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Science Kids on the Loose

Science Kids on the Loose

Latest Posts

Insatiable Curiosity

One undeniable thing I have learned while teaching science to my children is that no matter how many answers we find; we always have more questions. In the questions I can watch Henry and Leo use their intelligence with what ifs and what happens when? At first, when we tried investigations, I was wary of the questions because I wanted to complete the activity at hand, check off the accomplishments, and review what we learned. But that has changed. These days I look forward to the questions because I admire their critical thinking skills. I am proud of their curiosity.
I never thought about encouraging my children to become scientists until we started watching Sid the Science Kid and trying all kinds of science investigations. Now I want them become engineers or biologists or paleontologists just so they can have a career of exploration and curiosity.
Recently, the boys have been all about space exploration. The Star Wars craze here has been building for many months and seems to have hit an apex with the viewing of Return of the Jedi. Henry is taken with the opening phrase: “A long time ago, in a galaxy far far way…” To him, these words are truth and he is trying to figure out how to travel to this galaxy far, far away. I don’t discourage him at all, because I think there is a fine line between truth and science fiction sometimes. Henry is convinced if he can find a way to get to a place “far” away then the next logical step is “far far away.” Follow me? Leo is concerned about aliens and if they are coming to Earth for a visit.
Star Wars is fun but nothing beats the true-life drama and intrigue that took place this week at the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) in Pasadena, CA. We were lucky enough to hear a story in the car last week on NPR about JPL and the upcoming landing of the Mars Rover Curiosity. All weekend long we tuned into the NASA channel for updates and checked out all the amazing resources online for kids at We checked out books from the library and looked at images of the solar system online. Both boys asked many, many questions. Henry wanted to know if there was life on Mars right now and why did water matter? Leo wanted to know if we could cool off the sun with enough water. I wanted to know how to explain the vastness of the universe to two young boys – a difficult but thrilling task.
On Sunday night I made a decision to let the boys stay up until 10:30pm to experience the landing of the Mars rover Curiosity. For those of you who may not be familiar with the mission, the drama of landing the car-sized rover centered around the “7 Minutes of Terror” when Curiosity would enter the atmosphere of Mars and attempt a complicated landing…all out of radio control from JPL. The coverage on the NASA channel was great for the kids. There were interesting graphics, views of the control room, and 1 minute animated shorts to help kids understand the engineering and science involved in landing Curiosity.
One of my favorite questions of the evening came from Henry: “How are they planning to get Curiosity back to Earth?”
As I explained that Curiosity was going to stay on Mars and conduct experiments, I watched shock register on Henry’s face. Curiosity was more than a machine to Henry; he was upset at the thought of leaving the rover behind on Mars. I reassured him by explaining that JPL would be communicating with Curiosity and that they would conduct many science experiments together. Maybe Curiosity could tell us if there had every been life on Mars.
Henry, Leo, and I were invested, to say the least. Sadly, Gerry was absent, on a business trip to China. I was missing him a lot, the original NASA fan in the family. Gerry has been enthralled with NASA since he was a young boy collecting patches and had the thrill of watching the moon landing live on TV. I wanted to give Henry and Leo a taste of that.
Sadly, it was not be for the boys. They fell asleep a full 45 minutes before the “7 Minutes of Terror.” I, however, was riveted. I watched as the engineers and scientists literally quaked in their boots waiting to see if Curiosity had landed safely. And I admit to shedding a tear or two when the first images came through and the control room erupted in cheers. It was quite a moment, quite an achievement.
The images from Mars are quite stunning. Here is my favorite.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
When the boys woke up in the morning we watched the landing again. Henry and Leo jumped up and down and whooped with joy. I hope the memory stays with them. Science can take us anywhere! Just imagine if someday one of my boys could work for NASA at JPL.

Animal Homes

What is a home? It’s where we live and eat and share our lives with our families. It is certainly more than a house, more than the roof over our heads. As a parent I am conscious of all the things we do to make our house a home; from the family pictures on the walls, the meals we cook, the songs we sing, and the memories we make. My mom always told me that home is where your family is. Over the past few years I have put that definition to good use as we made our new house in California a home.

The actual walls and roof and the windows of a house mean something too. Think about the house you grew up in or your first apartment on your own. You probably don’t live there anymore, but driving by or looking at an old photo can stir up those memories of home. My heart still yearns for our house back east where I brought my babies home for the first time. Home can stay with you for a long time.

But those definitions are different in the animal/science world. When we talk to preschoolers about “animal homes” we are trying to teach them about the different shelters, caves, burrows, nests, etc that animals build or move into. When the boys and I started on our Animal Homes investigation I hadn’t really thought through the semantics of the science we were learning.

As usual, I set up the investigation by asking the boys “Where do different animals live?” Mistake number one. Henry and Leo immediately replied by saying things like in the ocean, in the dessert, and in the jungle. My kids obviously know their habitats. Then I revised my question and asked, “What kind of home does a bird live in?” This time they got caught up on the word “house.” To Henry, a nest doesn’t qualify as a house but it is where a bird lives. So I asked one more time: “What is a bird’s home?” A nest, of course! Then we started looking around the neighborhood for animal homes.

On our front porch we have a spring treasure that a friend gave us. The boys ran to it grab it for our first find on the Animal Homes Scavenger Hunt.


Henry and Leo had a hard time coming up with ideas for animal homes until I started naming animals. When I asked about squirrels, Leo said “in a tree.” I had to explain that squirrels made nests like birds for homes. The tree is not the home, the nest is. Then we moved on to spiders. That was an easy one!


When I asked them for another animal home, Leo ran across to my neighbor’s garage and found a home for a dog.


Technically, a dog crate isn’t a home for a dog. See how things get complicated? Dogs live in houses with us…at least in this culture. But I thought Leo was clever, so I let it count. Then we started talking about ants. We often follow ant trails around the yard, the boys like to see where the ants are going and what “highways” the ants are using. Leo is convinced that ants live in holes under the ground and I think he’s right — at least around here. He found a hole he insists is an ant home.


We made our way into a friend’s house across the street. I am taking care of their critters while they are on vacation. Henry was very excited to add the pet rat, Spice, to our animal home list. Spice lives in a cage.


I was hesitant to include pets on our lists, but I guess the cage is the rat’s home in this case. I explained how rats like to build nests and gather all kinds of materials to make a home, either in a cage or out in the world.

It was funny how a simple activity got us all thinking about the meanings of the words “house” and “home.” Animals aren’t so different from people in a lot of ways!

Have you tried this activity with your kids? What did you find?

Sid Summertime Playdates

I hope all of you are enjoying the dog days of summer as much as Henry, Leo, and I. We’ve been busy with swimming lessons, beach days, zoo days, park days, pool days, free movies, camping, and lazing around. One of my neighbors made a passing comment about being “half way through summer” and my heart dropped. Talk about a buzz kill! We have five more weeks and that means summer is far from over for my family. I haven’t even begun to tackle my summer bucket list! It’s time to get serious.

As much as I love the spontaneity of our summer days, I also love the structure of a well-planned playdate. My boys have been missing their buddies. As we head into August I want to meet up with friends. I am also looking forward to catchimg up with some of my parent friends too! To give our playdates some extra fun, I am turning to some of my favorite Sid activities and giving them a summer twist. No reason to stop injecting science into our everyday experiences, right?

Scavenger Hunts
I have learned over the past couple of years that the folks at Sid the Science Kid love a good scavenger hunt activity. One great activity is called Texture Hunt where the kids are asked to find objects with specific describing words like bumpy, scratchy, and soft. I think it would be fun to add summertime words like sandy (sandbox), hairy (grass), cold (ice), wet (water), rubbery (balloon). Fun with language building!

I also thought it would be great to expand on our Exploring Measurement activity from a couple of weeks ago and adapt it as a scavenger hunt. The kids would have to find specific measurements such as “Find something that is 36 inches high” or “which chair is 24 inches” or “who has the longest shoes”? I suspect the kids will be busy for a long time.

Craft Time
One of the boys’ all-time favorite Sid activities is the Shadow Investigation. The loved making puppets and learning about shadows. The puppets had lasting appeal for both of them. This activity will definitely make an appearance with a summertime makeover. The kids can make summer puppets with ocean animals or summer sports like swimming.

Another fun talk-home craft for a playdate is the Big Bird Nest activity. You can use up lots of crafting materials or spend some time outside gathering natural materials to create bird nests. With both of these activities I envision my dining room table strewn with creative materials, scissors, glue, messy hands, and lots of giggling.

Outdoors Time
I never underestimate the power of the Backyard Camp Out. Last summer we camped in the yard as a family. This summer I see potential as a dinner and evening playdate. We don’t do that very often, but the fun of this activity might mean we make an exception. How fun would it be set up the tent and host a mini party with your best buddies? We can talk about nature and the stars while cooking dogs and smores over the backyard fire pit. I am going to start planning this right away!

If you have a kiddie pool set up in the backyard there is a great Sid activity for you to try called Wind Power. You kids and their friends can make boats to race in the kiddie pool. Technically, this is also a crafting activity, so lots of modalities are satisfied. And who doesn’t like getting wet on a hot summer afternoon?

For a quick transition activity on a challenging playdate, I might try Sound Garden and literally take it into a garden. There are so many sounds in nature and in the neighborhood. The quiet listening activity might be the perfect solution for a sharing conflict or moment with hurt feelings…both typical of longer playdates.

Fail Safe Sid Activities
The following activities may need some advance planning or materials before the playdate but they are GUARENTEED to inspire fun, teamwork, laughter and learning. Trust me.

Cave of Darkness
Bones Investigation
Engineer a Solution
Frozen Fruit
What’s That Smell?

All of these activities are explained in detail online. There are many more to choose from. I loved reading through all of them again with the playdate filter. Who knows, I may turn to some of these on a hot afternoon when the boys are ready to declare war. Science is a peacemaker!

I want to hear about your summer! Do you have any advice for playdate harmony?

Leo’s Science Kit

My neighbors like to leave gifts for the kids on the doorstep. About half of the neighbors on the street have lived here for thirty years or more, raising their own families on the same block where my little guys play today. When we first moved here I had many conversations about how the cul-de-sac used to be filled with kids and then for a while it was filled with tweens and teens. Now those kids are off finding their places in the world. And now my children (along with one or two other families) are filling up the neighborhood with little ones.
Inevitably, when my older neighbors begin to clean out closet and garages, childhood treasures start to emerge. And sometimes really amazing things land on our front step. One time we arrived home to find an entire Darth Vader outfit along with a box full of gently used cleats. (Can you guess which item I was thrilled about?) Another time I came upon an old cribbage game, a deck of cards, and a book called “Card Games for Kids.” We’ve received board games, magic tricks, boogie boards, and sleeping bags. For the most part, I know where these gifts come from (thanks Bob!) but there’s a charm in coming home and wondering who left the treasure for us to enjoy.
But one gift has taken center stage for Leo and stands out as a stellar acquisition. We came up to the steps on afternoon last month and found this:
Sold in the mid-80s, this science kit is AWESOME! Leo was immediately intrigued by the microscope, slides, tweezers, and magnified containers. He was thrilled to discover one of the containers still had a fascinating experiment inside: two dead bees. Leo studied at those bees for a long time and we speculated on how long they had been waiting for us to find them. For a few days Leo carried the little case around with him everywhere, ready for science experiments at any time. Miss Suzy would be proud to see Leo opening up the kit to examine flower petals, cat hair, and toenails. I just went along for the ride.
This week Leo hit the science jackpot. I was getting ready to vacuum, scanning the carpet for Legos, tiny Star Wars blasters, and lost marker caps when I came upon this:
I think it was a June bug and I knew it was dead, so I didn’t run into the street screaming. (There was an incident in Venezuela in 1997 with a large tarantula in my apartment that didn’t go as smoothly, but that’s a story for another time.) I called the boys to come look and Leo came running.
“Wait, Mom!” he exclaimed. “Don’t touch it. I am going to get my science kit.”
Leo rushed back with his kit, took out the tweezers and the second container and transferred the bug. He was so thrilled to have his own bug to add to the collection.
“Look, it’s dead just like the bees Mom! It can’t sting us at all,” he said very seriously.
I asked Leo if I could take a picture and he proudly posed with his treasure.
These gifts from our neighbors are the noblest form of recycling, I think. So many of these amazing toys are still in great shape and still provide fun learning experiences for my kids. I know that even if we had found the bug and didn’t have a kit, Leo and I would have had a great science conversation. But the tools provided in the kit allowed Leo to take ownership of the science and expand on it as he pleases. And maybe someday, when he goes off to college to become a bug scientist, I will leave the kit on a neighbor’s steps for her kids to enjoy. Or, I might just keep it because it remind me of the days when my boys were little.

Wilderness Boys

This weekend the Helfrich Family went CAMPING. Yes, I took the plunge in honor of Sid and his campout. Some of you might remember that I am a reticent camper; I much prefer a nice hotel. Or at least I thought I did, until this weekend. We chose a spot under an hour from home and decided to rent a teepee instead of investing in a tent. I know, I know, it isn’t “real” camping without a tent, but give me a little leeway. Although the teepee had beds and a comfortable living space, it didn’t have running water, electricity, or a bathroom. (All things I can count on in a hotel, by the way.) Here is a picture of our site.
The campground was set in a pretty spot with views of the mountains on one side and a swimming creek on the other. There were tons of activities for the kids and it felt great to be outdoors for days on end. And the smores…ah, how we all love smores!
I had no idea how wonderful this experience would be for Henry and Leo. Everyone told me they would love it, but I was amazed to see it for myself. Henry and Leo were in their element. They turned into wilderness boys! The safety and size of the campground allowed them an unprecedented amount of freedom. They ran wild for three days (under parental supervision, of course.) They became wilderness boys. And in the wilderness, science finds you.
Within minutes of our setting up camp a flock strange and exotic birds wandered in. Peacocks! A mommy peacock was walking around with three baby peacocks. What do you call a baby peacock anyway? Chicks? We were all stunned and mesmerized. We warned the boys to give the birds a lot of space and the family moved on. Henry immediately went looking for a science tool in order to study the bird family.
Henry was so engaged with watching the birds and speculating about how they got there and where they nested. We observed them all weekend. They make a honking sound and nest in the trees. Gerry even saw one fly out of a tree and said it looked prehistoric with an 8ft wingspan! We also saw lots of signs and warnings about Bigfoot sightings. I am not sure that counts as science, but it made for great campfire stories.
Leo and Henry spent a lot of the weekend conquering the rock climbing wall. For a small fee they got a wristband that allowed them to climb the wall and bounce on the huge jump pad for hours on end. The wristband also allowed me to read a book in the shade! Both boys were determined to reach the top. It took a lot of work and a lot of strength. They didn’t give up! By Saturday night they had both made it up.
The best part of the campground was the creek. It was deep enough for swimming but shallow enough for walking. The boys had a blast! There were rocks to climb over and pools to swim in. We found little fish, tadpoles, and frogs. Leo and I examined moss and other plants that grew in the water. It was lovely. Aren’t these the kind of days that all little kids should have? We should all spend days catching frogs and chasing dragonflies. It is almost too good to be true.
In the evenings Dad taught the boys how to make a proper campfire. Once the fire was steady enough to leave with me (the novice) Gerry led the boys on a flashlight hike through the nature trail to see stars and the almost moon. When they got back we all ate smores. I sang show tunes and Leo fell asleep in my lap. It was heaven and I never once wished I was in a hotel.
Tell me about your favorite camping adventures! Did you find any science along the way?

Tape Measure Adventures

This week’s Sid cycle, Tools and Measurement, is one of my old favorites. If you haven’t tried the fun hands-on activities in this cycle you can find them here. As I looked online at the activities, I was struck by the flood of great Sid memories. I remember writing about Henry and his potty chart, Leo’s fascination with Rolie Polies, the shock I had watching the boys tackle estimation, and finally, conducting our first Sid investigation when I measured our living room in “Henrys”. I love revisiting these fun times and I am proud that so many of our memories over the past couple of years are tied to learning science with Sid.
Now I want to take these things we learned a little but farther. Henry and Leo are getting older and they are ready for me to take these foundations from Sid and start building. I want to expand on some of the familiar investigations, using the old as a foundation for the new. This week I tried it out with measurement.
Every year, right around the boys’ birthdays, I have them stand up against our big wooden bookcase and mark how tall they are. The kids are always excited to see how much they have grown.
Usually, we just make the mark, compare it to the last, and go on to another thing. But this year, we pulled out the measuring tape. I have the small-kid sized tool for the boys to use, but a large one would have been fine. After measuring Leo, I asked him to see how many inches he measured with the tape. Henry held it steady at the bottom while Leo pulled the tape out.
“What does a 4 and 3 make, mommy?” Leo asked
“Forty three inches,” I replied. Then, of course, I asked Leo to record his information.
Leo is just learning how to write his numbers and I love how he worked so hard on the number 3. It isn’t easy to write the number 3! I made the double tic marks to show him how to record inches. Then we were talking about inches and feet. It isn’t as simple to explain as I thought it would be! Thank goodness, I could remind them about nonstandard units of measurement and they made the connection.
After Henry measured and recorded his own height, I invited the boys to measure other things around the house and record the information in inches. I wasn’t too concerned with accuracy; I only wanted them to practice with the tool and record numbers.
I am very pleased to report that this activity kept the boys busy for a very long time. They ran around the house measuring the couch, the kitchen chairs, the floor tiles, and the television. They even measured a Lego!
Who knew that such an educational exercise could keep two young boys engaged for so long! I have to say that these are my favorite kinds of investigations. After a while, the boys were all measured out. I am already thinking of ways to take this activity further by comparing measurements and solving simple addition and subtraction problems.
Clearly, the foundations the Sid Investigations provided are helping my kids grow and expand in new directions. I have been worried about the day when Henry and Leo grow out of Sid the Science Kid. Now I realize that isn’t really ever going to happen. We won’t leave Sid behind; we’ll just take him with us.
Have you ever taken a Sid investigation in another direction? How have the foundations Sid teaches helped your children?

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