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Science Kids on the Loose

Science Kids on the Loose

Month: February, 2011

I spend a lot of time thinking about the weather. Maybe it has to do with growing up in the Boston area where it can be sunny and warm on the way to work and blizzard conditions on the commute home. I hate to be cold, and I am always worried that I won’t have the right gear for the outdoors. I also like to talk about the weather, compare seasons to other years, and make fun of weather forecasters. It’s in my roots!
One of the big selling points for our move to Southern California was the warm weather and sunny skies. For over 7 months now I have tried to educate myself about layering clothing, the Santa Ana winds, the 40 degree temperature difference between my town and the beach, fire weather, and UV rays. But in a strikingly New Englandish way, the weather in my area has been anything but predictable and “normal.”
The weather forecasters are calling for SNOW in our area this weekend. Really?!
I don’t know what to think! Do I pull out the boots and parkas? Should I drive the boys into the foothills to enjoy the snowfall? Didn’t I move 3,000 miles to escape winter? It might just mean that the snow followed me. There must be a scientific explanation!
In a further burst of irony, I planned to conduct science experiments with Leo this week about the weather. He received a cool Sid the Science Kid Learning Science Kit over the holidays. The kit, called Why Do I Need a Jacket? contains fun tools for exploring weather. I like it because it has experiments like the ones on the show and online, but the tools are included. There is also a science journal, which Leo was quite interested in.
Since it is raining today, we decided to set up the rain gauge to see how much rainfall we could measure. The kit provided great questions about the sky, along with the scientific names for some clouds. Leo is always so happy to put on his froggy coat and yellow rain boots. We tromped into the back yard and stuck the gauge in the dirt. It’s been there all day and we keep checking on it. Even though the rain had been falling steadily, the gauge is not filling very much.
My favorite item in the kit is the UV bead bracelets. We spent a bit of time threading the beads onto the bracelet. Easier said that done! I explained to Leo that the clear beads would change color outside with the UV rays. We talked about our previous sunscreen experiment how the sun can be harmful to our skin. Then I asked him to predict if the colors on the bracelet would change. Remember, it was raining outside. We both predicted the beads would not change colors.
The proof is in the scientific evidence!
UV rays are present in the daytime, even when it is raining! We were so surprised. Leo kept the bracelets on in the car to when we went to pick Henry up from school so beads changed to clear again. It was so great for Leo to have the immediate cause and effect relationship to observe. We had a lot to talk about in the car. I am looking forward to expanding on the activity on a sunny day. Will the beads be brighter? What will happen if we put sunscreen on the beads? We can’t wait to find out.
The great thing about a science kit aimed at preschoolers is the hands-on, exploratory nature of the tools and activities. I even learned something valuable too: sunscreen is necessary on cloudy days! I may even have to take the bracelets with me as we frolic in the southern California snow!
How do you explore the weather with your kids? What kinds of conversations to your have with your kids about the weather?

Have you ever stepped out of your bedroom and into a spider web made out of pot holder loops? Or realized that the jar of cookies you thought was out of reach, up in a cupboard is now on the counter, and empty?
I have. These things happen when you introduce little girls like my daughter India to engineering – to solving problems using science. India wants to know how structures work, or how to make up for being a very short person in a world built for big people. And I love helping her discover the answers to these questions.
India wanted to build her own spider web after hearing Charlotte the spider from the book Charlotte’s Web declare, “Not many creatures can spin webs.” (Not all the kids in our family can read, so we sometimes listen to audio books in our car.) India wanted to know: Could she build a spider web even though she wasn’t a spider and didn’t have spinnerets or “know-how”? Could she catch things in a web, too?
So we brainstormed. I asked her what materials might make a good web since she couldn’t use spider silk. She came up with several hypotheses or educated guesses. First she tried rope, but it was too thick. Then she tried sewing thread, but it was too thin. Ribbons were too slippery and wiki sticks were too stiff and sticky. Finally, India discovered a stash of potholder loops in her big sister’s closet – and found that they are stretchy and pliable and strong, perfect for tying together.
Now that she had her “spider silk,” India had to figure out how to build a web that could catch something. She realized that tying a string of potholder loops from one point to another just made … a line. So I told her my hypothesis – that adding a third point might help. It worked! Once India’s first two-point string was tied to a second string that came from another direction, she had herself a frame and could weave a bigger web, which was so exciting that she started weaving webs all over our house, and our family quickly learned to look down before we entered a room so we didn’t get “caught.”
India doesn’t like being the shortest person in our house. We can all do things – can all reach things – that she cannot. She asked me if she could please grow faster, and I told her that I was so sorry but she’d have to grow the regular way like all the bigger people around her did. But, I reassured her, that didn’t mean she couldn’t do a lot of the things the big people around her do, using simple machines like the pulleys and levers she’d seen on Sid the Science Kid. And I asked if maybe she could think about other ideas for overcoming her height challenges?
She said she would. And she did. Behold India’s Super Hands! Her hypothesis was that if she had longer arms, then she could reach the things she wanted even if her actual height did not change. She built her Super Hands out of Tinker Toys, and they extend her reach by a good foot or two. Working together, they are grabbers. She uses them to reach things previously beyond her fingertips – jars full of cookies, stuffed animals, books, DVDs. She can also turn off light switches designed for taller people. Even better — she is proud of herself each time she gets to be more independent. Thank you, engineering!
Because India sees engineering as a way to get minor superpowers, she is excited about engineering week on Sid the Science Kid. I suspect she’ll also want to celebrate engineering week with silly activities like figuring out how to make a fake bee buzzer. We’ll make an effort as a family to observe how engineering makes our life easier in lots of little ways, using Sid’s Another Way to Slide investigation. Like most things that involve exploring science with my kids, it will be fun and I’m looking forward to it.
Have your kids ever approached an engineering problem in a way that really surprised you? How are you going to celebrate Engineering Week with your kids?
Shannon Des Roches Rosa’s writings and opinions on parenting have been featured in The Wall Street Journal, SF Weekly, Autism Speaks, SF Gate, and Shot of Prevention. She has been blogging about parenting and autism since 2003 at, is’s contributing editor for parenting kids with special needs, and is a co-founder and editor at The Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism. She, her handsome husband, and their three capricious children live near San Francisco.

Engineer and Dad Mitchell Nathan joins Trina and Kim to answer various questions on how engineering can be encouraged in the lives of preschoolers. Nathan provides real-world examples and helps us understand exactly what engineering is, what it means to a preschooler, and how we can encourage girls in engineering.
Listen to the podcast
About Mitchell Nathan
Mitchell J. Nathan, BSEE, PhD, is professor of Educational Psychology, with affiliate appointments in Curriculum & Instruction and Psychology at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, and a faculty fellow at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research (WCER) and the Center on Education and Work. Dr. Nathan studies the cognitive, embodied, and social processes involved in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) reasoning, learning and teaching, especially in mathematics and engineering classrooms and in laboratory settings, using both quantitative and qualitative research methods.

Ever since I decided to write about friction for this week’s blog post, I have been thinking about the ways in which the concept applies to my life with my two boys. Yes, friction is a great science concept to teach to preschoolers and makes for some great fun explorations. Then there’s the social emotional kind of friction — the kind of head to head battles that occur and cause disagreement and resistance at home.
We watched the Slide to Side episode when the boys were recovering from yet another bout of what I call the Lethargy Fever Plague. It was encouraging to see a pale-faced Leo perk up when he watched Sid slide across the floor in his socks and then come to a stop with his sneakers on. I thought that Sid’s investigation question about “Why can’t I slide with sneakers on?” was so authentic to a preschooler’s experience. Leo obviously did too, because he got up off the couch to conduct his own investigation.
First Leo tried sliding in his socks and got the slipperiest results. He did a little slide jig and then decided to try his bare feet. The results were less satisfying. To add to his investigation, I offered to provide him with another pair of socks with rubber dots on them and his footie pajamas.
Leo really led this investigation on his own. He employed a process of elimination and ranked his sliding success. At one point he wore one smooth sock and one sock with the treads. As I watched the little scientist at work, I could almost see what he was thinking. Afterwards Leo had a concrete understanding of the concept. I sensed that he felt satisfied for having tried out what he saw on TV for himself. Now he’s sliding all over the place. We have a lot of tile.
Now, on to the other kind of friction — the kind that can turn an ordinary day into a very long day. Friction about a shirt, for example. At the risk of sounding stereotypical, let me say that dressing my boys every day is not an exercise in trendy style or fashion. However, I do like to spread my fashion wings around the holidays. I will cop to buying an occasional matching spring outfit for church services in light blues and greens and matching pajamas in December. I look forward to clever t-shirts at Halloween (My Mummy Loves Me!) and chain store Fourth of July clothing.
Valentine’s Day is one such fashion opportunity. Leo had a party at school and I was ready with a button down red Hawaiian shirt that makes anyone within a 50-yard radius sigh at his curly cuteness. On other days Leo has requested the red Hawaiian shirt. This was not one of those days. Leo pitched a rare and honest to goodness fit when I tried to put the shirt on him. And the sparks started to fly.
I have no idea why it meant so much to me that Leo wear the silly shirt. I had a chance to take the smooth route and let him choose something else but instead I applied force and resistance. The friction mounted all the way through our morning routine with tears, raised voices, and hurt feelings. I am not proud to admit that the conflict continued in the car on the way to school. It was not pretty.
In the end Mommy did the apologizing and Leo quietly stated that he just didn’t want anyone to see him in that shirt. That’s just the way it is sometimes. I can’t help but think about the laws or rules of science really can apply to life. If the surface is smooth and the object moving across is also smooth then we glide happily along. As soon as either the surface or the object is rough or resistant, the movement forward stops, along with the fun. Amazingly, it’s not always the kids who provide the resistance. Sometimes it’s me, the parent. And it’s my job to reduce the friction. Thanks Sid, for reminding me!
How do you smooth things out when the friction gets too high? Do your kids ever find solutions on their own?

I am so happy about the quiet and uncomplicated activity that Leo and I completed on Wednesday morning. I usually plan a jam packed Wednesday for us, but for some reason I was uninspired this week. Instead, I turned to the Sid the Science Kid website and chose the Leaf Investigators activity. Backyard Science is an enjoyable cycle because the activities feel simple and home-centered. Sometimes that’s just what we need.
Leo and I collected, sorted, and made art with leaves. When I first read through the activity, I paused to be grateful for the southern California climate we’ve recently adopted. While my friends and family back in Massachusetts are digging out from feet upon feet of snow, Leo and I can tour the backyard looking for green leaves.
I explained to Leo that we were going to look for leaves of varying sizes, shapes, and color. He was all in. In fact, he went inside to get his number one holiday gift: the Grabber Nabber. Leo loves picking things up with claw-picker-upper-thingy. The tool was made for an investigation like this.
We wandered around the backyard and up our street looking for leaves, examining bugs, naming flowers, and looking at the little details around us. We collected our leaves in a plastic bag. Leo held my hand as we walked along. The moment felt precious. We found flowering jasmine and Leo was so excited about the smell. He said it was sweet and like a perfume. It made us both giggle. I got silly butterflies in my stomach because I was overwhelmed by our cute and fun time together. Mommies are allowed a ration of sappiness from time to time, I think. (Daddies too!)
After strolling around outside, we came in to do some sorting. We dumped the leaves out into a cake pan and made plans. I asked him to tell me how he wanted to sort. Leo decided on size, color, and in order of “favorites.” Both of us were engrossed for a while as we examined the leaves, talked about their properties, and debated how to sort them.
Then we decided to do an art project. Making art out of leaves is something I remember from my own childhood. So, Leo sorted the leaves by size and glued them to a large piece of paper. We called the final product “Leo’s Leaves.” I am absurdly pleased that he can write his name. We hung the leaf art up to dry and Leo came back to it throughout the day. He proudly showed it to Henry after school. I love listening to Leo retell our investigations. His summaries are so exact and he often adds details that I forgot or missed, like “The leaves in the puddle were yucky and the Grabber Nabber got wet!”
I feel full of clichés about Leo and Henry these days: He’s growing up before my eyes, our time together is passing by so fast, what happened to my little baby boy? As a rule, I lean towards sentimentality when I reflect about Henry and Leo and how they’ve grown. But in the real life day to day, I often forget to savor the moments and enjoy the simple times with them. The clichés are all true. The time IS going by fast and I am happy to slow it down every once in a while.
What are your favorite Sid activities for a quiet afternoon? How do you find the time to enjoy the little details of life with your children?

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