Tag Archives: science

Building a mini submarine

A few weeks ago at our Family Inventors Lab, we studied submarines, and our book for the day was Papa’s Mechanical Fish, a really well-written and enjoyable book that shares the adventures of a family where the father is an inventor, who is sometimes successful and sometimes not. He is inspired to make a mechanical fish, and after several failed attempts makes a submarine the whole family can ride in.

At class that day, our main tinkering activity was to make a water-tight mini submarine that would keep a little paper person dry inside for 20 seconds underwater. Our supplies included plastic easter eggs, miscellaneous plastic containers, and tools that would help to waterproof things (tape, plastic bags, silly putty, things to wrap objects in, etc.)

This activity did what we hope to do with all our activities… it adapts to various ages and it teaches kids to experiment and adapt their efforts till they succeed.

Our littlest kids (2 – 3 year olds) mostly just used this as a sensory tub. They played with whatever was floating in the water.

Some of the middle-sized kids (3 – 4 year olds) did things like  float an easter egg inside a plastic bowl boat or fill plastic Ziploc bags with water and float those.

Our next oldest (4 – 5) tested the other containers: water bottles, small food containers, and some travel-size toiletry bottles to see which would keep a paper person dry. Some would and some wouldn’t. They also tried wrapping the eggs in various things (paper, cloth napkins, plastic bags) to see if they would stay dry. All of those failed, except sealing the egg inside a ziploc.

The oldest kids (6 and 7) did the full tinkering activity with the easter eggs. Testing, diagnosing, hypothesizing, building a prototype,  testing again, and repeating till we got it right. We learned that plastic easter eggs leak water because they have holes in the ends. We tried taping the holes and sealing the gaps with play-dough or silly putty. But even after you seal the holes, there’s a gap around where the two halves come together, and the eggs still leak. (And play dough makes a big mess when it gets wet!)

We eventually discovered a working solution: seal the ends of the eggs with silly putty. Put the paper person in. Wrap a silly putty seal all around the gap where the two halves of the egg come together. Submerge it. Count to 30. Bring it out of the water, dry it off, open it up, and Voila! we had created an easter egg submarine.

This is a great activity to repeat at home during bath time. Just grab a wide variety of plastic containers with lids from your kitchen, tear up some paper from the recycling bin to be your “people” you’re trying to keep dry, and head for the bath tub. Your child will learn about sinking, floating, water-tight vs. leaking, and the  fact that bubbles coming up from your submarine is a bad sign… if air comes out, water will go in!

Rainbow Science and Art Activities

rainbowAt today’s Family Inventors Lab, our theme was Rainbows.

We had a painting of a rainbow on the wall, then had a black and white line drawing of a rainbow below that they painted in to match the one on the top. (We had two siblings who were really dedicated to getting this project done right.)

We “made it rain” by filling cups of water, spraying shaving cream on top, and using pipettes to drip liquid watercolor onto the shaving cream clouds. It drips through, creating colorful rainfall below. I failed to take pictures, but here’s some from Pinterest… check out the original posts here, here and here for more ideas for activities, and thoughts on talking to kids about the science of rain

rainWe also used pipettes to drip liquid watercolor onto coffee filters, which creates some beautiful color mixing. If you want to take this one step further at home, they can be turned into butterfly decorations with a clothespin and a pipe cleaner. (Source for idea.)

Picture from Thoughtful Spot Day Care

Picture from Thoughtful Spot Day Care

We had a light table with lots of colorful objects on it, rainbow crayons, rainbow colored blocks, a rainbow colored tumbling mat with colored hoops to jump into for some big motor play, and color your own playdough. (This was not quite successful – our colors were too wet and made the playdough too wet to handle… we’ll be tinkering with this activity to get it right in the future!) We had blocks of ice that they could sprinkle salt onto and pour water onto, and drip liquid watercolor on to help it melt.

We had diffraction grating peepholes. (When you hold these up to your eye, then look at a light, the light is broken up into rainbows. Different lights produce different patterns… when I look at my ceiling light at home, I see circular rainbows, when I look at the LED flashlight on my cell phone, I see six rays of rainbows radiating out.) We had crayons and paper out so the kids could draw what they saw. (If you want to learn more about how prisms separate “white” light into colors, watch this video. Here’s a simple, low equipment experiment to do with your child. And here‘s more activities and a little info about Inventor Isaac Newton and his discovery that light is made up of 7 colors.)

The books we read in opening circle were:

Other books we used / had available:

  • Who Likes the Rain by Etta Kaner
  • What is the Water Cycle by Ellen Lawrence
  • A Rainbow of My Own by Don Freeman

We sang a few rain and rainbow songs, including a spontaneous sing-a-long of Rainbow Connection after one of the parents suggested it. (Check out the classic video here.)

We always have more ideas than we have time and space for, but if you’d like more ideas for rainbow-themed activities, look on our Pinterest page: https://www.pinterest.com/bcparented/rain-and-rainbows/

Building a Wind Tube

Wind Tube

For our Family Inventors’ Lab class (a STEM class for preschool and kindergarten age), we have built a fun tool, which encourages the kids to tinker – see my last post for how kids play with a wind tube. This post is about the tinkering process we used to build and refine our DIY wind tube.

We started with the directions from Exploratorium. We ordered from Amazon:

  • a big, powerful fan – we use the Honeywell HF-910 Turbo Force(My colleagues tried using a smaller fan, and smaller hoops to save money, and their version can just barely lift a scarf up and out of the tube. It’s just not nearly as fun as the bigger one. The Kodo wind tunnel uses this Vornado fan, and it’s larger cousin might be a good option)
  • 2 14″ embroidery/quilting hoops and
  • a acetate sheet  Ours is 40″ tall. You need about 48″ of it. Exploratorium’s directions called for .0075 ml thickness, we used .01. It’s a little pricier but it’s been very durable which is important to us because we transport it to several sites. (Other builders have used 1/32″ thick polycarbonate, but I haven’t found that in large sheets.)

We cut the acetate sheet, and assembled the tube with the hoops. Definitely a two person job. You can clamp the plastic between the inner and outer layer of the hoop, just like you would fabric. We then used clear packing tape to tape the seam. (We also taped over the metal clamps on the hoops, and the edges of the acetate sheet on one end, just so kids wouldn’t scrape themselves while playing.)

Then we needed spacers to lift the tube up off the fan. Exploratorium recommends wooden spacers that you cut a notch in. We built spacers with Duplos and set the tube on those. (You can see them in the videos in this post.) For our family, that worked fine, because it was easy to rebuild them if they got knocked off. For class, I wanted something I didn’t have to rebuild. I found some giant clothespins (like these), which worked great.

When using the tube with 2 – 4 year olds, I need to cover up the fan openings, just in case someone tried to put rocks or beans or coins or something into the fan. (Or fingers, of course. That wouldn’t be possible with this fan design, but it might be with other fans!) I bought 1.5 yards of black tulle with pretty sparkles (like this), and we wrapped it over the fan, tying it off below with a twisted pipe cleaner. The tulle does work great as safety proofing and looks fine, but it does diffuse the air flow from the fan a little, so some of the heavier things that would fly without the mesh on don’t fly well with the mesh on. I remove the mesh when I only have older kids who can be trusted if told not to try dropping small heavy things in…

At home, we just set the tube on top of the fan, but for class, I need to tie down the tube to the fan. Otherwise it’s easy for it to get knocked over and land on someone’s head. (Note: it doesn’t really hurt if it does, but it is mighty startling.)

Exploratorium recommended drilling holes in the spacers, disassembling the fan, and fastening the spacers on with zip ties. We decided it would be much easier to just thread pipe cleaners through the springs on the clothes pins, and loop those down through the fan and back up again (no dis-assembly required) and twist together to tighten. It was easy to do, worked great to tie them down, and is easy to undo later if desired. An advantage to the clothes pins is that it’s easy to clamp the tube onto the fan, then easy to un-clamp it for transport.

ClipMeshTieI’ve watched countless children age 1 – 10 play with this for hours. The under-one-year olds love just watching things fly up and out of the tube. The two-year-olds love shoving things into the tube and watching them fly. The three-year-olds start to make observations on which items flew best. The four-and-ups experiment with building things, tying things together, trying to put things in from the top, and so on. Some of the parents get caught into the experimenting too, folding paper helicopters and such to test what will fly. The kids play really well together – part of the point of this game is to put something in and LET GO, so there aren’t many issues with having to share something that someone was holding on tight to. They all play happily side by side. They don’t really need to take turns, as it works fine to have four or five things flying at the same time.

Here’s some of the items we have launched. (See some video in our Wind Tube post.) We look forward to more play and experimentation to see what other items we can find or build that will fly well in our wind tube.


Alternatives to our DIY wind tube

babbledabbledo describes building a simple “vortex” by just rolling a tube of poster board and setting it directly on the fan. Kids put a scarf or a balloon above the tube where it gets caught up in the rush of air. Super simple! I like that with our tube, the kids can put the item in at the bottom and see it travel up the tube, but this simple alternative may meet your needs just as well

Kodo Kids makes a wind tunnel that looks fabulous! And I know their materials are very high quality. I’d love to have it, but it costs $450 plus a $45 fan, versus the materials for this DIY tube are Around $140 before tax. [Fan ~$45; hoops $16; acetate sheet $50 ($35 for thinner material); clothespins $15; tulle fabric.]

Or you can buy the science museum version for $13,000.

There is also a DIY wind tube tutorial on Instructables. It requires that you own real tools, which I don’t. 🙂

For lots of ideas for STEM enrichment activities with kids, check out my blog www.InventorsOfTomorrow.com.

The Wind Tube

We’ve built a fun science exploration tool, which we use in our Family Inventors’ Lab class.

The Exploratorium shared a project idea for building a Wind Tube. (Also check out the Kodo wind tunnel.) It’s basically a clear tube mounted over a fan. Kids can place items into the tube and see what happens. Heavy items just sit there. Lightweight items shoot out the top of the tube. Other items may float, spin, or rattle back and forth. The video at the the top of this post shows some of our initial experiments. (If you want to learn how to make a DIY wind tube, check out my next post.)

Dave Stroud says this about how kids (and adults!) play with a wind tube.

The Wind Tubes intrinsically encourage a particular type of play that helps guests experience the way science works. The intent is for guests to internalize a science based mindset – do something, measure the outcome, make changes, do something, measure the outcome, compare the outcomes, make changes, do something, measure the outcome, compare the outcomes – repeat this process until you run out of time. The user experiences the phenomena by exploring it, rather than being shown an outcome and having it explained. (Source)

I have definitely seen this in action. Toddlers and preschoolers love to launch the same items over and over. Four to five year olds start experimenting more, looking around the room and deciding what to try next! As they experiment, I hear them talking: “I wonder what this will do?” “What can I try next?” “What do you think will happen this time?” “That didn’t work, I wonder if I could combine it with this?” It’s definitely “tinkering” in action! Older kids, teens, and adults enjoy engineering items to achieve different goals – lifting up heavy materials, designing a neutral buoyancy item that will float in the tube forever, or creating items that spin on their way up.

As Stroud says, this activity results in:

• Making guests [child] less reliant on “authority” to answer questions
• A higher level of engagement and deeper investigation
• Guests defining their own success and making their own meaning (user defined outcomes)
• Generating a particular category of questions such as: How can I get it to…? What if I…? Instead of: Why does it…? What makes it…?

Here are some of the experiments my family developed just in a few hours of play when we first built our tube:

The Frisbee. (really a plastic lid)  It gets caught in the air currents and will float forever. My son learned that if you put your arm over the fan to block some of the air flow, the Frisbee will sink down the tube.

Cardboard boat. This cardboard snack tray will float easily on its own. The small plastic monster will not – it’s too heavy and not aerodynamic. But, put the monster in the boat and it floats!

Parachutes. This plastic pterodactyl won’t fly even though it has wings. But, if you build it a parachute out of a plastic bag and a pipe cleaner, it soars.

Pipe cleaner spinner. My personal favorite is this twirled-up pipe cleaner that spins and spins as it floats in the air.

Tops. And speaking of spinning, watch these plastic tops. They don’t float, but they definitely respond to the wind!

Other materials to try: scarves, balloons, rubber gloves blown up and tied, dixie cups with coffee filter parachutes, whiffle balls, strawberry baskets, etc. I also really like these three projects… these pictures were from the wind tube activity at the Orlando Science museum.


Here is a printable template for the helicopter shown above.

As kids play, they learn hands-on about aerodynamics, wind currents, how lightweight things fly better than heavy things, but even heavy things can fly if they have a parachute or an “air ship” that can catch the wind currents. Having the ability to play hands-on with this will allow them to internalize the learning much more than when they cover all this stuff in high school physics class someday!

Challenges to Issue:

For older kids, you could make a poster to accompany this activity with challenges like these from MOTAT:

  • Can you build something that will leave the tunnel in a particular direction?
  • Can you build something that will hover above the wind tunnel?
  • Can you make something that spins clockwise as it rises in the tunnel?

Learn more:

If you want to read more about “transactivity” and what makes this such a cool learning activity, check out Stroud’s post: http://www.exhibitfiles.org/vertical_wind_tubes. This is a great “case study” post, which shares observations on how people play with the tubes.

Here are links to some other people’s experiments with and thoughts about Wind Tubes

An Invitation to Play

inviteChildren learn through:

  • being introduced to new ideas and activities (novelty)
  • having the chance to experiment, explore, test & re-test (repetition to achieve mastery)

In play-based learning, a parent or teacher’s role can be to set the stage with new materials, or with familiar materials combined in new ways. Then it’s the child’s role to play: experiment, explore, test and re-test.

“Invitations to play” is one way of approaching these tasks.

Read more about invitations to play

Today, I set up an invitation to play for my 3 year old.(I knew I had a busy day with lots of work to do, so wanted something ready to go that would keep him busy for a while.)

Yesterday, we did “science experiments” with a new set of tools: pipettes and water mixed with liquid watercolors. We would give him two containers of colored water, with pipettes, and a glass vase to mix the colors in.

,Today I set out two colors of water, pipettes, and a glass bowl to mix them in, instead of the vase. I had his container of water beads nearby. When he came into the room, he immediately settled into playing with the pipettes and water, which occupied him for quite a while. When his interest started to wane, I pulled over the water beads and tongs. I didn’t even need to say anything. He immediately started adding water beads. After he’d added them all and taken them all back out, he said “I’ll never do that again.” Apparently he prefers his water beads as a separate activity.

When he ran out of yellow water in his container, I said “Well, you put lots of yellow water in the bowl. Let’s just take some yellow back out of the bowl.” When the pipette pulled up green water from the bowl, I said “Hey! Where’s my yellow water!” That then led to a long play time of trying to pull up blue water or yellow water, and him learning that once things are mixed, they often can’t be unmixed.

This activity gave him chances to further explore materials he’s learned about recently, and combine them in new ways, thus deepening his knowledge of all the materials, and gaining a new insight about color mixing. And, it gave me a chance to get some work done…. Wins all around.