For years now, we’ve treated summer learning as an optional, not-so-important part of education. After all, summer is all about taking a break from school – except that a break from school often translates to a two-month break from learning important mathematics and science skills. This in itself can be bad enough, but for children from low-income families, the effects can be as long-lasting as to affect a student’s chances of being able to graduate from school and move on into higher education. Various studies going back nearly a hundred years have documented this phenomenon – known as summer slide – and the lasting consequences of the summer learning gap. So how can we keep children learning through the holidays? Summer is all about fun, and a good way to incorporate learning into the holidays is through summertime activities and play. This can involve introducing them to sources of interesting scientific facts and topical science stories that will be useful during outings to the beach, parks or even on a summer vacation. Another effective method is to give the kids ideas for some fun science activities at home. We’ve scoured far and wide to bring you five great activities that will have kids experimenting at home all summer, having plenty of laughs along the way! So whether you’re a teacher looking for inspiration for summer school, or a parent looking to keep their kids busy over summer, the following activities are a great and easy place to start!
1. Grow your own geode
Geodes are natural rock formations that have a cavity lined with crystals or other minerals. They’re typically formed in igneous rocks by cooling lava or magma – but you can encourage your children to grow their own geodes, helping them to learn how different minerals create crystals of different sizes and shapes based on saturation levels and cooling rates.
What you will need:
- Alum powder
- Epsom Salts
- PVA glue
- Empty, clean egg shells
- Food colouring
- Three cups
- An empty egg carton
Procedure: Coat each egg shell half with glue. Sprinkle a couple of shells with Epsom Salts, a couple with Borax and a couple with alum powder. Let these dry overnight in the empty egg carton. In the morning, fill the three cups with boiling water, and add several drops of food colouring to each. Pour 250 grams of alum powder into the first cup. Add 350 grams of Borax to the second cup, and saturate the third with Epsom Salts. If necessary, adjust the quantities – it’s essential that in all three cases the mixtures are saturated. Pour each each mixture into its corresponding geode: the alum mixture should be poured into the eggshell coated with alum, the Borax mixture into the shell coated with Borax, and the Epsom Salts mixture into the shell coated with the Epsom Salts. Leave the shells to cool. Observe them after an interval of four hours and another of 10 hours, and then look again the following morning. What happens to the geodes? Do the crystals get bigger if they are left to cool longer? Which mixture causes the most beautiful crystals? See? Fun and scientific learning rolled into one. You now also have a number of beautiful paperweights!
2. Windmill garden ornaments
These beauties help kids learn how to measure the velocity and direction of the wind alongside providing you with beautiful decorations for your garden. (Midsummer’s party, anyone?) Why could it be important to measure the wind? This natural resource is a huge source of energy, and countries all over the world are using wind turbines or windmills to harness this energy. Pinwheels use the same principle as windmills or wind turbines, providing an excellent way to study how wind energy can be captured so that it can then be converted to electric energy.
What you will need (per windmill):
- Square of coloured paper, 20cm × 20cm
- Length of thin dowelling.
Procedure: Fold the square in half diagonally, then open out before folding diagonally again perpendicular to the first fold. Open out flat. Use the scissors to cut along the folds, stopping each cut around 3cm from the centre. Pull down alternating corners to the centre of the square, taking care not to fold or crease them (if this is a little hard to visualise, check this out for some help). Hold each of the corners gently in place until you’ve pulled down all of them, then secure with the pushpin. Push the pushpin into the top of the dowelling, although leave just enough space that it allows the windmill to turn. Then, choose a windy day to take them out and ask your child to look at the the front of the pinwheel. How fast does it go? What way do they need to hold the pinwheel in order for it to spin the fastest?
3. Colour your flowers
This is a fun little activity *cough experiment cough* to get young children interested in botany by showing them how water is transported in plants.
What you will need:
- Several white flowers (chrysanthemums or carnations work best)
- Several different colours of food colouring.
- Lukewarm water
- Small vases
Procedure: Begin by cutting about a quarter from the bottom of a stem of each flower, making sure to cut at an angle. Line up the vases and fill each about halfway with lukewarm water. Ask the children to pour around four or five drops of food colouring in each vase. Alternately, you could vary the amount of one colour that you put in each vase: one drop of dye in the first vase, four in the second, eight in the third, and so on. Now place a single flower in each vase and leave them for a day. Over time, you’ll see the flowers take on the colour of the water. How did that happen? Which colour is the darkest and which is the lightest? Why is one flower a pink colour while the other a deep red when they all have red food colouring? You can also remove a flower to cut the stem halfway, showing your children how the inside of the stem is the same colour as the water. You can have a lot of fun with this experiment using different flowers – you could even split the stem of a flower vertically into two and put each half in a vase with a different colour!
4. Edible stained glass
Food science at its best! Adding food colouring to this experiment gives it that artistic touch that kids love. It does require constant adult supervision, but the results are stunning and delicious. You can find the full experiment here.
What you will need:
- 350g granulated sugar
- 120ml light corn syrup
- Pinch cream of tartar
- 240ml water
- Food colouring (preferably in at least three different colours)
- Cooking thermometer
- Baking sheet or disposable baking tray
- Nonstick cooking spray
Procedure: In the saucepan, combine the sugar, corn syrup and cream of tartar with the water and place over a very low heat. Stir constantly until the mixture is dissolved and becomes transparent. Check the temperature using the thermometer and let the mixture slowly come to the boil: for this mixture, 149°C. In the meantime, spray the baking tray with the nonstick cooking spray. When the sugar mixture comes to the boil, remove from the heat and pour the mixture very carefully into the baking tray, watching out for splatters. Allow the kids – still under supervision! – to sprinkle drops of food colouring over the mixture before spreading them in swirling patterns using a wooden spoon or butter knife. Leave the mixture to cool for a few hours. Once cool, remove the stunning glasslike sugar pane.
5. Grow a plant without a seed
Farmers and gardeners use botanical science all the time when it comes to growing fruit and vegetables. Asexual reproduction of plants is an important part of the curriculum, so why not give the kids a head start for next year while cultivating some homegrown herbs at the same time?
What you will need:
- Old jam jars (cleaned thoroughly)
- Shop-bought basil, mint and coriander
- Room-temperature water
Procedure: Select a couple of healthy stalks and trim their ends. Let the children gently remove the lower leaves, but make sure to keep the top leaves intact. Half-fill each glass jar with the room-temperature water. Place the stalks in the water so that the nodes left from where you pulled the lower leaves off are submerged, but make sure the top leaves remain above the water line. Place jars in a well-lit area (although out of direct sunlight). In two weeks’ time the stalks should sprout roots and be ready to be potted up. Ask the kids if they thought that this would be possible. How did they do that without seeds?