Penny Pinching Parenting: Fun and Cheap Science Projects for Your Child

In my previous article on parenting on a budget, I discussed some fun and inexpensive projects that you could do with your child to encourage an interest in art. And while most parents are willing to break out the finger paints or crayons for their little one, they sometimes run short of ideas when it comes to the field of science. However, science is all around us. A walk through the park with your preschooler provides an excellent backdrop for discussion of animals and insects. Simply making ice cubes with your child teaches concepts like liquids and solids. Cleaned and boiled chicken or beef bones buried in a dishpan of play sand become an archaeological dig for your preschooler. (Give him a few tools like a small plastic garden spade with which to dig and a dry paintbrush to “clean” the bones for a great rainy-day science activity). A package of seeds and a small cup of dirt can be a lesson in plant life. Science doesn’t have to be difficult or expensive. With that in mind, here are few fun science projects you can do with your child for little or no cost.

Baking Soda and Vinegar

There are several fun science experiments that can be done with these two common kitchen items. One is using the reaction of the baking soda and vinegar to blow up a balloon. To do this, take an empty plastic water or soda bottle and add a few ounces of white vinegar. Then stretch open the mouth of a balloon and add three teaspoons of baking soda. (You can hold open the balloon and have your child spoon in the baking soda since this part of the experiment requires an extra hand) Now stretch the end of the balloon over the mouth of the bottle and make sure it’s attached firmly (but don’t dump in the baking soda yet). When you’re ready, pick up the end of the balloon and allow the baking soda to fall into the bottle with the vinegar. The carbon dioxide that is is produced will blow up the balloon. For young children it will be enough to understand that carbon dioxide is a gas that we can’t see, but can still be used for various purposes. You can also ask your child some follow-up questions about other things we can’t see–such as the wind–and how we use them every day (wind turbines for power, flying kites and so forth). If you have an older child, you can go into more detail about the chemical reactions of an acid (vinegar) and a base (baking soda) and exactly how the chemicals rearrange themselves in this experiment to produce the CO2.

Another fun experiment with baking soda and vinegar is building a volcano. You’ll need a paper plate, small paper cup (3-ounce bathroom cups are perfect) and some aluminum foil as well as the baking soda and vinegar. Place the cup in the center of the plate and wrap the entire cup and plate with foil. Make a hole in the foil over the opening of the cup. The finished result will be your volcano base. Set this on a large cookie sheet or in a dishpan to save yourself some clean up. Then have your child spoon several scoops of baking soda into the cup. Finally, give him an eye dropper (or just a teaspoon) and a small container of vinegar. (I like to add some red food dye to the vinegar first to make it appear more like lava). As he drops the vinegar into the baking soda in the cup, his volcano will “erupt”. An older child can make his own volcano from clay, plaster of Paris, or paper mache. Be sure to discuss the scientific aspect of this project with your child. A preschooler may only be able to grasp the fact that volcanoes release pressure from the earth. Older school-aged child will be ready to learn about lava and magma and the extreme temperatures associated with volcanoes.

Rainbow Bags

These are great for toddlers and preschoolers. All you need is some clear hair gel from the dollar store, some food dye, and some half-gallon Ziploc bags. Fill the Ziploc bags with about a half-cup of hair gel then add a different color (or combination of colors) of food dye to each bag. Zip the bag tightly then seal with clear packing tape just to be sure your child doesn’t open them as the food dye can stain. For teaching primary and secondary colors, I like to add a few drops of two different primary colors to each bag and let the children mix them by hand after the bag is sealed. Ask the child to predict what color will be made by mixing before he actually does it and then let him test his hypothesis. Rainbow bags are also useful in teaching the order of the light spectrum (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet) and allowing the child to practice by placing them in the correct order. Plus, they are just a fun sensory toy. Toddlers will love squishing and scrunching them while your kitchen will remain free of any mess since the bags are sealed.

Celery Science

This is a great preschool science project for teaching your child about the root system and how plants draw nutrients and water from the soil. You will need a few stalks of celery with the ends trimmed off with a knife (clearly the adult does the cutting) and some food dye. Have your child put a few ounces of water in each glass and then add a several drops of different colored food dye to each one. Ask him to place a stalk of celery in each glass. After a few hours, your child will be able to observe how the dye is drawn up through the veins in the celery, coloring the celery. You can also dye white carnations in the same way, giving your child another example of how nutrients travel through the stems and leaves of plants. If you have an older child, this is a wonderful visual method of teaching them about the human circulatory system and how blood, oxygen, and nutrients travel through our veins and arteries.

Young children are naturally curious about the world around them and these early years are a great time for teaching your child basic scientific concepts. Even toddlers are miniature scientists who explore the world around them and experiment with sounds and textures. Encouraging this exploration doesn’t have to be difficult or expensive. Little things like discussing the day’s weather, observing clouds, flying a kite, collecting insects with your child, experiencing different tastes (sweet, sour, salty) and water play in a pool or tub are all free, easy ways to explore science. If you are looking for a great science field trip, many children’s museums throughout the country offer free days for your child to visit and learn. Science is an integral part of our daily life and It’s never too early to early to start your child on the road to exploration.