Category Archives: Science Storytime

Science Storytime: Marble Runs

Marble RunI had all of the supplies to make marble runs as part of a school-aged Engineering Challenge, and I thought my younger Science Storytime preschool friends would also like to experiment with the supplies.  Unsurprisingly, I was correct.


To begin we talked about hills and rollercoasters, trying to elicit from the children their life experiences with how things roll. They were eager to let me know that balls roll down a hill, and that they do not roll up a hill. There was some excitement when I used a marble run to show that if enough momentum can be built up, the marble will roll uphill. I demonstrated this several times, with lots of thinking out loud and experimenting with how steep the angle of the run needed to be before the ball would go over a small hump, to make sure that the students understood Marble Run experimentsthe basic idea. Then I handed out marbles and pipe foam that had been cut in half, along with our ever-present painter’s tape, and let the children experiment on their own.

As usual, the range of exploration was wide. Some of the younger children were happily entertained for a very long time simply rolling marbles down a track. A few of the parents wanted to move on to more complicated designs. I wish that I had made it more clear that, especially for young preschoolers, just interacting with the materials is a learning experience all in itself. Rolling the ball down the track repeatedly is building up a schema of how the world works that will be helpful to that child later, even if it’s not the sort of “experimenting” that we’d pictured beforehand.

Experimenting with marble runsSome of the children added the toys that were already in our playroom to their marble runs. Of particular interest were the buckets we keep smaller toys in. Several children wanted to set their marble runs up so that the marbles would land in the bucket. (I wish I’d thought of that ahead of time, because once this idea caught on it definitely made containing the marbles rolling all over the floor much easier.) Other children used the buckets as ramps in their building process. Another child spent a lot of time with a school bus, first figuring out how to get the marble to roll through the bus (harder than it sounds when you’re quite small and the materials barely fit) and then using it as a base for a loop-the-loop that was her own self-initiated challenge.


Science Storytime: Paper Tools

paper craftWhile we call it Science Storytime to help easily market it to the target audience, the program is really a STEM Storytime. Today’s theme was focused on the T: Technology. We wanted the children to explore the tools and technology of paper crafting. The nature of the activity meant that this became a STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) program. The great part is that I really did hear every part of the acronym being mentioned! We talked about how paper is made (appled Science), we used tools (Technology), some of the children made 3-D art (Engineering), the craft aspect was obviously Art, and Math was covered when I heard some parents say things like “oh, you made a pattern” or “which piece of paper is bigger?”.

We were supposed to start the program by reading Trees to Paper, part of the Rookie Read About Science series. I love paper craftthose books because while I think they were intended to be for beginning readers, the simple sentences and basic explanations generally make them perfect for sharing with preschoolers. Unfortunately, and embarassingly, I had brought the book home to share with my own preschooler, and forgot to bring it back to the library. So instead we just jumped right in. I talked very briefly about how paper is made, but since I could see my young audience was restless and very distracted by the array of fun materials on the table, I kept it to only a few sentences. Next, I demonstrated how to use my paper tools, such as a stapler, hole punch, tape, or scissors. Most of the children had not seen a scrapbooking hole punch before, and there were some gasps of amazement when I punched out a large star, which I hadn’t been expecting.

Finally, I brought the children over to the table, and told them they could explore the materials however they wanted. “I can do whatever I want with this paper,” one boy kept repeating, so clearly I struck a nerve there. I emphasized to the parents that since the children were exploring the tools, there was no wrong way to use them. If they wanted to do nothing but punch holes, or staple and then remove the staples immediately, that was fine.

cutting with scissorsFor most the children, they were thrilled with the opportunity to use tools that may have been off-limits or never introduced. The staplers were very popular, as were the tape dispensers. I suspect that these are items many children have been told not to play with before. But I had plenty of tape and staples, so it was not “going to waste.” The hole punches were, unsurprisingly, also very popular, especially after they realized how useful the punched out shapes could be.

The range of scissors cutting was wide, from proficient to emergent to essentially nonexistant (I heard one parent ask, “Have you ever used scissors before?” in all sincerity). Everyone tried cutting to the best of their ability, and seemed to be happy with their results.

Science Storytime: Static Electricity

Static Electricity GhostThe effects of static electricity are visually stunning and a very common life experience so I knew that I wanted to use it as a theme for Science Storytime. I wasn’t able to find a book for preschoolers that went along with the theme, so we started with a simple discussion of static electricity. Many children identified with getting shocked after sliding at the playground, or having their hair stick up when taking off a hat. I talked a little about how things can get charged in a very simple way, using my hands to represent a charge (closed fist) and a noncharge (open palm) and how they fit together. Then I demonstrated with a balloon and some tissue paper. In addition to watching the tissue paper stick to the upside down balloon, I had also made a ghost out of tissue paper, and used the static charge to make the ghost dance around and haunt the room without even touching the balloon.

static electricity and hairNext, I talked about when two charges try to touch each other, punching my fists together to show that they didn’t fit. I had a charged piece of plastic, and when I tried to put it near my charged balloon instead of sticking together, the balloon’s charge made the plastic move in the opposite direction. Apparently you can even get rings of plastic to levitate! I couldn’t perfect my technique in time, so I had to settle for simply watching the plastic be repulsed by the balloon, which was still pretty impressive. The kids seemed to appreciate my silly “get away from me!” voiceovers.

decorating a balloonAfter I had demonstrated static electricity to the group, I let them all sit at the table with their own balloons, pieces of cloth, and various things that could stick. I think I should have been more explicit, or perhaps simply repeated it more often, about the fact that I was using the cloth to charge up my balloon, because several of the children seemed to have missed that fact and were confused about how to charge their balloons.  The WonderWorks program had mentioned cutting feathers so that the bits would jump onto the balloon, and the parents were quite impressed, but none of the children seemed to be inspired by that particular idea. There was lots of balloons sticking to hair, and to the feathers, yarn, and tissue paper I had put out. I had set out tissue paper butterflies stapled to cardboard so that the children could use their charged balloons to make the butterflies’ wings flap. I also put out markers so that they decorate their butterfly, since I generally have one or two kids who want a physical product to take home with them. In the nature of programs taking an unexpected turn, the children were all interested in decorating their balloons with the markers, which probably shouldn’t have surprised me, including some who made faces and then used static electricity to stick yarn on as hair.

Science Storytime: Clouds

Clouds experimentInspired by the ALSC program about weather, this week’s Science Storytime theme was clouds. We read parts of Tomie DePaola’s book Clouds and talked about clouds in general, such as colors of clouds, when we see clouds, and other cloud experiences the children had had.

After discussing that all clouds are made of water vapor, but you need lots of heavy water droplets before it starts to rain, we used a model rain cloud for our activity. We put shaving cream on top of a cup of water to represent our cloud. Next we used pipettes to pour liquid water colors into the shaving cream. At first the shaving cream cloud simply held up the colored water. But eventually there was enough water that it had become heavy enough to “rain” into the bottom of the cup. The pictures I had seen online showed very distinct raindrops, but for us it was generally more of a seeping. The water under the shaving cream turned colors, so the “rain” was getting through, but only one cup seemed to have distinct raindrops. The children were so engaged with the rest of the activity that they did not seem to mind.

I made sure to verbalize that the activity had multiple levels of learning. Not only had we talked about clouds, but there was also a technology aspect to the program. Most of the children had not seen or used pipettes before, so figuring out how and when to squeeze was in itself entertaining. Since I set out multiple colors of water, color mixing and what happens when you combine various colors together inevitably became a part of the conversation as well. It was a very popular activity, and all of the children involved would have continued to interact with the materials for as long as I was willing.

I had wanted to make a cloud in a jar as I found online but I couldn’t get it to work with aerosol spray, so I had to nix that. It may have worked better with matches, but I wasn’t quite comfortable using matches in the library.

Science Storytime: Leaf Sorting

This was not one of my more successful Science Storytimes. The intention was to sort leaves by various attributes, as modeled so wonderfully here. However, it was a gorgeous fall day, and I only had two children come to the program, both very young (two and three, perhaps?). We read Counting on Fall and then talked about leaves a little. I passed out a bunch of leaves I had collected and the children happily began sorting them into piles based on color. However, since I’d expected more children, I had a LOT of leaves. In retrospect I should have only given each of the two children a handful, but instead I just split the pile in half. That meant that it took a fair amount of time to get through all of the leaves, and by the time they were done sorting by color, they had both more or less lost interest in the project and were asking to go play. I want the programs to be engaging, so once I realized I’d lost momentum, I just ended the program. I think the activity is still a good one, and next year I will try again. An older audience may have been more responsive, and less leaves per child would definitely have been more effective.

Science Storytime: Surface Tension

Surface tension with Lego blocksFor our Science Storytime about surface tension I couldn’t figure out a good book to use for the subject, so we just skipped the reading section. We talked a little bit about surface tension, trying to tie it back to what we’d talked about when we discussed why bubbles are always round.  The science explanation was kept very short. I thought that this was one of those times where my very young audience was probably better served using this activity as a “what happens” experience rather than a “why is it happening” experience. Teaching science to young children can often get sidetracked by understanding the why of things, when preschoolers are still building up their understanding of  what is happening and how the world works in general.

For our first demonstration, I put Lego blocks in a tin of water and we looked at them floating around for a few moments. Then I added soap into the middle (thus breaking the surface tension of the water) and the blocks sprang to the edges of the bucket. The picture doesn’t really convey the process very well. I got the idea to use Lego blocks from this website.

Next we did an activity that my own preschooler never gets tired of. I poured milk into Surface tension demonstrationindividual tins for each child. We put drops of food coloring into the milk, then cotton swabs to dab soap onto food coloring. This caused the surface tension to break and the colors to swirl dramatically. The children were particularly taken with this activity and repeated it over and over, in some cases often enough that we needed to replace their milk so they could start over. Because the colors mix together, it also became a bonus lesson on color mixing. I have not tried doing this with liquid watercolors yet, but I need to attempt that, as I find liquid watercolors are so much easier to clean up and don’t stain your fingers.

Science Storytime: Bubbles

Bubble experimentFor the first Science Storytime of this school year, we focused on the wonder of bubbles. Before the program I read over the notes from the ALSC blog on a similar bubble program.  I had intended to use the same book that she used in her program, the Let’s-Read-And-Find-Out book Pop! (I love that series, especially the Level 1 books!) but foolishly forgot to put it on hold, so it wasn’t available the day of the program. Instead, we read a picture book that featured bubbles in it.

We talked for a bit about bubbles. The group was very young, mostly older twos and younger threes, and this was the first meeting, so they were a little shy during this aspect of the program, though they all seemed excited by the thought of bubbles.

To demonstrate why bubbles are always round, no matter what the shape of your bubble blower, I had everyone stand up and hold hands. I said we were the bubble molecules, and that we wanted to cling together while also making the biggest shape we could. We then tried to get as big as possible. Inevitably, we ended up in a circle. We did that a couple of times so that the kids could see that it would always be a circle. I then talked about bubbles and how they are always a sphere/ball for the same reason. I had intended to talk about surface tension and volume as well, but my very young audience wasn’t in the mood, so I jettisoned that in favor of moving outside for the bubble blowing.

I bent pipe cleaners into several different shapes so that we could use them as bubble blowers and observe first hand that the shape of the blower did not influence the shape of the bubble. They all created round bubbles. One child did make the observation that what did influence the bubbles was the size of the opening. Larger openings, whether triangles or circles, created larger bubbles.

BubblesTo add a fun experimental aspect, I had set up four different bubble solutions. One was plain dish soap/water, one had glycerin added to it, one had corn syrup added to it, and the fourth was commercial bubble solution. The dish soap I was using was blue, so I added water colors to the commercial solution to make it a matching blue as well. I did not want to the children to attribute any differences in the solution’s effectiveness to color rather than an actual difference in materials. I handed out papers that they could use to record their observations, but let them know that it was an optional part of the activity. I was worried that very young children might be turned off by having to right down every bubble interaction. In the end, no one used my chart to record the bubbles. I don’t think it would have mattered much even if they had, because the bubble solutions all seemed to work more or less the same. The regular bubble solution was the easiest to use in one blow, and the glycerin bubbles seemed to last a hair bit longer, but otherwise I did not see a difference. Perhaps I should have purposefully made one a dud, as a comparison? In any case, the children and their parents seemed to have a great deal of fun blowing, chasing, and popping bubbles.

Science Storytime: Pollination

Fingerpuppet bee and flowerThe May flowers are blooming and I thought it would make a nice tie into pollination. There are many different picture book options to read about bees, butterflies, and other pollinators. I chose to talk only about bees during today’s session to keep a tighter focus on the conversation. Before reading the book we talked about what the children already knew about bees. They were very eager to share about stingers and personal experiences with bees. Pollination came up and we talked a bit about what they already knew about pollen and bees and how the two are connected. I was surprised by how much they already knew and in a fair amount of detail, though I suppose that these are all children whose parents are bringing them to a science-themed storytime, so it probably shouldn’t surprise me that such basics of biology have come up in their conversations in the past.

reaching into a bag of "pollen"After we read the book, which featured a large 3-D bee, we narrowed in on pollination. I saw on pinterest a great way to show the mechanics of how bees pollinate flowers unintentionally using cheese puffs. I found pictures of flowers and had my teen group cut them out and tape them to paper sacks that we had cut in half to make them shorter. To make it a little more exciting I also had my teen group make little finger-puppet bees.  I put cheese puffs in the bags and explained to the children that the cheese puffs represented pollen. I then dropped small flat glass beads taken from our mancala board into each bag to represent nectar. I handed out the fingerpuppet bees and told the children to fish around in each bag to collect nectar. Once they had all had a turn with at least two of the “flowers”, we stopped and looked at our hands. The original lesson had suggested rubbing the fingers on the white flowers on front of the bags, but I found that didn’t work as well as I’d hoped. However, the cheese dust was clearly evident on everyone’s fingers, so the lesson was still driven home. Even better, the pipe cleaner antennae that my teen group had placed on the fingerpuppet bees as antennae were completely covered in cheese dust, which perfectly connected to our previous discussion about bees having furry legs and the ways in which pollen attaches to those legs.

Science Storytime: Baking soda and Vinegar

Baking soda and vinegarBaking soda and vinegar: possibly the most popular childhood chemistry experience. The ingredients are cheap and the results are spectacular, making this a perennially used activity for children.

To start the program we talked about baking soda and vinegar as separate substances. All of the children had used baking soda to make cookies or cakes, and several had already done the “volcano” activity at home or school. We talked a little about how baking soda helps to make cupcakes rise up while they are baking. I told the children that when baking soda and vinegar are mixed together, they make a gas called carbon dioxide, and the gas being released forms bubbles in the liquid. I then demonstrated. Then I wondered aloud about what we use when we blow bubbles. Soap was one of the answers, so I suggested that maybe if we added soap, the carbon dioxide would blow bigger bubbles using the soap, just like we blow bubbles on a bubble wand. I’m not sure if everyone understood what I was talking about, but they were definitely eager to try it out. Adding the dishsoap significantly increased the volume of bubbles, so it was deemed a success.

Baking soda and vinegar inflate a balloonThe main concept I wanted the children to take away was that mixing the ingredients created a gas, which could blow things up. Our next demonstration of this was to put a balloon on top of a water bottle containing vinegar. We put baking soda inside the balloon and shook it into the vinegar. The carbon dioxide caused the balloon to begin inflating.

Next, we made exploding baggies. We put the vinegar in the baggie, then wrapped baking soda in toilet paper. We then tossed the toilet paper/baking soda bundle into the baggie and hurriedly closed it up tight. The resulting gas blew up the bag enough to make them explode with a loud pop. The toilet paper package is to keep the baking soda from reacting immediately with the vinegar, allowing you time to close the bag up securely before the gas begins to be produced. Children quickly realized that shaking the bag slightly helped to accelerate the mixing of the two substances.

Baking soda and vinegar about to explode from a baggie

Since several of the children had already experienced a baking soda “volcano”, they were eager to see that recreated. It wasn’t hard to use one of the water bottles, add a little dish soap, and create that classic “volcano” effect. I hesitate to refer to them as volcanoes, because the chemical reaction, flow rates, temperature, etc, are all so different from the real reactions of a true volcano.

After I had demonstrated all of the possibilities, I let the children and their parents interact with the materials on their own, recreating the things I had done or experimenting on their own. This was a very popular Science Storytime, with lots of engagement and interaction.

Science Storytime: Seeds

Seeds in an egg cartonAs the weather finally starts to look a bit more like spring, we focused on seeds for this week’s Science Storytime. We read the book Seeds! Seeds! Seeds! by Nancy Wallace. It’s a very dense book that is not a perfect fit as a group read aloud, so I abridged it slightly as I went along. What I do like about it is that it talks in detail about features of a seed such as the seed coat, and has some illustrations of the steps of the germination process that I thought would be absorbed by my young audience.

After we read the book we talked for a bit about seeds. Most of the children knew that plants had roots and  that seeds need both water and sunlight to grow. I gave the children pea seeds and sunflower seeds to examine with magnifying glasses. I had some leaves for them to look at as well, to help round out the discussion, but in retrospect I should not have brought those out, since I wanted to keep the discussion more focused on seeds and seedlings rather than a broader exploration of plants as a whole.

seeds planted in an egg cartonOnce the discussion was over, we planted some seeds of our own. Along with the peas and sunflowers, I also had zinnia seeds. I let the children choose which seeds they wanted (most wanted one of each) and they each got three seeds to plant. I had cut up some egg cartons to plant the seeds in. Egg cartons make decent seedling starters. They are biodegradable, so you can plant them right in the ground like a seed pot. I encouraged the children to make little signs to indicate where they had planted their seeds. I had purposefully not attached the signs to the popsicle sticks that were meant to hold them up because I thought it would make it difficult to draw on an uneven surface, but attaching the signs to the sticks took a surprising amount of parental guidance, so I think if I was doing this again I would attach the signs to the sticks ahead of time, especially if I was going to do it with a large group, or one were there was not a lot of parental involvement. They were all eager to make their own labels, whether that meant drawing a picture for a parent to label or writing the words themselves. The children had a wide range of ages, and it was interesting to see the range from pre-writing to confident labeling.