two adults demo it. Then pair up one grown-up with each kid. Level one – the child puts their hands up in front of them palms out and just holds them there. The adult claps against their upheld hands. If they master that, then on to level two – the adult holds their hands still and the kid claps against them. Then for those who can – on to level three, where both clap simultaneously. Level 4 – speed that up!

This game teaches rhythm, hand-eye coordination, singing and moving at the same time, and teamwork.

Book: Papa’s Mechanical Fish (see below)

Discussion: Ask who lives under the water. Ask: can they breathe water or do they have to breathe air? If have to breathe air, then can’t dive very deep, because they have to keep coming up for air. Human beings can do this. Or, if we want to be able to keep looking under the water while we swim, we can wear a mask and a snorkel. (Show picture.) If we want to go under the water for a long time, what can we do? (Show picture of scuba diver, talk about oxygen tanks. Show picture of sub.)

When you’re in a submarine under the water, what can you use to look under the water (demo a “porthole” using a plastic hoop). What could you use to look at what’s up above the water?

Periscopes. I talked about how periscopes are used on submarines. Then I told them they could also be used on land to spy on things. I hid behind a piece of furniture and asked “Can you see me?” No. “Can I see you? Nope…. all I see is the back of this bookcase. Oh wait, I brought my periscope. Now I see you! I see ____ and I see ____. Hey, Teacher Cym hold up 1 – 5 fingers so I can prove I see you… you’re holding up 3!” The kids LOVED it, so we then left them to play with those after circle.

Song: Over in the Ocean – read the book (see below) and sing the song. Other options are: All the Fish are swimming in the water ( or or Slippery Fish ( and hand motions here:

Closing Circle

BookThe Fantastic Undersea Life of Jacques Cousteau.

Music: Hand out shakers, or scarves, or sea life puppets and dance to Under the Sea from Little Mermaid or Yellow Submarine by the Beatles.

Book recommendations

Papa’s Mechanical Fish by Fleming and Kulikov. On my list of Most Recommended Books about Inventors. What I like about it: nice story about a family – Papa, Mama, four kids, and a dog Rex. Papa is an inventor who has invented many (entertaining) things that “almost work.” Then on a family fishing trip he has a Eureka moment – he wants to build  mechanical fish he can ride underwater in. He attempts. And fails. Then makes a bigger bolder attempt. And fails. But he keeps trying, and in the end creates a sub that seats 7 in velvet upholstered chairs and the family has a delightful day under the water. Appeals to a broad age range, 4 – 8, with lots of giggling over the misadventures of Papa.  It’s a little long, so I look for ways to shorten it as I read.

The Fantastic Undersea Life of Jacques Cousteau by Yaccarino. This is one of my favorite books about inventors! Great illustrations, nice quotes from Cousteau, and a engaging story that begins with him as a child and then moves through his life of inventing and discovering.

Super Submarines by Mitton and Parker. I like their Amazing Machines series a lot, for ages 3 – 6. Nice rhyme and rhythm to the text, fun illustrations peopled with cute animals and bright colors, engaging non-fiction overviews of the theme. Some of the topics are a little over kids’ heads (like sonar, and when it says subs can be used to service oil rigs, which most little ones won’t know anything about) but the kids don’t seem to notice/mind.

Submarines (How Things Work) by Mattern. I love how this starts: “Imagine spending months inside a ship with no windows… now imagine that ship is sailing underwater. Usually people want a ship to stay on top of the water! Submarines can dive down underwater. How do they sail beneath the waves?” This engages kids, raises a real question in their mind, and leaves them in a state of curiosity and inquiry – ripe for learning. Good, kid-friendly non-fiction overview of submarines, with good photos. It covers similar content to Super Submarines, though in a little more detail, and without the cute illustrations or rhyming. If you have a kid who likes their science books to feel a little more serious, this is a good match. Also includes a timeline of sub history, and directions for making a ballast sub similar to ours. 4 – 8 years.

Submarines (My Favorite Machines) by Ruck. A fine non-fiction overview of subs, for ages 5 – 7. Like Bodden’s book (below), it has more emphasis on the weapons and military use than I like. If this doesn’t trouble you, it’s a fine option.

Submarines (Built for Battle) by Valerie Bodden. I didn’t notice that series sub-title of “Built for Battle” before I checked this out. Although it’s a good overview of subs, it focuses on their use in war: “the control room has everything crew members need to steer the sub and fire its weapons… It can protect warships from enemies. Subs can fire torpedoes or missiles at enemy ships… and toward targets on land too.” It’s too militaristic / jingoistic for my taste, but may really appeal to some. (A review of another book in the series says the series got a reluctant 8 year old motivated to try reading.) Ages 6 – 8.

Submarines UP CLOSE by Abramson. For ages 7 and up – and only kids who are really into machines. The text goes into a lot of detail about parts of the sub, there are lots of BIG photographs of subs – some modern, some dated some historical – but without captions that really explain what you’re seeing.

Yellow Submarine.. the Beatles. I should have read the description better. I thought it was just an illustrated version of the song lyrics. But instead, it’s the full story of the film Yellow Submarine, and much longer than I wanted to read.

Scuba Bunnies by Loomis and Eitan. For 3 – 5 year olds. Sweet little bedtime story about scuba diving bunnies. “Scuba bunnies long to see what’s beneath the deep blue sea. Kiss their mamas, check their gear, tanks are filled, masks are clear. Watches working, wet suits zipped. Snorkels on, flippers flipped.” And so on. I’m sure if you’re clever, you could find a way to make your Cartesian bottle divers look like Scuba bunnies. Maybe Shrinky dinks??

Scuba Diving by Teitelbaum. This was one of only two kids’ book on scuba diving my library had. It’s for older children, ages 7 and up, so it’s not something we read in class, but I did like it for the pictures. We put it on the table where we were building the diver bottle. Many of the kids hadn’t heard of scuba diving, so it was nice to be able to show them photos of divers both in and out of the water.

Don’t miss the other post on recommended books about the ocean and fish, especially Over in the Ocean.

Sink or Float

This week’s theme was the Beach, Boats, and What Sinks / What Floats.

Science Exploration

We wanted the kids to be able to test lots of variables to learn more about what kinds of things float and what  things sink. Here’s our key ideas, then activities for exploring them…

  • lighter things generally float better than heavier things, but it’s not just about weight
  • some shapes float better than others,
  • some materials float better than others, and
  • containers filled with air float better than if filled with anything denser than air.

Weight Matters: Do heavy things always sink?  Can you make heavy things float?

Loading Up a Boat: We had a tub of water, and placed next to it a container of glass weights, and miscellaneous boat-like items like toy boats, dixie cups, plastic bowls, styrofoam trays. Kids saw that if they just dropped in heavy glass weights, they sank to the bottom, but if you put them on a broad platform, they wouldn’t sink. UNLESS you put on too many weights for the boat to carry….


Sidebar Math Activity: Kids count the number of glass marbles that their boat can hold before it sinks.   We had tally sheets where they could keep count and compare which vessel could hold the most glass weights. They can see that each type of boat has its maximum capacity – you can load and load till you reach that tipping point, then it sinks under the surface of water, fills with water and sinks to the bottom.

Shape Matters: What we did: We had sheets of aluminum foil. I’d read in a book or online that if you ball up a sheet of foil, it would sink. So, the plan was to show them this, then show them how you could take the same size piece of foil, mold it into a boat shape, and it would float just fine, and even hold lots more weight inside of it. What was successful: the boat that floats part. Kids had a great time folding foil boats, and filling them with glass weights. What didn’t work as well: the ball of foil floated! In order to get the foil to sink, you have to fold it in half, compress it as flat as you can, and repeat till it’s the absolute tightest densest square of foil you can make.

What we’ll do differently next time. Play-test the project at home before doing in class. Always play-test first! (I know that rule, but failed to follow it this week.) We’ll still fold foil boats, because that’s fun, but for our “shape matters” project, I plan to give them modeling clay. You give them a ball of clay – they drop it in the water and it sinks. Then they have to figure out how to make it into a shape that will float. Play Dough to Plato has a great description of how to do this process with kids. (Find more details at Teach Engineering and Mr. Williams 6th grade science blog.)

You could also offer some toy boats at this station, and then demo to the children that if they set them in with the flat hull facing down, they float, but not if you flip them on their side or top. You could also show how they float when they are empty (which of course means full of air), or filled with glass weights, or what happens if they start taking on water.

Materials Matter: We put out a container of miscellaneous materials – a cork, foam leaf, plastic bottle cap, wax crayon, wood popsicle stick, metal lid, a shell, a rock, and more next to a tub of water. Kids could predict whether it would sink or float, then put it in the water to test it. We had them think which ones floated the best. The ideal examples would all be similar sizes and shapes (wood block, plastic block eraser, and so on) so the only variable here is material.

What’s Inside the Container Matters: 

Have three identical containers that are airtight. Leave one empty, fill one halfway with water, and one all the way with water and test which floats best. You could use water bottles, clear plastic containers, or balloons. (Note: filling a balloon halfway with water and halfway with air is tricky. First, make a water balloon and an air balloon so you know what the size is your aiming for. Then fill a balloon with about half that much water, then insert a straw, pinch the opening of the balloon tightly around the straw and use the straw to blow in air till it’s a little bigger than you want it. Pull the straw out, keeping the opening pinched tight to hold in the air, then tie it off.)

If you’re reading What Floats in a Moat (see below), you can re-create the experiment from the story by having three identical plastic containers, ideally barrel shaped – one filled with buttermilk (or water mixed with some white paint so it looks like milk), one half-full, and one empty so kids can test what happens.

Does it Matter What They’re Floating On? Exploring Buoyancy: We put out three tubs – one filled with fresh water, one with salt water, and one with carbonated soda / seltzer water. Kids were encouraged to test one item (their boat, or a cup of stones) in each of the three tubs to see which kind of liquid best floats their boat. You need to use a LOT of salt to notice the difference in buoyancy.

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Challenge Activity / Invention: Engineer a Boat that Floats.

We created a “ship building factory.” We put out various materials, including Popsicle sticks, straws, corks, paper, aluminum foil, clay, rubber bands, water-bottle bottoms, etc. Plus tape and glue. After the kids had explored the key ideas at the stations described above, they were encouraged to create a “something” that will float. We had a water table next to the work table where they could test their creations, then bring them back to the table to tinker with, then return to the water for another test. Here’s pictures of some “boats” in progress. Click on any photo for a larger image.

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raisinDancing Raisins: Simple, cheap and easy way to delight small children…. Pour a cup of carbonated soda. Add raisins. The bubbles of gas collect in the ridges of the raisin until it floats to the surface, then they pop and the raisin sinks back down… over and over again.

Egg Float. Provide a hard boiled egg, a cup of warm water, a dish of salt and a spoon. Let kids discover that if they place the egg in the water it sinks. Encourage them to stir in a spoonful of salt, then test it again. How many spoonfuls of salt do they need to add to make the egg float? (Answer… it takes a LOT of salt… close to 1/4 cup) Every time a child finished this experiment, we’d dump their results into our tub of salt water (see above) so it got a lot saltier as the day went on.

Art Activities and Take Home Projects

Bubble Blowing Art. We put out dishes of bubble fluid mixed with liquid watercolor (or food coloring). Kids blew bubbles at the paper, and as the bubbles popped, they made splashes of color. Our youngest children (3 and 4) are still learning to blow bubbles, so this was good small motor learning for them. We’ve tried it with the paper laying horizontally on a table, and vertically on the easel, and prefer the easel.

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Sea-Shell Impressions – We used Model Magic air drying clay (see this post to learn more) and a collection of small scalloped sea shells. Kids made a small ball of clay, then pressed the shell into it to make an impression. (We also did a similar activity during dinosaur week to make “fossils.”)


Create Discovery Bottles: We filled water bottles with a mix of colored water and vegetable oil, then added some sand, small rocks, and small sea shells. Then we sealed the bottles.  The bottles create their own slow motion waves when tipped or shaken.

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Other Art Ideas: You could try Floating Chalk Art, where a child scrapes chalk dust onto the surface of a tray of water then takes a print of it. Or you could try paper marbling.

Sensory Experiences and Observations

Sensory Table: We filled the sensory table with sand and small seashells.

Shell observation and sorting: We put out a wide variety of shells to explore, plus magnifying glasses for a close look. Kids were encouraged to sort them, looking for commonalities and differences between the various shells. On the table, we had the book Seashells by the Seashore. (Read about it here with our Books about the Beach)


Building: Next year, we’ll add in this Duplo raft project.


Imaginary Play:  Climb Aboard an Imaginary Ship. With fabric, some sea-life puppets and a mast with a sail, we built an imaginary ship to play on.

Beach Reading – We set up a beach umbrella, some towels, and some beach chairs in the reading nook. I have one student who even after two years in my class tends to hang close to his dad and not be open to hanging out with me and my co-teacher that much. But, he LOVED the beach reading zone, and we laid on our tummies on the towel and read book after book together.

Fishing: Partway through the morning class, I had a flash of inspiration, and threw together a couple fishing poles (dowels with magnet wands tied on) and threw out a bunch of “magnet ball fish” to catch. Next year, with planning ahead, I’ll make fish shapes and add magnets or paper clips to them.


Big motor play: We took the kids outside with bubble wands to blow bubbles and let them float away on the breeze.


There is a pond at one of our classroom sites, and we’d hoped to be able to float some boats on the pond, but that year, the surface of the water is really scummy, and while it might have been a good opportunity to study bugs and water plants and eco-systems, it wasn’t a good place to float boats we had built. Maybe next year…

Opening circle

Rhythm Activity: A Sailor went to Sea, Sea, Sea. Teach rhythm first: clap-lap-clap-lap-clap. Then add to that hands-hands-hands. Practice alternating those patterns several times, then add words. Here’s a tutorial:, and here are kids doing it full speed:

Question of the Week:  What floats and what sinks?

We asked kids to share their observations from discovery time. One of the first answers that will come up is that heavy things float and lightweight things float. But through the discussion, you can guide them toward the realization that it’s not really about the weight – it’s about the shape of the part that’s touching the surface of the water. (Example: Even though ferry boats are very heavy, they float great even when loaded up with cars, as long as the water-tight broad flat bottom is facing down. If you flipped the boat over, it wouldn’t float well at all!) You could also discuss that some things float if they are filled with air (use a balloon as an example.) Explain that even something as big as a blue whale can float because it has air inside of it.

So, if you want to  build something that floats, you could try a broad flat bottom, or try filling something with air – it’s all in the engineering.

We brought in a clear tub full of water, and a clear bowl filled with water colored blue so it was easy to see. (And a bucket to dump the blue water into when we needed an empty bowl.) We used this to demo a variety of ideas about what shapes float, and whether it floats better when filled with water or air, etc.

Book: Who Sank the Boat?

Closing Circle

Gathering Song: Row Row Row Your Boat

Discussion of Key Points – We asked them to discuss what they learned about what floats and what sinks. Summarize what we’ve learned into these key points:

  • Weight matters…. Lightweight things are more likely to float than heavy things
  • Shape matters… flat shapes are best. ( Ask them to use their bodies to show you a shape that would float and a shape that would sink.)
  • Materials matter… glass, stone, metal are very dense – usually sink. Wood, plastic, cork usually float.
  • What’s inside the container also matters: Things with holes that let water in are worst. Things that hold air are good.

Book: What Floats in a Moat.


What Floats in a Moat? by Berry and Cordell. This is not just a book about sinking and floating, it’s also a good book about inventors (Just click on that link to learn more about this book and other great books!) And it’s a fun rollicking read-aloud. Archie the Goat wants to cross a moat. He muses that a barrel might float. So he builds a boat with a barrel full of buttermilk – it sinks. He builds a second boat with an empty buttermilk barrel. It floats but then capsizes. Then he builds the third boat, the S.S. Ballast with a barrel half-full of buttermilk. It’s perfect! Read the book, then talk about displacement. Caveat: I think the text of the book doesn’t really make it clear what’s happening with the third barrel – you may want to say something to the kids when reading it to clarify that this time the hen only drank half the buttermilk, so the barrel is half full.

Who Sank the Boat? by Allen. A great book for even very young audiences (age 3 – 7.) One by one, a cow, a pig, a donkey, and a sheep climb into a boat. Will it sink? When will it sink? The suspense builds and builds. Then the final creature steps in – a tiny mouse. And the boat sinks. Fun read, and interesting examination about the cumulative effects of things. (Like the straw that broke the camel’s back.) You could also re-create this in class with a container and plastic animals… how many can fit before it sinks. Make sure they understand that it’s not that the mouse was heavy… it was about all the animals.

Things That Float and Things That Don’t. This is not something I would read aloud to 3 -5 year olds – too complex. But, it’s a FABULOUS book for 6 – 10 year olds, especially in a home school setting, where you and your child could actually walk through each of the experiments together. Fun illustrations of a boy, a girl, and a dog, plus the fact that the book is addressed to the reader – inviting them to try everything out (“You could have fun guessing which things float…. fill your sink about halfway…”) make this an engaging non-fiction read. Guides kids through a series of observations and experiments with household objects to learn about density.

Let’s Try It Out in the Water : Hands-On Early-Learning Science Activities by Simon, Fauteux, and Cushman. This is all about “let’s try it out” – hands-on experiments to try. “Imagine you’re at the ocean… you throw [a pebble] as far as you  and watch it splash. Then it disappears. The pebble sinks to the sandy bottom…. now you see a large ocean liner… but it is not sinking… Let’s find out why.” Then is suggests you collect objects from the house that won’t get damaged if they get wet. Then test the weight of each in your hands – which is heavier? Then put in water – which things float, which sink? Then you make a foil boat and try loading it up with objects. Nice project book for kids 5 – 7. You could even use this book as a basis for a lesson plan for your class or at home school – kids would walk through these experiments, in order:

  • Fill different size and shape containers with water – how much do they hold? How many cups of water does it take to fill the tub?
  • Find a variety of items to test to see if they sink or float.
  • Build a foil boat. How much weight can it hold? If you put some of the items that sank on their own into the boat, do they sink or float?
  • Run a shipping business – send things back and forth to your friends on the other side of the tub. How can you ship the most items at once?
  • Crunch the foil boat into a ball. What happens?
  • In a pool or tub, try floating on your back.
  • Use a squirt gun to drip water into a boat – how much water does it take on before it sinks?
  • How many cups of water can you float on a tray?
  • Take an empty plastic water bottle and a full one. Place in a tub. Which sinks?

Floating and Sinking (Start-Up Science) by Challoner. Though it doesn’t have the same cute, playful illustrations as the previous two books – it’s aimed at age 7 and up – it also is a project based book that you could use to inspire a full lesson plan. (But it’s not really something I’d read aloud in class.)  I like that the author did a good job of sequencing the learning. It starts simple and gets more complex, building on each previous idea throughout the book. Here’s the activities:

  • Lesson 1 – some materials are more buoyant than others. Take a lightweight coin and a heavy wood block. Which will float and which will sink?
  • Collect cork, Styrofoam, rubber, and wax items and test them. They all float – they are buoyant materials.
  • Lesson 2 – materials that are denser than water sink. Test a small block of wood, and a block of modeling clay the same size. Which floats?
  • Collect chalk, modeling clay, steel and glass – all sink.
  • Lesson 3 – objects seem to weigh less when they’re in water because the water supports them. Tie a rubber band around a heavy but somewhat buoyant object. Hold the rubber band so the object dangles from it. How far does the rubber band stretch? Now let the object float on the water. Does the band stretch less?
  • Displacement: put a doll in a full bathtub (or any other object in any full container of water). The container overflows because the water is displaced.
  • Lesson 4 – boats float because they have a large base – they hold air which is less dense than water. So the water pushes up on the boat. Drop a ball of clay in the water. It sinks. Make a boat out of the clay. It floats.

That’s just the first third of the book… it keeps going.

Floating and Sinking (How Do Things Move?) For ages 3 – 5. Lots of bright, engaging photos and nice graphic design. Nice simple overview, if you want a quick read for little ones without  much science detail.

Floating and Sinking (Junior Science Series). From 1990. And I have to say that graphic design and children’s non-fiction writing seems to have improved since then. It’s got some good examples and some good projects, and if your library has it, and not the other books, it will serve you… just the others are better. Age 6 – 8.

Sinking and Floating (Simply Science)by Rosinsky. The format of this book is strange. A typical picture book has self-contained info on a page or a page spread where it completes a paragraph or a thought. Then you turn to the next page for the next thought. This book flows the text from page to page, more chapter book style with a lot of pictures thrown in. The info is fine, though better for age 7 – 9 than my age group (3 – 6). But it’s not as easy to digest as other books.

The Magic School Bus Ups And Downs: A Book About Floating And Sinking. I haven’t read this but include it because I know there’s a lot of MSB fans. I find these books too advanced for my 3 – 6 year olds, but they’re generally quite good.

Making Things Float and Sink by Gibson. Not really a book I’d use in class – aimed at older children. But source for some good experiments. Like freezing colored water, then placing that ice cube in a glass of hot water – you can see that ice floats, and because of the color, you can see that as it melts, the cold water sinks to the bottom of the glass. It also has directions for making a hydrometer to test density with a straw and clay. Plus marbled paper, boats from ping pong balls and straws, a Styrofoam boat with a rudder, and a balloon powered water bottle boat. Plus some of the activities we describe above.

Big Machines Float! by Veitch. If you have a child who LOVES big trucks books about construction equipment, they’ll like this book, which is basically just a collection of pictures of big boats at work: ice breakers, floating cranes, galleons, cargo ships, and cruise ships. Ages 3 – 6.

Float by Miyares. Like nothing else on this list. For ages 4 – 8. A wordless book with lovely, quiet, contemplative illustrations. A boy folds a newspaper into a boat. He goes for a long walk in the rain by himself (may appeal to those who like a more nature-based, free range style childhood) and sails the boat on many puddles. Eventually the boat is destroyed. He is sad and his father comforts him (nice depiction of emotions and support) and then helps him fold a new boat which he goes out to enjoy on a now beautiful sunny day. It’s a lovely wordless book, but whether it would work for your audience all depends on how you “read it”. If you’re going to read a wordless book to a group of kids, first practice it out loud several times by yourself or with one or two kids listening so you can figure out what to say to capture the magic of the book.

Next year, I’ll check out Busy Boats by Mitton and Parker. I like their Roaring Rockets and Super Submarines for the 3 – 5 year olds. They’re all part of the Amazing Machines series.

Also check out this post on books about the beach and this one on books about the ocean and fish.

Note: be sure to bring lots of old towels to this water-filled week!

Robot Activities for Kids

As the final session in our Biology unit, we talked about Robots. We explained that robots are machines that humans build to do jobs that humans don’t want to do or can’t do. We talked about how robot inventors take ideas from nature and evolutionary adaptations.

Robots is a very popular topic for kids age 3 – 7, and is easy and fun to do in a preschool or kindergarten setting, home school, or at a robot-themed birthday party. Here are the activities we did:

Challenge Project – Build a Scribble-Bot

We taped three markers to a over-turned plastic cup. Tape a 1.5-3v motor and a battery pack to the top of the cup. Mount a cork on the motor shaft to unbalance the motor. Take off the marker lids, connect the motor and the battery, and watch it scribble!

I have a complete tutorial with more photos and videos here:

Art Projects/Building

Model robots from recycled materials: We asked parents to bring in small boxes, toilet paper tubes, and other fun materials, and the kids built model robots. (Tip: if you want to paint on foil, mix paint with glue.) Last year, when we didn’t do scribble bots, this project was the big hit of the day – this year it didn’t get nearly as much attention, as they were all focused on scribble-bots.
Giant robot: We also built a giant robot as a collaborative project. Note that he’s a tripod… he had two triangular legs that just weren’t stable, so we had to add a third leg.


The challenge with the giant robot was that we had one student who really wanted to tackle him and knock him over again and again and he was too fragile to withstand that.

Fun at Home with Kids has a nice “life-sized magnetic robot.”

I also think we could do a giant robot mix and match. Get three large size boxes. Make them into robot cubes, kind of like this printable from Create in the Chaos. One box is head options, one is body options, and one is feet options. Could possibly do body designs on four sides of the body cube, and then put holes in the other two sides that you could inset arms into, where the other sides have holes to insert arms into, then have options for arms.

Duplo Hockey Robot: IMG_20160802_173702877_HDRWe put out one of the sets from the Duplo simple machines kit. I like using Duplo kits in class, because the older kids can practice following pictorial directions and building the exact model described, and the little ones just free-play with the Duplos.

Robot Finger:  You could also have the kids make robot fingers / hands, or you make a pincer grasp cardboard finger to demo 

Art Projects

Build a robot picture. We used these great printables from Pickle-Bums.

Assemble a 3-D or jointed robot: We printed robot designs the kids could cut out and assemble  – good small motor practice. Here are some printables you could try:IMG_20151205_100815542

  • 3-D robot with features you glue on – Alex 1
  • 3-D, jointed robot from
  • Mostly 2-D robot which stands: Noise
  • Jointed robots – instead of gluing on the arms and legs, fasten them on with brads so they can move: Alex 2Church HouseCrank Bunny or Sparkle Box. Some of these could be mounted on popsicle sticks and used like puppets.

Robot blocks: Using this printable from Create in the Chaos, kids colored in pictures, cut them out, and assembled them into blocks which could then be used as mix and match robots. Print these on cardstock! We learned that regular copy paper just couldn’t hold its shape as blocks, so we glued the paper onto cardstock but it would be much easier to start that way. These are best for ages 6 and up. For this year’s class, we just printed a few color blocks and pre-assembled them for kids to play with.


Explore Robot Toys

We had three toys out for kids to explore: This crab shaped Table Top Robot ($11) is very fun… you turn it on, set it on a table, and it scuttles sideways till it hits the edge of the table, then turns, and scuttles till it reaches an edge again. We just set it on a table near the entrance so as soon as kids came into class, they got engaged in watching a robot do its work. It will occasionally fall off the table (once every 10 minutes or so) and needs to have some legs clipped back on every time that happens, but otherwise it’s a fun and easy way to show three factors that make a robot: sensors, processor, actuator (see below.) 

Code & Go Robot Mouse and maze. This programmable mouse allows you to type in a code (forward, forward, left, forward), then press a button to move the mouse robot through its maze. [Read my full review and discussion of this here.]


Sphero SPRK+ STEAM Educational Robot. You use a smart phone app as a remote control to drive this little ball all around the room. At its top speed, it really zips! [Read my full review and discussion of this here.]

Math and Learning Activities

I made up some domino math sheets with a robot theme…. the idea was taken directly from Katherine Marie.

I made a Robot Job Matching Game, collecting pictures of robots doing a job and humans doing the same job so kids could match them up. I wanted to illustrate the idea that humans create robots to do jobs they can’t do or don’t want to do or want to automate.

Free Play Activities

Flip Book. I used this free printable from Gift of Curiosity to make a flip book where kids could mix and match different robot heads, bodies, and legs. (Note: I printed the flip book on paper, then stapled those to a card-stock back before cutting the papers – this just made it a little more stable than just the cut paper would have been.)

Sensory table: Last year, we played robot hide and seek – put robot stickers on index cards, and buried them in the corn meal to find and re-bury.


Robot game: We had a Build a Robot spinner game, plus a board game called Robot Turtles which plays with the idea of a robot following its commands and with teaching the basics of programming to small children. [I would recommend that if you’re starting with a 3 or 4-year-old, you start even easier than the game tells you to start. Just introduce the basic idea of them moving the turtle only when you command it (or you move when they command) – you don’t even need to use cards. Then add the cards in to do the directions. Then over time add in the other elements for the game.]

Famous Robots: It’s important to tie in kids’ previous knowledge of a concept as you teach them new ideas, so I wanted to have pictures of robots they might have encountered in fiction (movies and TV) that would ground them in some experience of what a robot is (and also allow us to talk about how today’s robots are no where near the scientific sophistication of most fictional robots. I printed copies of these posters (#1, #2) on 11×17 paper. I also made my own poster with just a handful of robots I thought kids were most likely to be able to identify: Wall-E and Eva, R2-D2 and C-3PO, Baymax from Big Hero 6, Iron Giant, and Transformers.

Snacks: A bowl of snack mix… pretzel rods, cheerios, and Chex with a sign saying “nuts and bolts” and string cheese or licorice ropes with a sign saying “wires” and maybe some candy shapes for “buttons”.

Pinterest is full of pictures of robots assembled with mini raisin boxes for feet, juice box for a body and an upside down applesauce cup for a head. Looks cute, but that’s a lot of fructose for one sitting. Inspiration Made Simple has a cute robot lunch, including sandwich, cheese, and celery.

Circle Time

Intro to Theme: We asked What’s a robot? (A machine people build that does stuff.) Why would we want to build robots? (To do things we can’t do or don’t want to do.) What makes a robot different from other machines? (A true robot has three things: sensors, processor, and actuator.)

We used the crab robot (see above) and a Roomba Vacuum Cleaner to demo this idea.

Song: we sang a simple song to the tune of The Wheels on the Bus, from Fingerplays and Action Rhymes.

Concept Discussion: We referenced back to the past few weeks of classes, asking them to imagine a robot they would want to build:

  • What job do  you want your robot to do?
  • What environment will they be working in: cold? hot? wet? What did we learn about when we studied habitats that you could use in designing your robot to be sure that they are well suited to their surroundings?
  • What tools would they need? Remember in adaptations week, when we learned about different bird beaks and the different things that birds eat? They need to have the right tool to get their food, right? How do you adapt your robot for what they need to do?
  • How many legs will your robot have? 2 like a bird? 4 like a mammal? 6 like an insect? Or 3? Three legs make a tripod, which is nice and stable, but few animals stand that way. (A kangaroo has four legs, but typically stands on two legs and its tail.) What other things does our animal classification unit make  you think of?
  • When you build a robot, do they need a skeleton (or some internal structure) that helps them stand up? Would they be soft on the outside, or have a hard material like an exoskeleton (which we learned about in bugs week) to protect them?
  • What kind of sensors does your robot need? Does it need to hear? See?

Design time: Within our two hour class, with ages 3 – 7, we just discuss these questions in circle time, but don’t pursue them in depth. We don’t have enough time, plus, our younger kids just don’t think abstractly yet – it’s better to just get them working hands-on.

But if you’re working with your child in a home school setting, or working with a group of kids who are all over age 5, it would be a great learning experience to introduce the big idea, as above, then hand them all pencils and paper and get them to start brainstorming design ideas where they imagine – if they could design any robot they wanted to – what would it be? Ask questions about what job their robot will do and in what environment to start guiding their thoughts. Note: this is a pen and paper drawing exercise… even if you’re making model robots in class, it would be too hard for them to try to duplicate any of their wild ideas with real materials… In a drawing, their imagination can run wild.

Book: We read Zoobots: Wild Robots Inspired by Real Animals. Well, it’s much too long to read aloud… we actually just showed the pictures and did brief verbal summaries of each page. (Here’s my short text version of the book.) But I really like how this illustrate the key concepts of: scientists take ideas from nature to create robots to do things humans can’t or don’t want to do… here’s a sample of my short text: “Scientists wanted to develop a robot that could fight forest fires. It needed armor to protect itself from heat, and it needed to have lots of flexible legs so it could move across rough ground. They used a roley-poley bug as the inspiration for the exoskeleton armor and its legs, and it carries a tank of water or fire extinguishing chemicals to spray at a fire.” Another option for this book is Robots Slither by Hunter.


Group Games for Closing Circle

Robot Maze: If you had one or two kids, I think you could do a life-size version of Robot Turtles game / the robot mice: Tape out a maze on the floor, with a goal (a jewel or a piece of cheese). Give a child commands to get there – they can only move when you command them. OR have one child be the turtle / mouse, and the other child commands them.

The Robot’s Programmer Says: We played a game that was basically Simon says. We explained that robots can’t decide for themselves what to do. They can only follow their programming. So, one teacher was the programmer, saying things like “Robots, put your right hand up.” “Robots, put your right hand down.” “Robots, jump 5 times.” The other teacher would give commands, but the robots “couldn’t hear them” because they weren’t in its programming. “Hey, wouldn’t it be fun to spin around and around?” “Can you put your hands on your head?”

Things to Try at Home

Coding Game Online: There’s an online Star Wars themed coding game: It teaches the skill of dragging in blocks of commands, then running the program and seeing if the droid does what you wanted it to. Our five-year-old can do this, but I wouldn’t expect a 3 or 4-year-old to be able to understand. It builds on the programming ideas taught by the robot mouse or the Robot Turtles game.

Book Recommendations


There’s plenty of books about robots. Some are definitely better than others! We got a few non-fiction books on robots (including Zoobots, described above).

  • Robots Slither by Hunter. The main story line is preschool appropriate language for our little ones “Robots slither, creep and crawl. Robots inch along the wall.” Then there are illustrations of imagined animal-inspired robots, and sidebars with information about real robots and the work they do.
  • National Geographic Readers: RobotsRobots at Home by Zuchora-Walske, and Helper Robots by Furstinger.

The fiction books we liked were:

Clink by DiPucchio and Myers. Age 4 – 7. Sweet story with great text: “The problem that made Clink’s dials drop and his circuits short out was nobody wanted an old robot. He didn’t have cool retractable arms, like Zippy. He didn’t have fancy attachments, like Blade. And he didn’t know the first thing about doing homework and baking chocolate chip cookies, like Penny. The world, it seemed, was no longer interested in a robot who had been programmed to play music and make toast.” Eventually, of course, just the right boy arrives in the robot shop and falls in love and takes Clink home. I personally don’t like the illustration style, but what I do like about the illustrations is that they’re very emotionally expressive. On the page where it has that line about Clink’s dials dropping and his circuits shorting out, we can tell by looking at his expression that this meant he was a very sad, discouraged little robot. At the end, he’s clearly delighted and content in his new home.

Awesome Dawson tells the story of a boy inventor who builds great robots, then one rampages out of control and he builds other robots to defeat it. (Wendel’s Workshop has basically the exact same plot. Neither are overly scary.) Age 4 – 7.

Rolie Polie Olie is a delightful little book about a family that happens to be robots. It’s not educational about robots. But it does provide a nice little lesson about misbehavior and forgiveness. (Rolie gets wild and pops his sister’s bubble, and she’s sad and his parents are mad, and he feels bad, but then it’s all resolved by bedtime.) age 2 – 6.

Boy and Bot is also a cute book. A boy and robot find each other and become friends. But the robot gets switched off – the boy tries to cure him by feeding him applesauce, reading him a story and tucking him in to bed. The robot switches back on in the night and finds a sleeping boy. He tries to “fix” him with oil, an instruction manual and a spare battery. It’s a nice story for explaining that different people/creatures/machines need different things to do well. (This blog has a nice activity plan to go along with the book.) 3 – 6.

If you’re reading to kids and parents, another entertaining option is The Trouble with Dad. “The trouble with Dad is his boring job. If he didn’t have such a boring job he wouldn’t spend all his spare time in the shed making robots.” Age 5 – 7

Robot Books that are OK, but not as good as those include: Wodney Wat’s Robot, Three Little Aliens and the Big Bad Robot, and Baby Brains and Robomom.

One I can’t recommend for a group read is Oh No! (Or How My Science Project Destroyed the World). A girl built a robot for a science fair project and its on a rampage and she sends a giant toad to defeat it who then goes on a rampage. My 5 year old loved this book when we read it at home, but a 4 year old from class was quite disturbed by it after a teacher read it in class, spending the next week worrying about robots. I MAY use it as a resource in the future, but cautiously. When we talk about the process of designing robots, I want to cover that a human being needs to decide what all capabilities their robot needs. In this book, as the girl tries to stop her robot, she yells at it to stop, then says “I should have given it ears.” Then she writes a sign saying “cut it out” and then says “I should have taught it how to read.” Then she hits it with a hammer and says “I should have programmed it to feel pain.” I may read just these pages, and share it in a conversation with the kids, but not read the full story.

Robot Toys for Young Kids

Toy Robot Reviews

In our kids’ science class, we do 35 weeks of different STEM themes, including Robots. As much as possible, most of our projects are done using only common everyday craft supplies, kitchen ingredients, and items from the recycle bin. But every now and then, we bring in some specialty STEM toys, that offer kids unique opportunities to explore the week’s theme. Our robot class is one of the themes that most benefits from this.

So, I’ve done some research, and gotten a few robot toys that I can give detailed feedback on, and I can share my notes on the other robots I’ve found.

This crab shaped Table Top Robot ($11) is fun… you turn it on, set it on a table, and it scuttles sideways till it hits the edge of the table, then turns, and scuttles till it reaches an edge again. It’s not really an interactive toy, but it is certainly captivating, and does a good job of illustrating our three factors that make a robot: sensors, processor, actuator. Our switch broke off in a fall, so we use a screwdriver or other sharp tool to turn on or off.

Code & Go Robot Mouse and maze ($39… you can buy just the Robot Mouse for $31.) Ages 3 – 7.


A year or so ago, my son went to a robot class at the library, which featured Bee-Bots programmable robots. I looked into buying them, but at the time, they cost $97 each. (Price has now come down to $79. You can also buy Activity Mats for them.) The Code and Go Mouse is a much cheaper option and they function much the same: You type in the code on the buttons, then press the green button to execute the program.

really like this toy. This is one of those toys where I find it most effective to sit down and do a really clear simple demo of how it works, then have them repeat it. Do another demo that expands the concept. Have them repeat it. Then walk away and have them explore that for a while, then come back and correct misconceptions or add new ideas. So, I would first show how the mouse works, chanting out the steps and clearly demo-ing the button press… “Always press the yellow button to start a new program. Then, if you want the mouse to go forward, you program blue, if you want it to turn, you press orange or purple to tell it which way to turn, then green to tell it to go. So, ready: yellow-to-start, forward [press blue], forward [press blue], left [purple], forward [blue]. Now press green.” As it goes forth, I chant out forward-forward-left-forward. Then they do it. Then I teach them how to look at the maze, decide where the mouse needs to go to reach the cheese, and program that in. [There are puzzle cards you can follow that walk you through 20 different maze configurations that get progressively more difficult, building skills in sequence. When I check in, I see how they’re progressing through the cards.

Most of the three to four year olds in the class were able to get the process of how to program it, and could get it through a few basic mazes with assistance. The five and ups were able to work through several puzzles independently. There’s a conceptual error they have to get past… If when they start on the maze, the mouse is pointing away from them toward the “top” of the maze, they think of the top as “forward” even after the mouse turns left or right. They have to learn how to re-orient their mind spatially to think “OK, after he turns left, then forward is on the left side of the board, so now if I want him to go up, he first has to turn right, then go forward.”

Sphero SPRK+ STEAM Educational Robot $129. You download an app to your smart-phone or tablet to use as a remote control to operate this robot. At the basic level, there’s a “driving” game, where you can use the remote to drive the robot all around the room – you can start at a slow roll, then increase the speed as you build skill. It can really zip around the room!

This was my son’s Christmas present. It’s really pricey, so I wanted to love it and I wanted him to love it. But, as you’re getting started with it, it can be frustrating. It’s supposed to automatically turn on when you turn on the app – sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. The instructions on the app say you’re supposed to tap the Sphero to turn it on… no matter how hard you tap, this rarely works. When you start up the app, it asks you to calibrate it by turning it so the blue light on it faces your device. Easy enough. But then as a child plays with it, they accidentally bump that calibration feature on a regular basis, then it stops working right, and you have to re-calibrate it. These frustrations were enough that we basically got it at Christmas, played with it off an on for a few hours over a few days, then it sat on the shelf untouched till May.

think it can do a lot more. I think I remember back when I ordered it, that there was programming you can do, and lots of other things, but frankly we’ve never done that…. My notes from Christmas say: “Visual Block-Based Programming Transform ideas into code by using visual blocks that represent our C-based language, Oval.” Could it be a cool toy if we could really explore it more and figure it out? Maybe, but I’m not motivated to do that.

OWI 14-in-1 Solar Robot. I was a little hesitant to order a solar powered robot, because we live in Seattle, and frankly, solar power is not really successful in this rainy, northern climate. But, it looked like I might be able to jury-rig in a battery pack if the solar didn’t work, so I decided to give it a try, since it was only $23.

OK, to be fair I only worked with this for 30 or 40 minutes the other night when I was rushing to get ready for class. But… in that time, I found that: when I tried to assemble the gear assembly, there’s a little peg that goes on the outside that I think is supposed to help hold it all together, but it falls off all the time and the gear assembly slips out of place. I got frustrated with that, so went on to try to assemble the “head” of the robot, where the solar panel clicks in, I seemed to be totally missing the side pieces for this assembly. I gave up and shoved it all back in the box.

Other Robots I Considered

I’ll copy my notes out of my spreadsheet from Christmas time here, but they might not be perfectly accurate, so check product descriptions to be sure!

Ozobot Evo Starter Pack, the STEM Robot. $89. Ages 6 and up. Program with remote, using Android or IOS, using ozoblockly – blocks of text you drag and drop. Can flash lights, make sound. You can draw colored lines with markers that it can follow. It can move around autonomously – has proximity sensors. USB charger. Some reviews great, some said it doesn’t follow lines, one said fragile.

Wonder Workshop Dash Robot. $129. Ages 5 – 9. App on Android, IOS or Kindle Fire. Program with Blockly and Wonder. Moves, dances, lights up, makes sounds, avoids obstacles, and reacts to voice. USB charger. Reviews generally positive. Say for littlest kids, it’s a fun remote control toy; for older kids simple to program it to do things like follow you around.

HEXBUG VEX Robotics Ant. $33. 150 snap together pieces; control with remote control; or it can scurry autonomously with bump sensors to guide it. Reviews say a 10 year old can build independently, a 7 year old build with assistance in a day with a lunch break. Once built, 5 – 10 year old could play with.  Flip switches to run 64 different programs. Reviews say missing pieces, and don’t drop it because pieces will fly everywhere and you’ll have to rebuild

Makeblock DIY mBot Kit  $95. age 8 and up can assemble and play independently. App for ios 7 or above or Android 2.3 or above. AA batteries or rechargeable lithium battery. 38 parts can be assembled in 10 minutes; can follow colored lines, obstacle avoidance, remote control, says compatible with lego but doesn’t look like you can do a lot. Inputs: light sensor, button, infrared receiver, ultrasonic sensor, line follower; outputs: buzzer, LED, infrared, two motor ports. Reviews positive, though one says the instructions are hard to follow if you’re not a techie person.

What’s Not Included in This Review

There are LOTS more robot toys out there. Things that might better match your image of a “toy robot” but which is basically just a doll with blinking lights and buzzers. In this review, I tried to include mostly things that were: programmable, and/or had sensors, and/or were also a building / assembling project.

Scribble-Bots – STE(A)M Project for Kids

A scribble bot is basically an out-of-balance motor attached to some drawing utensil. As the motor rotates, it vibrates, causing the drawing utensil to jiggle across the paper, making scribble marks. There are a lot of ways you could build one. Here’s a tutorial on the method we used with our class of 3 – 7 year olds with parent helpers. (Click on any picture for a bigger image.)

  • Turn a plastic cup upside down.Tape three colored markers to the outside of the cup, making a stable tripod. Align the markers so that the lids are just below the rim of the cup, and make sure the legs are an equal length.
    • Washable markers are your best bet – these RoseArt Markers are 100 for $10. (We got permanent markers, because that’s all they had at the dollar store, and we had to buy 60 markers for our class at the last minute, so we needed them to be cheap. But, we came to regret the permanent marker choice! Tip: Purell or rubbing alcohol or alcohol wipes are great at getting permanent marker off tables, floors, and hands… not so good at getting it off clothes…)
    • Options: you could use popsicle sticks or other sticks for two of the legs, and only have one marker. You could use colored pencils or crayons, but they just don’t draw very well – the plastic cup is not heavy enough to put on enough weight to get a good mark out of these things that require some pressure to draw.
  • Tape the battery pack on top. (Note, for most of this project, you can use masking tape, duct tape, scotch tape, glue gun – whatever you have. But if the tape might come in contact with electrical wires carrying current, use electrical tape there.)
  • Tape the motor on top so that the shaft on the motor is hanging off the edge of the cup.
  • Un-balance the motor. (This is necessary – if the motor is balanced and spins smoothly, the bot won’t wiggle around – it’ll just sit in place.) We used corks… use an icepick, nail, or something the right diameter to poke a hole into the cork about 1/3 of the way from the end on one side, then put the cork on the shaft of the motor.
  • Test for freedom of rotation… spin the cork around a few times. Can it rotate cleanly without banging into anything or getting blocked? If so, you’re good to go. If not, you need to adjust your design. (This project is a STEM engineering challenge, and often needs several steps of test something, re-do, test again to get it right.)
  • Decorate the bot as desired, with googly eyes, pompoms, pipe cleaners, etc.
  • Put down a BIG piece of paper (we covered a table in butcher paper). Take the lids off the markers. Set the bot on the paper, then connect the wires on the motor to the battery to complete the circuit, and off your bot goes!
  • Some bots work perfectly right away. Some don’t. (Remember, this is a STEM engineering challenge – it’s OK if it doesn’t work perfectly the first time – we learn from our mistakes and re-build!)
    • If it tips over on its side, you may need to spread out the legs a little more evenly to make the most stable tripod possible.
    • If it just stays in place and doesn’t wiggle around the paper, it’s because it’s too balanced. Take the cork off and re-mount it.
    • If bits fall off or the wires become disconnected by the jiggling, re-engineer a solution for the problem.
  • Here are videos of bots in action:


Where do you get your motor?

Some sources recommend taking apart an electric toothbrush, or a small fan. I wanted a 1.5 – 3 V motor and a single AA battery pack. Here’s what I found:

  • You could order a wiggle-bot kit from TeacherGeek. I was impressed with the high quality of the kit components, and also all the great downloads TeacherGeek offers, such as this overview, which includes Science Standards addressed with this project.
  • Teacher Geek also sells a small motor with leads, mount, and battery pack, which is quite nice quality with easy to use clips, for $3.00 each.
  • I ordered most of our supplies from Amazon. (Affiliate links follow.). I really liked these Motors with Alligator Clips, which were $18.95 for ten. (And Sci Supply offered great customer service. I’d accidentally placed a duplicate order, and they called me to check how many motors I wanted.) I used these Batteries and these Battery packs which were fine (cost 64 cents each), but had wire leads you had to clip the motor to. I preferred the battery packs from Teacher Geek which are 60 cents each, and have metal terminals you can easily clip the alligator clips to.

One note for clarification: A scribble bot does not meet our definition of a true robot (which we said has three parts – sensors, processor and actuator) or this definition on Galileo: essential characteristics include sensing, movement, energy, and intelligence, or even the Merriam-Webster definition of a device that automatically performs complicated often repetitive tasks. It’s really just a motorized toy.

Additional resources on how to build a scribble-bot:

  • Scribble-bots video
  • Robots that Draw from art4edu. Clear directions, a nice set of questions on “can scribble bots make ‘art'”, photos, and video. They use a 4-battery pack – I found one battery was plenty of power for our motor.
  • Science Sparks’ How to Make a Scribble Bot. Instead of using a battery pack, they use a rubber band to hold the motor’s metal leads onto the battery, and a glue-gun gluestick instead of a cork to unbalance it. The body is a Pringle’s container… we prefer the plastic cups – having the edges that spread outward helps set your markers at an angle that makes for a very stable tripod.
  • Lemon Lime Adventures’ DIY Scribble Bot tutorial shows taping the markers to the inside of the cup – we found it was easier for kids to tape them to the outside, uses a clothespin instead of a cork to unbalance it, and tapes the leads to the battery pack (they turn the bot on and off by taking out a battery or putting it back in.
  • Red Ted Art’s Mini Robot is a wiggle-bot; it doesn’t scribble. It uses three toothhbrush heads for the legs, the motor is the body, and the battery is the head.

Bugs – Science for Kids

We studied Insects, Arachnids, and Myriapods. (Note, the word bug has a scientific meaning (below) but we used it like kids use it – to mean any little creepy crawly things.)

The Bug Factory


On our biggest table we set out samples of multiple different kinds of bugs kids could make, and all the materials to make those bugs or any other bug they wanted to create. It included a poster that showed anatomy of an ant and a spider and examples of a few other kinds of bugs. Our samples included:

Model Magic bugs: Using Model Magic clay (learn more here), kids could roll three balls, squish them together till they stick, and then push in 6 pipe cleaner legs for the insect of their choice, or two balls with 8 legs for a spider or lots of balls and some antenna for a caterpillar. They could use sharpies to draw in details, or could add googly eyes. The air drying clay shrinks just a tiny bit as it dries, and I found the legs stayed attached to the ladybug with no problem, but as you can see a few of the spider legs got loose enough to fall out. So parents might need to glue some legs back in at home after the bug dries.


Pom Pom caterpillars: Glue pompoms to a craft stick (or a clothespin). Add on googly eyes, or draw eyes, then twist on pipe cleaner antennas. (Instead of pompoms, you can also use glittery “jewels” or foam shapes.)

Fold Out Butterfly: This craft starts with a pom pom caterpillar. Then you tape on craft sticks so they can fold up against the caterpillars sides. So your caterpillar can grow, then spread its wings.

For the one of the left, this idea came from Danielle’s Place, where she has a great description of the steps for making it. We only suggested this one to our oldest kids (age 6 and 7) because it was over the head of our littlest ones (age 3 and 4). The wings accordion fold into a stack you can hide under the caterpillar. My co-teacher made this sample at home, where she only had blue masking tape. She used oil pastels to cover that with the drawing. Beige or white tape would work better.

The one on the right is a simplified version. To get the accordion fold to work, you have to be pretty precise… this other is a little easier, and you just roll the wings up around the butterfly as shown in the small pictures, which let you tuck the butterfly into a “cocoon” toilet paper roll.



Paper Plate Roly Poly. Another idea from Danielle’s Place – check there for full directions. She recommends making it with triangles of cardboard, but we just cut a paper plate into triangles. Then you fasten with a brad, add antenna and a smile, and tape on pipe cleaner legs. This rolls up into a full circle like a roly poly bug does when you poke at it. Tip for the antenna… I’d been gluing them on, which wasn’t working great, but one of my six year old students figured out it worked better to punch holes, and twist the antenna through them. I love getting ideas from my kids!


These bugs (which are not insects – they’re crustaceans) are very easy to find in many regions – just flip over an old piece of wood or a log and you may find some. You can learn more about them at Preschool Powol Packets. (Trivia: They’re also an interesting study in language variations in the US. Depending on where you’re from, you might call them a roly poly, a potato bug, wood louse, pill bug, or something else – see language map here:

Next year, I want to at least bring pictures of one in with me, or I may capture some live ones to bring in for the bug zoo.

Magnetic Ants: Cut an ant shape from black paper. Add three brads, and fold them out to make 6 legs. These are to use with our picnic plate project below.


Water strider: These are the bugs that “walk” on water. I really wanted to make a water strider that would float / stand on the surface of the water to play with in the water table. (This also ties into next week’s theme, which is Sink/Float, and where we may walk around a pond with water striders on it.) I made one with Styrofoam (from a takeout container) – I didn’t get a picture of it, but it was a bug body of Styrofoam, with pipe cleaner legs taped on the bottom, then 6 little Styrofoam feet glued on to the pipe cleaners (having big feet is not scientifically accurate…. water striders have little hairs on their legs that help them stay on the surface – the hairs capture air bubbles and repel the water). It floated fine… until a kid played with it and dunked it under the water… once the pipe cleaners got wet, they were heavy and it no longer floated. We tried making one with wine corks and toothpicks. We had hoped to cut up the cork to make feet, but that didn’t work – it might work with corkboard feet. Getting all the feet to line up on the same plane would also be important for making it float. This is our next challenge.


Egg Carton Bugs: If you have egg cartons saved up… Kids can use one segment of the carton and pipe cleaners to make a daddy long legs, or two to make a spider, three to make an ant, 4 – 6 to make a caterpillar. You can paint them if desired. Just search Pinterest for “egg carton bugs” for lots of examples.

Butterfly Ideas: You could easily make the coffee filter butterflies that we did in rainbow week. If you’ve got kids for multiple days, you could also make clothespin and pompom caterpillars early in the week, and add the coffee filter wings a few days later. Another option for wings would be to use an iron to melt crayon shavings between layers of waxed paper for a stained glass look. There are more butterfly crafts here: and here

Arts and Crafts

A Rorschach Butterfly: cut out paper butterfly shapes. Fold them in half. Have kids paint on one half, then fold it in half, press together to transfer paint and open it up again to reveal the symmetry of the two sides.


For children age 5 and older, a great symmetry-learning project is to design a coloring sheet where on one side you have shapes that the child colors in. On the other side, they have to figure out where to draw the shapes so they’re symmetrical and then color them in to match. Here’s a printable coloring page for you.


Butterfly Life Cycle: We often do more process oriented art, but I like to occasionally put out a product oriented project. There were four stages: cut out a green leaf. Add glue and some rice to be the eggs. Then cut out more green leaves, punch holes in them to be a chewed up leaf, then go to the bug factory and make a pompom caterpillar. Set the caterpillar on the leaf, but don’t glue him down. Then tape on a toilet paper tube to be the cocoon. (Or if you’re ambitious, make a paper mache or decoupage cocoon.) Then, go to the easel, and make a Rorschach butterfly. Bring it back and glue it on, just gluing the center so the wings can “flap”. (My five year old liked playing with this project interactively – he’d make the caterpillar nibble the leaves, then climb into the cocoon, then the caterpillar would come out and be the center of the butterfly, flapping its wings.)

IMG_20160514_132736688  IMG_20160514_101952755

Bug antenna: We got Plastic Headbands – 36 for $7! Kids used pipe cleaners and beads to make antenna. (If you do a bug themed birthday party, this is a nice take home favor.)


Paper Plate Picnics: Decorate a paper plate by drawing your favorite food. Then put on a magnetic ant from the bug factory. Hold a Magnetic Wand under the plate and make the ant run around on the food.


Bugs at a Picnic: Print a picnic blanket design on a piece of paper. Put it out with a stamp pad and markers. Kids make fingerprint bugs all over the paper, using the markers to add features.

Other Activities

Sensory Table: Bug Sort: We buried plastic bugs in the sand (could also use other sensory materials). Kids would unbury, then sort them into three dishes: insect – 6 legs, arachnid – 8 legs, or myriapod – lots of legs.


Spider Web: This is a simple big motor activity. Take a hula hoop or smaller plastic ring. Use tape to make a spider web. The spokes of the spider web should use the not sticky side of the tape facing out, the rings should have the sticky side facing out. (You can point this out to the kids… the spokes of a web and the center are generally made of a non-adhesive spider silk so the spider can walk on the web without getting stuck.)

Then throw cotton balls at it, pretending they’re flies who are flying around and get caught in the web. If a child throws and misses you say “hurray, the fly got away.” We’ve tried this in the past with pompoms, and they would often hit and not stick which was discouraging. (If you’re working with 5 – 7 year olds, you might get a good ratio of hits and misses, but with our little ones who don’t have great aim, we needed to make this easier.) Cotton balls stuck much better, although over time, they left fluff all over the tape which would eventually make it less sticky.


Bug puppet show: We set up the puppet theatre and a variety of bug puppets. We have found that if we set up imaginary play stations but don’t provide any guidance, often they are ignored. But if one of the adults gets something started, the kids will then join in and then run with it and have a great time putting on their own plays and watching other kids’ performances. (Also, if you put a rug or pillows out in front of the stage, kids are more likely to sit and be an audience.)


Bug Zoo: We brought in crickets and meal worms. (My daughter has a pet gecko that we care for while she’s at college – sigh, the long life expectancy of childhood pets…. so we always have these bugs at home.) You can also easily gather worms, snails, and maybe slugs (if it’s rained recently), or ants, or water bugs. Put them out with magnifying glasses, questions to guide observations, and books that let the kids learn more. You can also ask kids to gather and bring in specimens, but remind them to handle them humanely, put them in a container with air holes and a food source, and release them back into their habitat after class. (This year I didn’t have the time or energy to catch real bugs, so I downloaded a bunch of good up-close insect videos from YouTube, and played them on a laptop on loop. I worried the kids would turn into screen zombies… but they’d all check it out for a little while and move on.)


Other theme related activities: We’re blessed to share a classroom with a preschool art program that’s had about 20 years to accumulate fun puzzles, games, and building toys, so we put some out each week. This time, we had the bug eye lenses Bug Eye lenses, Cooties, Butterfly Puzzle and Bug Dominoes  You could also bring in the Elefun game we used in Wind week, or combine the Elefun butterflies with the wind tube.

IMG_20160514_132829910 IMG_20160514_102242775 IMG_20160514_102233159 IMG_20160514_102225875

Snack: You could do a dirt cup (chocolate pudding, crushed oreos, and gummy worms) or bugs on a log (use pretzels or celery as the log, spread on cream cheese or peanut butter or sunflower butter, then sprinkle on chocolate chips or raisins or dried cranberries to be the bugs.) Or pasta – see notes under more ideas below.


We hid plastic butterflies and dragonflies out in the playground and went on a bug hunt. If you had butterfly nets, it would be even better.

You can do a real bug hunt by flipping over rocks and pieces of wood, looking in trees and so on. Try a tree shake – lay out a white sheet under a tree, then shake the branch for a few minutes and see what all falls out of the tree and onto the sheet.

More Ideas: As always, I have more ideas than we use….  Check out:

  • Marble painting spider webs: Take a cake pan. Cut black paper to put in the bottom. Dip a marble in white paint. Roll it to make a spider web.
  • Alphabet caterpillar: Cut out 26 circles of rainbow colors of paper. Write one letter on each. Cut out one more to be the caterpillar’s head with a face and antenna. Kids assemble the caterpillar pieces in alphabetical order.
  • Cricket noises. Put on a recording of cricket noises. Then explain how crickets make that noise and have kids try to replicate. The two methods I’ve see recommended are to rasp a nail file over the edge of a piece of cardstock, or rasp a comb over a stick.
  • A really simple butterfly life cycle is to use pasta for the stages: orzo or acine di pepe for the egg, rotini or penne for the caterpillar, conchiglie (shell pasta) for the chrysalis, and bowtie for the butterfly. You could also use these shapes to make a fun lunch.
  • Make beeswax candles.

Opening Circle

Demo: As kids slowly come in to circle room, we demonstrate some of the activities that they’ll find in the classroom. If you find there’s an activity which hasn’t quite caught kids’ attention during discovery time, this is a great time to show it to them and talk about it to encourage them to check it out after circle.

Gathering: We always have a song, book, or rhythm activity to get kids’ attention focused and help them settle down. We read The Very Hungry Caterpillar (see below), which many of them were familiar with and loved seeing at class.

Discussion: We talked about the life cycle of a butterfly. I explained that butterflies don’t actually spin cocoons, even though many things (like today’s book and today’s song) say that they do. Moths spin silk cocoons. Butterfly caterpillars shed their skins / exoskeletons as they grow like many (all?) insects. When they are ready to become butterflies, they spin some silk to help them hang from a branch, split their skin, and then some gelatinous stuff forms, then hardens into a jewel like chrysalis. (For a good illustration and discussion of this, see Rockwell’s Becoming Butterflies (details below). Some butterflies make a pouch of leaves and form their chrysalis inside there.

Big motor game: We pretended to be butterflies… first, curled up in little balls on the floor to be eggs, then popped out of our eggs, then crawled around on the floor, eating apples, strawberries, chocolate cake, and watermelon (like the Very Hungry Caterpillar). Then we curled up again as a chrysalis. Then broke free, spreading our wings slowly, fluttering them till they dried, then flying around the room. (Search on YouTube for “butterfly emerging” and you’ll find lots of videos of this process.)

Song: I found this song on  but I added the first verse and revised some of the words a little so they scanned better to the music. Done to the tune of Frere Jacques / Are You Sleeping. Optional: you could combine this with the movement game, and have the kids pretend to be each of these stages of the life cycle.

Caterpillar, caterpillar, curl, curl, curl, curl, curl, curl, curl up in your egg, curl up in your egg, curl, curl, curl, curl, curl, curl.

Caterpillar, caterpillar, crawl, crawl, crawl, crawl, crawl, crawl, crawling on a green leaf, crawling on a green leaf crawl, crawl, crawl, crawl, crawl, crawl.
Caterpillar, caterpillar eat, eat, eat, eat, eat, eat, eating leaves all day, eating leaves all night, eat, eat, eat, eat, eat, eat.
Caterpillar, caterpillar, spin, spin, spin, spin, spin, spin, spin a silk cocoon, spin a silk cocoon, spin, spin, spin, spin, spin, spin.
[the scientifically accurate one would be something like: shed shed shed… shed your skin the chrysalis…]
Caterpillar, caterpillar, sleep, sleep, sleep, sleep, sleep, sleep, sleep in your cocoon, sleep until you bloom, sleep, sleep, sleep, sleep, sleep, sleep.
Caterpillar, caterpillar, squirm, squirm, squirm, squirm, squirm, squirm, squirm from your cocoon, squirm from your cocoon squirm, squirm, squirm, squirm, squirm, squirm,
Caterpillar, caterpillar, fly, fly, fly, fly, fly, fly, you are not a caterpillar, you’re a big butterfly,  fly, fly, fly, fly, fly, fly

Closing Circle

Discussion: We talked about (and drew on the board) how many body parts and legs insects, arachnids, and myriapods have.

Game: How Many Legs? I would write a number on the board, then ask them for examples of what has that many legs. 6 – insects (their examples included ladybugs, ants, grasshoppers, etc.). 8 – spiders. 4 – their examples were all mammals – dogs, cats, cows, and so on. I added some reptiles and amphibians (lizards, frogs, etc.)  2 – they said humans (I pointed out we have four limbs like mammals) and birds. 0 – snakes, fish and various aquatic creatures, worms; 14 – roly poly, more than 20 – myriapods, and the stumper… 1 – clams and geoducks (from the family Pelecypoda) and snails. And, as my students all pointed out – Teacher Janelle. (That’s me. I’m an amputee and do in fact have one foot.)

Discussion: We labelled the body parts of the bugs we’d drawn. Insects have a head, thorax, and abdomen. Arachnids (spiders) have a cephalothorax (use this word with the kids, then explain that cephalo means head, and thorax means chest, so this is their head to chest part of the body) and an abdomen (belly). A very common misconception is that the legs are attached to the abdomen (which humans tend to think of as “the body” of the spider.) The legs are actually attached to the cephalothorax (what looks like the head to a human.) You will notice that MOST drawings of spiders and most plastic spiders get this wrong. Many drawings and plastic spiders actually only have one body part with all the legs coming out of it, daddy long legs style. (FYI, daddy long legs are not spiders, but they are arachnids – their cephalothorax and abdomen are fused together.)

Song: From Growing Up Wild book. to the tune of Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes.

Head, Thorax, Abdomen; [touch head, chest, belly]
Head, Thorax, Abdomen.
Six legs, some wings, and an exoskeleton. [Touch legs, back, and then sweep your hands around your body]
Head, Thorax, Abdomen

Head, Thorax, Abdomen; Head, Thorax, Abdomen.
Big eyes, small size and two antennae too. [Point to eyes, then use fingers to show a small something, then wiggle fingers over your head as antenna]
Head, Thorax, Abdomen

Book: We read (with feeling!) Argh Spider!

Recommended Books (contain affiliate links)

  • The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Carle. An egg hatches, a caterpillar eats and eats, then spins a cocoon, then emerges as a beautiful butterfly. Just one of my favorite children’s books ever. The illustrations are nice, it’s fun and engaging, and somehow the pacing of it is absolutely perfect for a read-aloud children’s book. Aimed at ages 3 – 5, but the 6 and 7 year olds will have some nostalgia for it. Note, if your child loves this book, you may also want to check out Carle’s whole collection of “Very” bug books. Here’s how a book cover describes a few of them: “Caterpillar teaches the days of the week, counting and metamorphosis…  The Very Busy Spider is about barnyard animals and sounds, how a spider builds a web,… and about useful work and its reward. Very Quiet Cricket is about a cricket finding its voice, and about love and survival.”
  • Aaaarrgghh! Spider! by Monks. A lonely spider wants to be a pet, and does its best job to win over a family, who keep saying “argh! spider!” then “Out you Go!” Then the spider wins them over – there’s a lovely page with sparkly webs the spider has woven – and is a happy pet – until s/he brings over too many friends to play! It’s a really fun read-aloud. Also, at my parent education session that day, I had talked about emotional intelligence, and one suggestion I’d made to the parents is that when reading books, talk about the emotions of the characters – ask kids to notice expressions in the illustrations – ask “how do you think this character feels now?” And Argh Spider is a great book for illustrating just how this emotional literacy can be pulled into reading almost any great kids book. Good for ages 3 – 7.
  • Waiting for Wings by Ehlert. Big book with big bold illustrations makes it great for circle time reading. Nice engaging words, with a good rhyme and rhythm. Tells the story of caterpillars hatching, eating, making a case (chrysalis), and becoming butterflies. On the final pages, we see pictures of several different species, where it shows what food they eat, what the caterpillar, chrysalis, and butterfly look like. Good for ages 3 – 6.
  • Bug Safari by Barner. A child goes on a safari through a “bug-infested jungle”. He follows a trail of ants, and they pass by many other insects like dung beetles, green mantis, and spiders. The ants lead him back to his own base camp, where they’ve discovered the family picnic! Engaging story, fun illustrations, and good info. At the back of the book, there’s more details about each of the bugs seen. Recommended read-aloud for ages 5 – 7.
  • Ten Little Caterpillars by Martin and Ehlert. Another book featuring Lois Ehlert’s fabulous, vibrant illustrations – while not detailed naturalistic drawings, they definitely capture the essence of natural objects. I have to confess that when I read this, my first impression was that many of the caterpillars met a bad ending, and that maybe only number ten survived. I re-read it, and one through five were fine. Number 6 was carried off to school, number 7 met a hungry wren, the eighth was frightened by a hen, the ninth falls into the sea, right in front of a big hungry looking fish. I’m not sure whether or not these caterpillars survive those encounters – a kid might not have this question, but I notice it as an adult. Number 10 turns into a butterfly. And again at the back, there’s pictures of various caterpillars, butterflies and moths. Ages 3 – 5.
  • Bugs! Bugs! Bugs! by Barton.  Very bright, cheery illustrations. This could be a good book to put on the table at the bug factory, because if shows simplified versions of ladybugs, grasshoppers, bees and more. Fun circle time read-aloud for three year olds. The bonus  is the “bug-o-meter” chart in the back, which has 8 columns for 8 types of bugs, then 4 rows for “can it fly, where does it live, how man legs, and does it sting.” This was a great introduction to charts for my five year old, who figured them out quickly as I asked: “Can you tell me all the bugs that sting” and other questions.
  • Inch by Inch by Lionni. A story about an inchworm who saves himself from being eaten by a robin by saying “I am useful. I measure things.” And he goes on to measure the robin’s tail, flamingo’s neck, toucan’s beak, and onward, until the nightingale demands he measure her song. He inches away. Nice illustrations, nice engaging story. Would also be fun to include in a class on measuring. Ages 3 – 6, nice read-aloud.
  • Becoming Butterflies by Rockwell and Halsey. If you’re planning to get a Live Butterfly Kit, then I would absolutely get this book. It tells the story of a preschool teacher bringing caterpillars into the classroom and the children watching them through the process of hungry caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly and then releasing them. Ages 5- 7, unless you’ve got your own live caterpillars, in which case I think 3 – 4 year olds would engage in this book even though it’s longer than their typical attention span.
  • Life Story of a Ladybug by Guillain. A non-fiction book – the words are best for ages 5 – 7. But the photos are great for any age. Great colorful up close photos. I like that this shows the life cycle of a ladybug from egg to larva to pupa to adult . I think almost all preschool kids learn about the life cycle of the butterfly (and sometimes moths) but we rarely teach them that other insects go through a similar series of changes.
  • Those Amazing Ants by Demuth and Schindler. Ages 6 – 7. A non-fiction book about ants, which summarizes lots of good information in an engaging, story-telling way. Great “up close” illustrations of ants. Shows life cycle of ant, from egg to worm to adult.
  • Bugs Are Insects by Rockwell. A detailed non-fiction, for ages 6 – 7. Discusses anatomy of insects and how to tell insects from arachnids. It defines bug, saying “we sometimes call insects bugs.. a bug is an insect with a mouth like a beak and a head that forms a triangle” like stinkbugs, bedbugs and water striders.
  • Chirping Crickets by Berger and Lloyd. A non-fiction book which tells the science of crickets in an engaging way. Ages 6 – 7.


Videos and Apps

  • Caterpillar Shoes: Ok, the caterpillar is sharing its shoes with all the other bugs, so that part is completely scientifically inaccurate. But this is a terribly cute video and does introduce lots of different kinds of bugs.
  • What is an Insect is a nice 2 minute video about the basic science of insects explained at a preschool level.
  • Crickets, Insects and Reptiles. Good if you can stand the perky host…
  • All About Bugs is another nice video, though the speaking style is a little slow and overly enunciated. But the nice thing is that it has captions. If you have a child who reads, I like captions they can read along with as literacy practice.

Most bug apps are about smashing bugs, killing bugs, and wars on bugs. There’s a Very Hungry Caterpillar app – a free version and a $3.99 version. I’ve only spent a few minutes with it, but it’s a nice educational game with a quiet peaceful tone – appears good for a 3 or 4 year old. I’m testing out Bug Village, which is about building bug villages.

What Sticks?

In the days since class, my 5 year old has been very aware of the insects in our life… last night he spent 15 minutes watching the anthills outside our garage, and this morning, he wanted to walk to the “bee bush”, a flowering bush near our house that bees are always surrounding this time of year. When a flying ant landed on our picnic table, he could name the body parts, counted the legs to verify there were six, and said “look, it has wings… remember how you said in class that most ants don’t have wings, but some do?”

Model Magic Clay

If you’re not familiar with Model Magic air dry clay, I have to say it’s one of my favorite materials to work with. Not unpleasant to touch (like Sculpey) or to smell (like Play-Doh), and extremely malleable. It’s a very forgiving material when you’re working with it. It doesn’t start getting dry and crumbly while you work, it doesn’t stick to or stain your hands. It takes about 24 hours for creations to dry, and has to be handled carefully during this time so it doesn’t get squished flat, but after that, it’s pretty durable. Really easy to mix colors – I find them one of the most effective ways to illustrate color mixing for kids… you’ll see in the picture below that the blue and yellow blend together completely to make a nice pure green. (Color mixing tip: put two colors together then twist then fold. Repeat till mixed. The twisting really mixes them well).

IMG_20160515_080320608  IMG_20160515_080410543  IMG_20160515_080430454  IMG_20160515_080538676

Examples: I used Model Magic to make a model of the Earth’s layers and a model of the solar system to use in class demos. We use them for fossil impression in Dinosaur week or shell impressions in Sink or Float week, and to make insects in Bug week.


It is much cheaper in bulk. If you buy a small package with 6 half-ounce packets, it’s $6 – that’s $2 an ounce. I bought 75 one-ounce packs 75 one-ounce packs for $39. That’s 52 cents an ounce. (It also comes in several other sizes.)

You need to make your items pretty small for them to dry effectively. This is not a good product for big sculptures, but fine for little things – like bugs. The balls for the spider were about the size of shooter marbles, the balls on the caterpillars were smaller than marbles, but bigger than peas. I didn’t keep track of how many bugs we could make with one ounce of clay, but I’d guess four?