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by Andrew Benge
Ah, summer. The days are longer, the weather is warmer, and now it’s time for barbecues, swimming pools, and ice cold drinks. Wait. What’s that nagging feeling? Why aren’t there big yellow buses in the neighborhood? What’s that noise downstairs?
Oh, god, no.
The kids are on summer vacation! What are you going to do? You haven’t planned for this! It was just spring break, wasn’t it?
Calm down, we’re here for you. With a few household items, you can entertain the kids and teach them some fun science at the same time.
Electric Play Dough (Ages 6+)
Electric play dough can help younger kids understand how circuits work. Don’t worry, the play dough is perfectly safe, as are all the components used. Shaping two figures with the dough, and then adding the anode of an LED to one figure and the cathode to another will allow you to send a charge through the dough with batteries, and thus light up the LED.
If you really want to get fancy, try placing other things in the play dough to see if they work. A small electric motor is great for this. If it doesn’t spin, try touching the wires to the input directly. You’ve just shown your kids how resistance works, preventing the motor from spinning. Or you can just make super elaborate figures:
The great thing about the project is that you can make this stuff at home, using ingredients that you likely already have: Flour, water, salt, lemon juice, vegetable oil, and food coloring. This site has instructions on how to make both conductive and insulating play dough. Outside of that, you just need a couple of wires, a battery, and whatever electric thing you want to test out (LED, electric motor, a Large Hadron Collider).
Once you get the basic project down, let your kids’ imaginations go wild, creating more complex pieces of art, like a fully lit Christmas tree or buildings with windows that light up. If you make something out of this (or any of these projects), hit us up on Facebook and show off your work. We’d love to see it!
Marshmallow Launcher (Ages 13+)
This is one of the easier projects to make, but you should still be careful, as even ammo as soft as marshmallows can still cause injuries. For this project, you’ll need the top of a Gatorade bottle and a punching balloon to make a really impressive portable slingshot. As opposed to those large, hard to move slingshots famous the world over.
The coolest part of this design is that it has a screw-on lid that makes a perfect container for storing your ammo, provided you’re using small marshmallows and not gigantic novelty ones that are bigger than your head.
To make it, carefully cut the lid and neck from the top of the bottle, discard the bottom, then sand the the edge of the top down nice and smooth. By now all you have should be the lip, the lid, and the mouthpiece. Cut the neck from the balloon, leaving a small amount in place. Take off the lid and the tamper-evident ring, and stretch the balloon over the lip, and a little ways up the neck. Place the ring over the balloon, and your slingshot is ready.
When it’s all put together, simply drop your ammo into the balloon, pull back, aim the opening at your target, and let it fly. I’m shooting hard candy in this GIF ... obviously, don’t shoot people with that kind of ammo. Skittles can hurt, man.
Hydrophobic Sand (Ages 10+)
This is one of the more amazing projects, in my opinion. Hydrophobic sand (AKA Magic Sand) is a sand that, put simply, can’t get wet. No, not like your mother’s hair at the pool ... I mean that even when completely submerged in water, it stays dry.
To make it, you just need a large parchment sheet or aluminum foil, sand (finer grain seems to work better, but any sand will do), and Scotchgard.
Lay the sand out in as thin a layer as you can on the sheet. Spray it as evenly as you can with the Scotchgard. Don’t over-do it -- a simple, light coat will suffice. Let it dry completely, stir it up, and repeat the process a few more times. You can test whether the sand is ready by placing it on a spoon and putting a few drops of water on it. If the water drops off to the sides, it’s ready. If it doesn’t, add another layer of spray.
Once it’s ready, pour it dramatically into a glass of water, as seen below. When the sand is pulled back out of the water, it's completely dry. This is a great experiment to explain to kids what hydrophobic properties are ... but mostly, the sand is just a lot of fun to play with.
Turn Your Science Fair Volcano Into A Lava Lamp (Ages 5+)
Kids and chemical reactions go together like a house and fire. And left unattended, they could likely cause one. Luckily for you, this one is completely safe, cheap, and easy to make.
To make your own child-safe lava lamp, fill a large clear bottle, jar, or other container 1/4 full of vinegar then add food coloring to turn it any color you like. Fill the remainder with cooking oil, leaving a bit of empty space at the top. Take a small spoonful of baking soda, and drop it in the bottle. The baking soda will drop through the oil completely and react with the vinegar. The result is dozens of bubbles of various size rising through the oil, releasing their gas at the top, then falling back to the bottom, like a lava lamp on fast forward.
They’re fun to watch and they have no toxic materials ... not to mention they don’t require the heat that’s used by traditional lamps. The only warning to add is do not put the lid on while it’s fizzing up, as I nearly had a heart attack when testing it. Because you’re creating a lot of gasses, putting the lid on can build up pressure. Imagine my my pants darkening in fear as it hissed and bulged at me. Don’t do that, folks. Save your pants.
Home Made Steam Engine (Ages 13+)
This project is exciting, but a slow one. With a soda can, a bit of narrow metal pipe, and some epoxy, you can teach your kids about pressure, expansion, and how an external combustion engine works. Plus, we get to play with fire, so there’s that.
There are several different designs for them: some are rudimentary, showing how they work in the most basic way, and some more complicated, but far more exciting (a well designed one can even be made into a small vehicle).
As an alternative, safer option for the steam engine, we’re replacing the deodorant can with a soda can. It may sound overprotective, but we’d just rather not have our kids attempting to drill into even an empty bottle of compressed air.
Simply drill the bottom out of an unopened one. I used a can of lemonade, and it still sprayed everywhere, so be ready with a towel. You can see a full video of my build in action here. Also, don’t make my mistake: I used the epoxy to hold the wires in place on the can, not realizing it’s flammable. That’s why the flame is so large in the GIF below: The can is on fire.
The process is pretty simple. As the liquid heats up inside the can, steam tries to escape. We’re just funneling that steam through a small area (the straw or tube). The smaller the escape route, the more intense the reaction. As you can see in the above GIF, the steam is coming out strong enough to blow out a flame.
Hopefully now, your kids are entertained, and you’ve had some fun yourself. Now time to kick back by the pool, open a cold soda, and oh crap, you forgot to mow the lawn, didn’t you?
Like this article? Check out “Awesome Stuff You Can Make Out Of Random Household Junk” and “5 Appliances You Can Make After The Apocalypse”.