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Enliven summer with science

It’s summer! Vacations have a way of loosening schedules, and the longer days beckon us outdoors and into nature. Children have more time to play freely and explore.
When they explore, they are often doing science. At its simplest, science is learning how the world works. We can help children in their exploration by listening to their questions and helping them observe what’s happening around them. We can suggest they predict what might happen, help them test their ideas, and discuss the results.
Here are a few science activities that can emerge from children’s play and exploration outdoors. Plan to read books about science topics during story time. Get children in the habit of reading in the summer.

What’s our ecology?
(Age 3 and older)
This activity introduces children to living things in their environment. The study of plants and animals is To be classified as living, a thing must eat, breathe, grow, and reproduce. Plants eat by making food in their leaves. Their tissues breathe but in reverse from animals: they take in carbon dioxide and give off oxygen.
Here’s what you need:
poster board
ecology list (See sample on Page 39.)

1. Read by Kathleen Weidner Zoehfeld. Talk with children about how they were once babies and how they have grown.
2. As children play outdoors, suggest they look for signs of living things–that is, fragments of plants and animals.
3. Call out items on the list. When someone finds an item, write it on the notepad and photograph it. Ask children to describe it by talking about its size, shape, color, texture, and smell. Ask: “Can this grow, or was it ever able to grow?” Talk about how is a characteristic of something that is or was Compare to a rock, which is not alive and has never been alive.
4. Print the photographs. Write the names of the items on the poster board, leaving room for the photographs. Place the poster and photographs in the science center and invite children to match the photograph to the name.
Variations: Label one tray “Plants” and another tray “Animals.” Invite children to sort the photographs as either plant or animal.
Do this activity in the winter. Modify the list by adding items such as a brown leaf, acorn, pecan, and juniper berry, for example. Encourage children to compare their findings across seasons.

Sample ecology list
green leaf
pine needles
tree bark
snail shell
butterfly or moth
bird nest
bird footprint
spider web

What grows naturally?
(Age 4 and older)
This activity requires a half pot of dirt from a weedy vacant lot, roadside, or an uncultivated area of a yard. If possible, collect this dirt on a walk with children.
Here’s what you need:
clay or plastic plant pot
small rocks or broken pottery pieces
potting soil
dirt from a wild, uncultivated area

1. As children play outdoors, point out the shrubs, gardens, and flower beds, if you have them, on your facility’s property. Ask: “Who planted these?” and “Why?”
2. Talk about plants that grow naturally. Some native plants are desired, and those that aren’t are called See if you can find examples of weeds, and look for seeds. Ask: “What happens to seeds?”
3. Place a layer of rocks in the bottom of the plant pot. Cover the rocks with potting soil until the pot is half full.
4. Finish filling the pot with the wild dirt. Add water, and place the pot in a sunny spot.
5. Invite children to check the pot every day and keep the dirt moist but not soggy. After a few weeks, plants should appear because dirt usually contains wild seeds.
6. As the wild plants grow, encourage children to use books and the Internet to identify the plants. Talk about how seeds and plants need water and sunshine to grow.
7. Place children’s gardening books, such as by Felder Rushing, on the science table. Encourage children to use the books to identify plants, do simple gardening, and make garden crafts, such as a wind chime from aluminum cans.
Variation: Provide enough pots so that each child will have one. Have children decorate their pots before filling them.

Can we make dew?
(Age 4 and older)
This activity introduces children to the changing nature of water, beginning with dew on the ground. Of course, you’re more likely to see dew if you live in a humid climate.
Here’s what you need:
clean, dry can with label removed
ice cubes
cold water

1. When children are outdoors in early morning, point out the dew on the grass. Ask children to describe the dew: “It’s wet. It looks like drops of water.”
2. Ask: “Where does the water come from?” After listening to their answers, suggest that water is in the air but we can’t see it because it’s a which is like steam from a boiling teapot. When the air cools overnight, the water vapor may turn into and form droplets on the grass. This process is
3. Invite children to make dew. Fill a can with ice cubes and add cold water. Let the can sit for a half hour, and then check the outside of the can. Ask: “Where do the droplets come from?” No, not from inside the can because water cannot pass through the metal. It must come from the air that is warmed by the sun and then condenses when it touches the cold can.
4. Later in the day invite children to observe the grass and the can. What has happened to the dew? It has dried up. The water has changed back into vapor. This is evaporation.
5. Read by Adrienne Mason. Try some of the suggested experiments such as making ice cream in a small plastic bag.
Extension: Encourage school-age children to read about the water cycle – that is, how water evaporates and forms clouds, and how clouds produce rain, which falls to the earth and fills rivers and lakes.

What kind of seashell?
(Age 4 and older)
Many families go to the beach for summer vacation. Ask parents to bring back a few extra shells (that they don’t want returned) to share with your class. Check your local library or bookstore for seashell guidebooks, such as those published by the National Audubon Society and the Smithsonian.
Here’s what you need:
assortment of seashells
magnifying glass
seashell guidebook or access to the Internet

1. As families bring seashells, display them in the science center. Ask children to describe them by color, shape, size, and texture. Compare the shells to snail shells that you find in your yard.
2. Encourage children to identify them using a printed guide or on the Internet at
3. Place an assortment of shells in a bag. Invite children to reach in and identify it without looking at it.
4. Add shells to water play outdoors. Children might build a pretend beach with shells washing ashore. As children play, arrange five shells in a group and recite the rhyme below.
5. Read by Kathleen Weidner Zoehfeld. Talk about how seashells were once the homes of tiny sea animals. They lived inside for protection against the wind, waves, sun, and predators.

Will it fall?
(Age 3 and older)
The book suggested in this activity introduces the concept of gravity by referring to the movement of balls, rain, and people. You can also introduce the topic on the playground by discussing what happens when we jump or come down a slide.
Here’s what you need:
assortment of heavy and light objects such as a brick, rock twig, leaf, feather, shell
picnic table or stool

1. Read by Lisa Trumbauer.
2. Invite children to gather various objects from the play yard. Make sure you have heavy as well as light objects.
3. Place the objects on a table. Ask children to predict what will happen if you drop the objects to the ground.
4. Have children take turns dropping an object. Ask: “What makes things fall?” Explain that things are pulled to the ground by Compare the way people and cars stick to the earth and the way astronauts float around in space. In space, astronauts are too far away to be pulled by the Earth’s gravity.
5. Ask: “Did some objects seem to fall faster than others?” Ask children how they might test their observation. Invite children to drop two objects, such as a brick and a leaf, at the same time. Repeat until you have tested all the objects.
6. Ask: “What did we find? Do heavy items fall faster than light ones?” If children are interested, invite them to experiment with other objects, such as a handkerchief, paper bag, frying pan, and coffee can full of sand.

Can you make fresh water from salt water?
(Age 4 and older)
Before doing this activity, make sure you have done the “Can we make dew?” and “Will it fall?” activities above. Children need to have some notion of evaporation, condensation, and gravity before this activity makes sense.
Here’s what you need:
clear plastic pitcher
small paper cups
long mixing spoon
medium size glass bowl
glass or cup that fits inside the bowl
plastic wrap
rock or other weight no wider than the glass

1. Ask children if they have ever gone swimming or fishing where the water was salty. Talk about how some animals such as whales and swordfish live in salty and how humans and other animals need from lakes and rivers.
2. Fill the pitcher with water and add about a tablespoon of salt. Mix until the salt dissolves. Pour about a teaspoon of the salt water into each child’s cup so children can taste it.
3. Ask: “How does it taste? Can we get the salt out?” Remind children about how they made dew in the activity on Page 39.
4. Pour salt water into the bowl to a height of about 2 inches. Place the empty glass in the center, making sure no salt water gets inside. The glass should be higher than the water but lower than the sides of the bowl.
5. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap so it’s airtight. You may need to secure it with tape.
6. Place the rock in the center of the plastic wrap just above the glass. The rock should make the plastic wrap dip down toward the center above the glass.
7. Place the bowl in the sun and encourage children to check it every couple of hours. After a while, droplets of water will begin forming on the plastic and then slide into the glass. The sun’s warmth causes water in the bowl to When the water vapor hits the plastic, it turns back into droplets, and causes them to slide into the glass. The salt does not evaporate.
8. Remove the plastic and give children a taste of the water from the glass. Explain that you have made a It’s called a still because it or purifies, water.
Variation: Try distilling water from apple juice or other drinks. Invite children to paint with salt water con construction paper, let it dry, and see the picture that remains.

Why wear sunscreen?
(Age 3 and older)
Use leather strips to show what can happen to one’s skin in the sun. Buy leather from a hobby shop or cut up an old leather glove.
Here’s what you need:
4 strips of soft leather
block of wood
heavy-duty stapler
baby oil
water in a squeeze bottle

1. Staple the leather strips to the block of wood.
2. On a hot, sunny day, apply sunscreen to the first strip, baby oil to the second, and water to the third. Leave the fourth strip as it is—it’s a
3. Mark each strip and each tube or bottle with a matching symbol. For example, use a circle for the sunscreen, a heart for the baby oil, a square for the water, and a star for the control.
4. Take the block outside and leave it in the sun all day.
5. Repeat the process every hot, sunny day afterward.
6. After a few weeks, have children closely examine each strip and describe the results. Ask them to imagine the leather is their skin.
Extension: Encourage school-age children to learn more about the sun by reading by Ralph Winrich or going to

Science Web site for school-age children

Resource books for children
Mason, Adrienne. 2006. Toronto: Kids Can Press.
Rushing, Felder. 2004. Franklin, Tenn.: Cool Springs Press.
Trumbauer, Lisa. 2004. Danbury, Conn.: Children’s Press.
Winrich, Ralph. 2005. Mankato, Minn.: Capstone Press.
Zoehfeld, Kathleen Weidner. 1994. New York: HarperCollins.
Zoehfeld, Kathleen Weidner. 1995. New York: HarperCollins.