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mad scienceAs the days grow longer and the weather starts to warm, kids across the nation go outside to play, and to get rid of their cabin fever from the long winter we all had.

Chances are that they will be dragging you outside with them! Instead of just pulling up a lawn chair and watching them run in circles, why not have a little fun with science and get them thinking as well as playing?

I am going to cover two different activities best done in the great outdoors that are sure to peak the kids' interest as well as show them a good time. These are easy to do, and it is easy to find the materials needed to get the jobs done! Now buckle up and let's get this science bus on the road!

Fun with a magnifying glass

The first trick up my lab coat sleeve uses a magnifying glass to teach kids about the power of the sun. The materials are easy to put together.

  • Magnifying glass. The larger the better.
  • Various leaves. Make sure you gather as many stages of decomposing leaves as possible. It will work best if you use everything from fresh green leaves all the way to completely dried out and crispy leaves.
  • Paper. Get at least white and one darker color. Again the more the merrier.

First you need a sunny day to make this work properly. The sunnier the better. Set out the leaves and papers you have put together in a row on the ground. Don't put it on a table as no one wants to explain a scorch mark on a good patio table.

Next, ask the kids if they can figure out a way to cause the materials to burn without using fire or matches. After they scratch their heads for a minute it is time to pop out your secret weapon. Make sure you pull out the magnifying glass with a flourish. Showmanship is everything!

Focus the light through the lens into a pinpoint on a dried out leaf. In a second or so it will smoke. Let the kids ooh and aah, now challenge them to do the same. Make sure you give them either a green leaf or white paper! Help them focus the glass, and then let them sit for 30 seconds or so. When the white paper or green leaf doesn't smoke, take the lens back and again make the dead leaf or darker paper smoke.

Depending on how fast they catch on, this can go on for quite a while before they realize that the materials are affecting whether or not the glass can cause the scorches. When they do figure it out, you can explain how the moisture in the green leaf, and the reflective properties of the white paper are what affect the glasses ability to cause the scorches.

After the day's fun, make sure you put the magnifying glass out of reach so that the youngsters don't get the itch to try it out without you and cause any incidents that would necessitate a visit by the fire department or a claim to be filed with your homeowners insurance.

Learning about magnetics

The other outdoor science experiment you can do easily may require a trip to the beach, or the local playground so you can have access to sand. The materials are as follows.

  • Sand. The more the better. The older the better. Beach side or lakeside is ideal, but the local playground will work as well as long there is a sand pit there.
  • Magnet. Bigger is better. A straight magnet will work best, but the cartoony "U" shaped ones can be used as well.
  • Paper. White is best for showing off the final tricks. 2 sheets are best but one will work fine.
  • String. A piece long enough so you can drag the magnet behind you through the sand.
  • Compass. Any will do.

After the trip to your local sand pit or beach bust out the magnet. Let the kids play with it for a few minutes sticking it to metal and finding out that it will not stick to all materials. Next ask them if they think the sand will stick to it. After collecting their answer, pour a little sand over the magnet to demonstrate that it won't.

Next tie the string to the magnet and tell the kids to drag it through the sand. After a minute or so, check the magnet for iron filings stuck to it. Ask the kids why there is material stuck to the magnet. Explain that iron occurs naturally or that (if you are at a man-made beach or play ground) big metal machines crush rocks into sand for people to use, and they are seeing the little pieces of the crushers that wear off as the rock gets processed into sand.

Scrape the filings off onto the white paper. Repeat the collection process a few more times to make sure you get a good amount of filings to work with. Place the magnet onto a non magnetic surface. Lower the paper down onto the magnet shaking slightly as you do so. This should cause the filings to move into the shape of the magnet's magnetic field.

An alternate way to do it is to use two pieces of paper. Collect the filings onto one piece. Place the second over the magnet and gently dust the filings onto the second sheet. Again this should cause the filings to form into the shape of the magnetic field.

After the field is marked out, ask the kids if they can tell you why the filings formed those shapes. Explain that what they are doing is marking the invisible magnetic field that is always present around this and any magnet. You can even extrapolate (don't use this word with kids unless you want them to either laugh or run away in fear) and explain how the earth also has a magnetic field and how it makes a compass work.

If you don't have a compass to break out at this point, go ahead and tie the string around the magnet in the middle and demonstrate that when you turn around, the magnet always stays oriented to the same direction. This shows the directions of the north and south poles.

After all this learning go ahead and let them use the magnet under the paper to move the filings on top of the paper around. Again explain that it is the magnet's invisible energy field that is causing the filings to dance around the paper for their amusement. You can also let them lower the magnet slowly towards the paper until the filings "leap" up to the magnet. Again this demonstrates the magnet's energy field.

Now that you have entertained and educated the kids you can hit the pool guilt free and enjoy the summer until the next time we meet!


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