I have a black thumb. Although I like planting things, maintaining the order in the garden, and harvesting the strawberries the squirrels haven’t eaten, I’m just not very good at remembering which things need pruning (and when), the types of soil and light that are best, and the over-wintering care, despite a large 3-ring binder of notes.

The over-zealous raspberry bush, which was only a 2-leaf stick last fall, is now a massive, creeping bundle of canes. So, when I pulled out some of the running shoots, I figured we could try to grow them indoors in a cup of water. Z (age 3.5) was pretty stoked to try an experiment with plants! I poked about 7 shoots through some plastic wrap (for vertical support), and left a hole open for watering.

The cup sat undisturbed on the window ledge. I figured that a couple shoots would sprout roots, and then Z and I could then plant them somewhere else in the garden. He was pretty excited for the first couple of days, but then quickly lost interest as the plants did virtually nothing. Imagine our surprise when about three weeks later, they looked like this:

Apparently, growing raspberry plants in this manner doesn’t work. Z said that our experiment failed. Also, he thought the filmy, moldy stems were pretty gross (okay, he’s right on that part).

But failure is a tricky word. For both Z and my students, I try to instill the idea that the experiment may not have worked in the way expected, but that’s not where to stop: there is still some kind of result to learn from. Clearly, raspberry plants aren’t propagated in the manner I used. Instead, I’d probably do much better by reading any outside information before trying again. Similarly, unexpected lab results in school shouldn’t be regarded as failures, but a need to explain how the results came to be. Clearly, from skimming those links about growing plant cuttings, I did just about everything wrong, starting with not-cutting the stalks.

It was strangely difficult to talk to a 3-year-old about something that he didn’t expect. The growing raspberry plants of his visions didn’t appear, and he dismissed my attempts to change his words of “failure” to “yay growing mold”. I guess mold isn’t on his success list.


Sick Day (With Yeast!)

What do you do while stuck at home with a sick three-year-old? Bake bread! Well, okay, I did the baking, but Z requested a science experiment. Who am I to pass that by?

Because he so loved the baking soda and vinegar stuff, I gave Z some yeast, water, sugar, a funnel, cups, and balloons. First, we took a look at what yeast does with cold, warm, and hot water. IMG_0833

Then, he (mostly carefully) scooped some yeast and sugar into balloons, and added different temperatures of water to each. Check this out! The green balloon is cold, pink is warm, red is hot. In Z’s words, pink wins! Yeast must like warm water. (The blue balloon is a whole bunch of everything.)

This was more interesting to me. About two hours later:
Green and pink are now basically the same size. The red (hot water) balloon must have killed a lot of the yeast.

Baby’s First Experiment

This is the first time I’ve tried an “organized” experiment with Z, rather than noticing some happenstance thing. Z is 3 years old (hence the quotes around “organized”), and received this little “experiment set” for his birthday, so what better to do with it than to mix some vinegar and baking soda.

The initial bubbles were pretty fun, but afterward was more interesting for me.


Me: It stopped bubbling! How can you make it bubble again?
Z: More vinegar!
experiment bubbles
Me: It stopped again. How can you make it bubble again?
Z: More vinegar!!
nothing happens
Me: Huh. That didn’t do much. What else can you do?
Z: More baking soda!
bubbles over the top

Then, it kinda turned into a free-for-all (a.k.a., what any three-year-old does, as well as good experimenters). He started pouring everything together.



Z: I need more baking soda!
Me: How do you know?
Z: It stopped again.
nothing happens
Me: Now what?
Z: More vinegar!

The test tubes are full of water, post-iterations.
Me: Let me pour some liquid off. This is called “decanting”.
Z: Decanting? Okay.
Me: See all of the stuff at the bottom? Does it look more like vinegar or more like baking soda?
Z: Baking soda!
Me: So what should you add to it?
Z: Vinegar!
Me: Why?
Z: I dunno!
bubble bubble

Why this is cool: Z is trying (a very limited number of) reactions on his own. He knows that both baking soda and vinegar are needed to make, but couldn’t (or wouldn’t) verbalize it for me. The next day, I brought out baking soda and baking powder (and vinegar and water), but he really just wanted to pour everything together again rather than stop and compare. He did, however, leave the baking powder alone, once he saw that it made fewer bubbles than baking soda, meaning he’s taking some mental notes about getting more of what he wants.

I did, however, forget to have him say, “sodium bicarbonate” and “acetic acid”. What kind of a chemist am I?

I’ve been letting my 6 year old daughter play light bot, a pre-programing game, every once in a while on my ipad for the last couple months. Yesterday she played for 20 minutes while I was making dinner, and my 4 year old was watching. When it was his turn to use the iPad, he went back into light bot. I tried to dissuade him, since it takes a bit of guidance and I was using the iPad to gain some time for cooking (come on, you all do that occasionally, right?). To my surprise, he sat there for 10 minutes without saying anything about it, so I came over, saw what was going on, and filmed this;

It appears that my 4 year old is much more capable than I thought, despite only watching the game previously and only using the iPad 1-2 times a week. Even though I already wrote about getting out of their way, it’s about time we realize that kids can do far more than what we sometimes project on them.

Today my 4 year old Aden was sharpening pencils.

2014-07-16 19.06.30

He told me that the pencil was getting longer as he sharpened. I realized he was talking about the lead ‘extending’ out of the wood.

He had seen something happen and came to a logical-to-him , though wrong, conclusion. 

As a high school physics teacher, this is fascinating to me. My kids come into my class with all kinds of strongly held, yet incorrect, beliefs about physics, and this phenomena is widely documented in other sciences as well. So how can doing science with your kids help?

Get them to ask questions.

I modeled science for Aden by designing a quick ‘experiment’; we found a pencil where there was a letter close to where the wood was showing. I asked him to predict what would happen to the space from the wood to the letter. “It will get bigger.” He really thought the pencil grew! So then we sharpened the pencil, and I asked him what happened to the space. “It got smaller!” The dissonance between what he thought would happen and what actually happened opened up the possibility for him that another explanation was possible, and more data, the wood shavings in the sharpener, helped confirm it for him.

I’ve often thought about simply teaching my kids the ‘right’ science (that a plant gets it’s mass from the air, that when you go around a corner the seat and seat belt is actually pushing you towards the center of the circle, etc), but I think that would really cheapen the experience for them. Instead I want to train my kids to always look beyond face value of any experience, ask questions, and make sure that a variety of data and experience supports their conclusions.

I think that can start as early as a conversation about a growing pencil with a 4 year old.


This post was written by Malke Rosenfeld and is cross posted from her blog

s and p

My (newly 9yo) daughter is a sensory girl who likes to mix things and ask questions while doing so. Over the course of her short life she has created all sorts of goopy, colorful, muddy, tasty inside and outside concoctions out of food, paint, mud, sidewalk chalk, bubbles…all the while narrating non-stop about what she’s going to do and how and why.

This is great but she is very messy and I am, in all honesty, sometimes low on tolerance for daily messes (and for long-running verbal narrative) but I know this is the kind of thing that lights her up. So when she asked:

“Can I take salt and pepper and pencil leads and try to magnetize them in water?”

I said:

“Yes, as long as you clean up after you’re done. And make sure to record your findings.”

And she said:


She put water, salt, pepper and magnets from our fridge into a bowl along with the pencil leads. Her essential question was: “Can I magnetize these pencil leads?” Here is what she wrote down about her experimenting (edited only for spelling):

If I put a pencil lead in water with pepper and salt and rub it to the non magnetized side:

Will it still work if it’s just water and pepper? YES

Will it work with just water? YES

Will it work without water? NO. It does not work if both are not in water. It only works if one is rubbed!

Will it work with a different magnet? YES

When it’s wet it sticks to me! Will it work when I don’t rub it on the magnet? YES, but it does not stick for long.

Her ultimate conclusion was that she could “magnetize the pencil leads but they could not stick to other magnets beside themselves” and that “water has something to do with it.”

I recently picked up a book at our public library used book store called Curious Minds: How a Child Becomes a Scientist. The book is a collection of essays from interesting scientists who were asked to write about how and when in their childhoods they became interested in an idea that led them to go into the sciences. My favorite essay is from Mary Catherine Bateson who is the daughter of Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead. She talks about how she grew up in a household where “the how” of science was the focus. “The what” her father and mother studied changed over time, but it was her childhood experiences of looking for patterns and asking questions that really brought her into her field.

So, when my husband pointed out that the leads stuck together because they were wet, not magnetized as she had concluded, I agreed. We did not succeed in convincing her otherwise, which is just fine with me. What is most important about her sequence of question asking is that she was engaged in THE PROCESS (the how) of science. To me, at this point in her life, the feel for the process is what we want her to have — the curiosity, the personal agency, the flow of question asking.

After all, if you talk to real scientists and mathematicians they will tell you their work is about days and months and years and decades of wrong turns and the resulting new questions. In today’s fast paced world it’s hard to muster patience for this idea of building understanding over time but the truth is this: Coming to know often means you may not have all the answers you want or need right away but as long as you have new questions to ask you can be sure you are heading in the right direction.

Sink or float?

Walking back from lunch, my 5 year old son, J, said that he had an idea for a science experiment. He wanted to see if his coin sinks or floats in his empty chocolate milk container. When we got home, we conducted the experiment and quickly realized that the plastic coin that he wanted to use for the experiment wouldn’t fit in his milk container, so we pulled out a small plastic container for the experiment and found some more items to test.

We’ve done sink/float so many times since J was able to throw things into the water. My favorite was an impromptu sink/float lesson at a wedding reception. I didn’t want to crush J’s enthusiasm for science, so I let him lead. I also encouraged him to fill out his science notebook which he loves, especially now that he’s learning how to write. He wrote down what items he wanted to test and hypothesized with an “S” or an “F” if he thought they would sink or float, respectively.

He thought the plastic coin would sink, the penny would sink, and the Duplo block would float.

Here’s what he learned: His special coin floated. The penny sank. The Duplo floated, but then he flipped it upside down and it sank! 

He loved when he was right, but he also loved finding that the Duplo both floats and sinks!

It turns out that the Duplo is made with a lot of empty space underneath. When that space is filled with air, the block floats. When the space is filled with water, the block sinks. We love science!