Build Science Skills

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The title of this post is meant quite literally; to build your child’s science and engineering skills, help them… Build! For a long time, Travis has enjoyed playing with Lego figures, but preferred to leave the actual building to me. I’ve been thrilled then to see a difference in his Lego play lately, insisting he do each step himself and learning to read and follow the diagrams in each instruction booklet.

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Yet while there’s nothing wrong with building a Lego exactly according to plan, you can give things a STEM twist by building off-book. I set out a bunch of Travis’s Lego pieces and challenged him to make a bridge. How wide could he make it go?

At first he wanted it to span from a stool to a side table, but he quickly realized that the distance was too great.

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Dialing back expectations, he moved them closer together an next puzzled out how to build up supports, then started laying the longest pieces across the gap. Black rectangles helped piece it all together.

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We encountered a glitch when the table was lower than the stool. Thinking quickly, I helped him build up a base for extra height on that end. Success!

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He was so proud of this construction, and continued to build a structure around the base of the bridge. When it tumbled to the ground at one point, I was so proud that he didn’t grow frustrated and used it as a chance for improvements.

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Any Lego engineering challenge like this will work those STEM skills. Consider asking your child to build the tallest tower he or she can, or seeing if a bridge or roof can support a weight like a toy ball. Happy building!


Arcade Kiwi Crate

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Whenever we walk into an arcade, Travis’s favorite game is the claw machine, even though we almost never win. So the instant his Arcade kit arrived from Kiwi Co., I knew it was going to be a huge hit. He got to make his own claw and prizes…and was sure to be a winner this time.

There’s tons of STEM to love about this crate, especially in the first project: The Claw. Start by reading the explanation of how this simple machine works: a string that moves a bolt that pulls a connector that pulls a claw, resulting in the claw opening. The booklet even explains how it closes up again, when stretched-out rubber bands want to revert to their unstretched shape, pulling everything closed again.

To prepare the Claw, Travis followed along layering bolts, wooden pieces, and nuts in the proper order, using the handy color-coded piece of cardboard that is the guide.

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Once assembled, the claw then lifts right up off the guide. A long wooden handle is attached in the same way with a second guide.

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Travis had to test it out on baby sister’s toys right away, of course!

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We immediately had to follow up with the next project: Pom-Pom Prizes. This was the artsy part of our STEAM lesson. Attach the end of one provided yarn bundle to a wooden pom-pom winder with a sticker, and loosely wind the yarn around.

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Having made homemade pom-poms, I appreciated how Kiwi took all the guesswork out of this, with yarn that looped along in no tangles. Now secure around the middle with the provided pipe cleaner.

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Slide the yarn off the winder and use scissors to snip open the loops of yarn. Fluff it out and you have a pom-pom! The pipe cleaners now bend down as little antennae and there are sticky-back wiggle eyes to adhere as the final touch. The crate contains enough material to make two. Travis loved these creatures, even before turning them into arcade prizes!

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It was time to put it all together and play the Claw Game. We cut a rectangular hole in the lid of the Kiwi Crate, leaving about a one-inch border, and a second hole on the side, leaving about a 1/2-inch border. Cut a piece of plastic from a gallon plastic bag to fit over the hole in the lid, and tape it on securely.

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We taped on the provided Claw Game decorations, then filled the box with little knickknacks from Travis’s treasure box. And added in the pom-pom prize of course.

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Travis was so proud once he got the hang of it.

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Mommy got the grand prize pom-pom!

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As always, we turned to Explore magazine for extended fun. There is a page filled with “penny arcade” games, a fun riff on the old-fashioned term, where kids can play games on the page with a literal penny.

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Next we made a Laser Maze with crepe paper.

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A big fun house challenge!

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Finally, we made the Tilt-to-Win: Cut empty paper towel tubes to various lengths and cover each in a different color construction paper. Glue construction paper to a large flat box as the background, and glue on the tubes.

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Once dry, add a point value to each tube with marker. Put in a small ball, and take turns seeing how many points you can get in one minute.

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This is almost like a handheld pinball machine!

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The two recommended books are worth investing in, as each contains more ideas than we’ll ever get to for gaming fun. Do check out The Kids’ Book of Simple Machines: Cool Projects & Activities That Make Science Fun and Play These Games: 101 Delightful Diversions Using Everyday Items.

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Crystal Chemistry Tree Crate

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Of all the holiday projects from Kiwi Co this year, this was by far Travis’s favorite. You can follow along on this project with materials from the craft store and drugstore; do supervise very closely, as chemicals (ammonia in particular) are involved. But the result is stunning!

To start, we needed to prepare the planting pot. Insert a plastic cup into a silver cup, and decorate with the provided red ribbon for a festive touch. The tree is two pieces of cardboard that slot together. Travis “planted” this firmly.

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He loved the felt ornaments to hang on the tree!

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As a final decoration, twist together three silver pipe cleaners, and arrange as a star on top.

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Now it was time for some science. I poured the bluing solution into the plastic cup first. A bluing solution is potassium nitrite and sodium hydroxide dissolved in water. Travis was a good sport listening to all the safety cautions about handling these chemicals

Next I poured in the provided ammonia. He was not a fan of the smell! Finally, we poured the provided salt packet evenly around the tree.

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Use the provided pipette to drip the solution over the tree branches until saturated.

Only an hour later, I noticed that already a few little sparkles had appeared. Travis went to bed full of wonder at how it might look in the morning.

To be perfectly honest, I’d forgotten about it when we came down for breakfast. “Mom, look!” he called out. I, too, was stunned with the white frosty crystals blooming all over the branches.

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One note of caution: the crystals are very delicate and will fall off at even the tiniest budge, so have your tree some place up high where it won’t get jostled.

Over breakfast, read about what happened. The cardboard soaks up the solution (so a plastic tree, for example, wouldn’t work here), but the liquids evaporate overnight as gases. The salt can’t do this, so it is left behind. Ammonia is present because it helps the evaporation happen faster. And voila – a chemis-tree!

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LED Holiday Luminary

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This little holiday project actually falls under Kiwi Co’s Tinker Crate designation (for ages 9 and up!) but I knew it would be feasible for my gadget-loving kindergartner with some grown-up assistance.

The very first step is to put the batteries in the provided battery pack. Travis has had practice in this area, but use your judgement based on your child’s age and experience with batteries.

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Next we slipped the provided LED light into the wooden base. Kids can choose between a green one or white one, and Travis chose green! I did the actual attaching of wires for him. We tested our battery – success! – before switching off the switch for now.

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Time to decorate the tree: rub sandpaper over the provided plastic tree shape briefly, which will give it the look of “branches”.

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Travis loved decorating the tree with the provided stickers, including ornaments, candy canes, holly berries, and more.

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When he declared it done, we used sticky dots to secure the tree to the provided wooden frame. This is then inserted over the battery and secured into the stand with sticky foam dots.

It was time to turn the battery to “on”. What a beautiful addition to our holiday display!

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Crystal Suncatcher

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This neat science project will require a few days of patience, but has a beautiful ice crystal reward at the end, perfect for winter!

To start, poke a hole through the rim of a clear plastic container (we used the top of a Pringles canister) with a needle or push pin. Make slightly wider with a pen or pencil, then set aside.

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In a microwave safe bowl heat 1/2 cup water for about 45 seconds, or until warm. Add 1/2 cup Epsom salts, stirring until dissolved. Travis loved making this “potion”.

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Fill the container lid with the salt solution and set someplace that gets a lot of sunlight. Now wait! Here’s how our crystals looked after 24 hours:

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And now after 48 hours!

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The science here is fairly simple. When you stir the Epsom salt into the hot water, it doesn’t disappear of course; it dissolves. But when the water evaporates off, the Epsom salts are revealed again. Hence the beautiful crystals!

To capture your experiment into a work of art, cut the rim off an identically sized lid (again we used a Pringles container). Hot glue them together carefully so as not to crush the crystals.

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Thread a length of string or yarn through the hole you poked in the beginning. I worried we might crush the crystals because our hole was quite tiny, so we hot glued on our string instead, which works in a pinch! Now it looks like Jack Frost has come to call at our window.

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Santa’s Sleigh Automaton

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I originally purchased this special holiday crate from Kiwi Co thinking it would be fun to put together with Travis. It turns out that it was so complicated even mommy had trouble with it! But we now have a very cool decoration to last until the holiday is over.

The sleigh works as an automaton, a machine that is pushed into motion, and the instruction booklet included neat STEM learning about other examples of automatons (think jack-in-the-boxes or vending machines), and also a detailed explanation at the end about how you’ve built a “cam”. Here’s a rough outline of what we did:

First we made a frame, slotting together the provided wooden pieces and foam stickers to help hold them in place.

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We then needed to build the crank part of our cam by attaching wooden circles to a crank in the proper order.

Next up was the part of the cam that would go up and down. This required fitting plastic rods into the wood stand, securing them onto a paper square at the base, and adding a paper straw and foam donut to hold them in place. Here is where the machine seemed a bit faulty, with the paper squares not staying firmly on the wheels of the crank. Hmmm…

But we forged on, adding the felt reindeer, Santa and sleigh (quite tiny!) to each of the plastic rods. Secure them all with the provided string for a leash.

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There is a decorated backdrop with felt houses and trees to attach. Now Santa’s sleigh and team are ready to fly!

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Travis does indeed enjoy turning the crank, so there is holiday magic (and science!) to be had in the final product.


Rainbow Paper Experiment

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Here’s a quick project that’s equal parts science and art. It was the perfect follow-up to Travis’s Rainbow Optics crate from Kiwi Co.

Because it’s a bit messy and you have to work quickly, I gathered all the materials ahead of time. You’ll need paper towels for drying, small squares of black construction paper, a bowl filled with about 1 inch of water, and clear nail polish.

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Place one of the black squares in the water, soaking completely. Let float towards the surface. Now it was Travis’s very important job to add 3 drops of the clear nail polish.

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Remove the paper very quickly, pinching it from one corner, and place on the paper towels to dry. Now it was covered in rainbow swirls!

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We wanted to make a few more, but found that the nail polish residue made streaks in the water; as a result, each ensuing piece of paper came out a bit messier.

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Still, these were quite pretty, and you could glue them onto cardstock for a pretty art print if desired!


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This quick project was a neat follow up to Travis’s exploration with his Rainbow Optics Crate. And to make it, we even got to upcycle the box from Kiwi Co.!

Cut any extra flaps from the box, including those that fold in to the sides and front. Tape a blank CD to the inside of one short end, flush against the back wall. Make sure your box can close!

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Trace around the end of a paper towel tube twice, in overlapping circles, so you have an opening that’s about 1 and 1/2 times as wide as the tube. Insert the tube at an angle, looking towards the CD.

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Also cut a slit on the short edge directly opposite the CD, to let in light. Tape up any other edges where light might slip in.

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Now take a peak inside! We found this worked best when we shined a flashlight directly into our slit. One person can shine the light while the other person makes sure the tube is aimed properly at the CD; you’ll see the spectrum of the rainbow appear.

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You can also try this with other light sources, including sunlight, and see which one works best!

Fruit Ripening Science is Bananas

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Just before Halloween, Travis made Boo-Nana Bread form Raddish KidsSpooky Kitchen crate. Now we’re finally getting around to the fruit-ripening science lesson attached to it!

Before anything else, we needed to set in motion an experiment that would take 5 days. I purchased a bunch of (fairly) green bananas at the grocery store, as well as a few riper ones.

Ask your child to describe the differences they notice between the ripe and unripe bananas. Travis pointed out the obvious color difference, first. A little probing helped him go deeper: the ripe ones were softer, and smelled sweeter.

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I asked him if a banana needed anything other than itself to ripen. Somehow he knew it needed air (oxygen). Smarty pants!

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But for scientific backup to this hypothesis, we experimented by placing the following:

  • 1 green banana out on the counter
  • 2 green bananas in a paper bag, folded up tight
  • 1 green banana and 1 ripe banana (for ethylene) in a paper bag, folded up tight
  • 2 green bananas in a sealed plastic bag
  • 1 green banana wrapped in layers of plastic wrap

That last was Travis’s favorite, pretending we were making a banana mummy!

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Meanwhile, it was time for a little science behind the lesson. I set out two plates for him, one featuring non-climacteric fruits i.e. they do not ripen after picking. Raddish provided a long list to choose from, and our plate included: a bell pepper, blueberries, cucumber, orange, and yellow squash.

The second plate had climacteric fruits i.e. ones that do ripen after picking. This plate held an avocado, a pear, and a mango.

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“Can I eat it,” he asked right away of the mango. “Is it ripe?” At first he was stumped about how I had categorized them, guessing I had sorted them by color. But hmm, why wasn’t the cucumber on the green plate?

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I loved watching him really ponder this! I guided him back to his very first comment about the mango. Was it ripe? Now he understood that one plate held fruits we needed to wait for; the other plate was fruits that wouldn’t ripen further after picking.

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Time to explore! I let him have at the food just for fun. He loved peeling the squash and taking little nibbles of it, plus practicing his knife skills on the bell pepper…

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…and crunching into the cucumber for a big bite.

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He decided to wait until the mango was riper before peeling it. Good choice! Plus he gave the unripe avocado a big squeeze and it was solid as a rock.

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Five days later, we finished with a little more science now that we had our banana results. Our finding weren’t quite as promising as hoped, likely because I had to start with green bananas on the verge of yellow and a yellow banana on the verge of green, based on what the grocery store had to sell. But we still could see that the countertop banana was the brownest/ripest and the plastic bag bananas had retained the most green.

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Interestingly, our plastic-wrapped banana had gotten quite ripe, so we must not have made the “mummy” tight enough.

The green bananas in the paper bag had ripened faster than the ones in plastic, since the porous paper gives them access to oxygen. But the one that also enjoyed the company of a ripe banana had both oxygen and extra ethylene, so that was riper still.

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Enough science; as it turns out, leftover bananas are lots of fun to play with, even for little sister!

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We enjoyed one final video of a similar experiment done with supermarket food. If your kids loved the banana experiment, try out an avocado one!

Travis and I also decided to check out the suggested book Science Experiments You Can Eat, by Vicki Cobb. We read through a couple of the experiments, but didn’t actually put any to the test.

Solar Eclipse Science Project

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I put together a simplified version of this box back when there was a solar eclipse in our area in 2017. Today we wanted to see if the box would work for Mercury’s transit across the sun, and now Travis was old enough to help with all the steps!

To start, we upcycled a Kiwi crate (though any shoe box would work). Measure 2 inches in from one edge and poke a push pin or thumb tack through for a small hole.

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On the opposite side of that same edge, measure in 1/2 an inch and cut a square that is 2 inches on each side.

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Cut a square from black paper that is 2.5 inches on each side. Travis loved cutting along the lines I measured with our ruler.

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Trace the inside of a small roll of tape in the center of the black square, and cut out this circle (a mommy step).

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Tape down on the inside where you’ve cut the viewing hole.

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Next cut a rectangle from white paper that is 10.5 inches long x 3.25 inches tall. Use double-sided tape to attach on the inside of the box opposite the viewing hole.

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Now cover any seams or cracks with tape. Travis took it very seriously to ensure that we had no points where light could filter through.

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We peeked inside in the kitchen, but if course there was only darkness without any sunlight coming through our tiny pin prick.

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The answer to our initial question (would the box work for Mercury), alas, was no.

Mercury entered its transit across the sun the next morning at 7.30, but it was so cloudy that the sun wasn’t visible all day! Further research suggested that Mercury would be much too tiny to spot in our viewer anyway, and what we really needed was a telescope with a proper sun filter. Instead, we checked out the transit online. And now we’re going to set aside our solar eclipse viewer for the next one… in 2024!