Thursday, 22 August 2013


This summer I'm babysitting Jaden for a few hours a week, and he has become my official test subject for science activities for four-year-olds. I've been getting all these great ideas for preschool science from my Young Child as Scientist grad school course, and from good ol' Pinterest, but since I'm not based out of a classroom, I haven't really had an outlet for my kid science excitement. (Most activities I get stoked about -- and can realistically carry out in someone else's home -- are a little too juvenile for Sasha's sophisticated tastes.) So I got Jaden's parents' permission to experiment on their kid.

Inclined Planes and Buttons & Pennies
File under: Physics
Concepts explored: rolling, sliding, and bouncing objects down an adjustable inclined plane; balance, vibration, gravity, and transfer of energy through objects colliding

This was actually a spontaneous exploration. I had brought pennies and a vinegar/saltwater solution for Jaden to do a chemistry activity of cleaning copper, but Jaden wasn't particularly interested in scrubbing pennies, and he started rolling and bouncing them around instead. So we grabbed the nearest thing that could be transformed into an inclined plane (his puppy's kennel), a jar of buttons, and went at it.

the towel wadded in the bottom helped us prop up the kennel tray at varying angles

this kennel has featured repeatedly in our physics explorations and imaginative play
File under: Biology
Concepts explored: ecological perspective-taking; ecosystems; plant care; weather/water cycles

I have been yearning to make a closed-system terrarium since I saw the idea in a kid's nature crafts book I received when I started first grade. I've been waiting almost two decades to do this project! I started with a trip to the plant nursery and aquarium store to gather my materials:

not pictured: activated charcoal from the aquarium store and dirt from my garden
I asked Jaden (and his parents) to gather a few small sticks or rocks ahead of time that Jaden would like to add to his terrarium. It gave his parents an opportunity to talk to him about terrariums and plants, and for him to get really excited to do this project with me! It only took us 20 minutes to put this thing together, but Jaden really liked it! It provided a lot of opportunities to talk about what plants need to grow, how water cycles through this "closed" system (we rubber-banded plastic wrap over the top), and how different plants prefer different types of environments -- these ones all like warm, humid environments.

building the substrate layers
spritzing was too slow for him, so this happened

the finished product (before all the plants started dying a month later)
After talking to Sasha a few weeks later about terrariums, she wanted to make one too, so we took a trip to the plant nursery together and she picked out everything she'd need for her own terrarium. She decided to make an open-air succulent terrarium, and now all she wants to do is make more of them. (Oh Sasha, I relate so much.) After making this one with Sasha, I've started scouring Goodwill for cheap vessels we can use for more terrariums, which was a smart move, because glass containers are $15-$25 at gardening and aquarium stores, and $1-$4 at Goodwill. The plant starts are cheap ($1-$5 each) and the sand and gravel are collected from Sasha's backyard, so this is a pretty affordable hobby if you use your resources wisely!

Sasha's beautifully-designed succulent microgarden
File under: Physics
Concepts explored: pendulum movement; force of an object colliding with other objects; architecture and balance

I asked Jaden's parents ahead of time if they had a heavy-duty hook anywhere in their home we could use to hang a pendulum, and they enthusiastically pointed me to a plant hanger in the corner of the kitchen. Using twine and a lightweight empty stainless steel waterbottle, I rigged up a simple pendulum for Jaden. I also brought a collection of lightweight recycled materials we could use to build structures (to be knocked down by the swinging pendulum): empty yogurt containers, styrofoam blocks, and cardboard berry cartons.

we put some water in the bottle for part of the time to change the weight of the pendulum
Jaden loved this activity, inventing elaborate imaginative play scenarios to accompany the pendulum's movement. He was mildly disappointed that he was not allowed to swing on the pendulum himself since, as I explained, the thin twine and ceiling hook would not be strong enough to support his weight, but he didn't push the issue too much. I wish I had a way to safely hang a heavy rope for him -- he would love climbing and swinging on an installation like that!

he mostly directed me to do the construction, actually

the blue tape X on the floor marks the pendulum's "at rest" location
Marble Maze
File under: Physics
Concepts explored: architecture; inclined planes; rolling marbles; navigating around, through, and over obstacles by tilting the plane

We made a couple of marble mazes together (okay, I did most of the building, because Jaden was a lot more interested in running the maze than in creating it) using the boxes I got from the plant nursery for our terrarium activity, scotch tape, and blank notecards. This activity was a liiiittle too advanced for Jaden -- mainly the cutting, arranging, and taping the interior walls of the maze, but he did enjoy directing my building efforts. (I later did the same activity with Sasha, slightly more successfully. Interestingly, she was more interested in building the maze than in running it.)

Painting Rocks
File under: Biology, Physics, Chemistry
Concepts explored: properties of rocks and theories about their formation; paint viscosity, movement, and color mixing; transforming water's color and consistency as paint is rinsed into it

As Jaden painted these rocks I brought from my yard, I could really see how he was focusing on the process rather than the product of the activity. He didn't seem particularly concerned about what his rocks would look like when finished, instead focusing on moving, controlling, and observing paint. These were acrylics, which are different from the watercolors and tempra paints that preschoolers are typically allowed to use, and Jaden had a great time exploring their qualities with rocks as a canvas. He also informed me that the pock-marked rock (which I would call a lava rock) is a meteor because "it has pressure marks from entering the earth's atmosphere." Dude has a seriously impressive vocabulary and a working knowledge of some fairly advanced concepts, and I love hearing his ideas about what things are and how they got to be that way.

he also painted a "cage" around the rocks on the paper
Jaden's parents have told me that his best days (mood- and behavior-wise) are often the ones where he spends the morning with me, experimenting, learning, and playing. It's a lot of fun for me, too.

There's more to come.

High fives,

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