What are some science experiments that would be fun (and impressive) for a 4 year old?
June 5, 2012 2:01 PM   Subscribe

What are some science-y experiments that would be fun (and impressive) for a 4 year old?

Bonus points if his two year old brother could participate and enjoy also.
posted by imabanana to Science & Nature (34 answers total) 62 users marked this as a favorite
Vinegar and baking soda. You can throw in some food coloring to make it extra impressive. Also, making something like GAK or homemade silly putty are fun, messy lessons on liquid and solids.
posted by goggie at 2:07 PM on June 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have enthralled kids with the pepper and dishwashing liquid trick.
posted by Duffington at 2:08 PM on June 5, 2012

Make a (small, very low wattage) light bulb light with a battery and foil! Or two batteries. There are better links out there, I know.
posted by peep at 2:09 PM on June 5, 2012

It's kind of a quick one, but egg in a bottle is impressive.
posted by desertface at 2:12 PM on June 5, 2012

My goodness, the best part about 4 year olds is that everything is impressive.

Do you consider soap bubbles science? How about growing little bean plants? Baking bread and talking about why it rises?

Science and 4 year olds are some of my favorite things.
posted by i_am_a_fiesta at 2:13 PM on June 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

This is something that I did with a 6-year-old,although I would first assess how much a child really enjoys this stuff.

Owl pellets, which the child can take apart to extract a few mice skulls. You can set it up by asking the child to "make a hypothesis" as to how many mice or rodents an owl may eat? You can use water to break down the pellet (it would probably be hard for a 4-yr-old to carefully brush thigns away, but with water, you can find skulls quickly). Anywho, I've done this in the past with kids between 6 to 10, and they typically enjoy it. If the pellet has different shaped skulls, you can use that as a point to discuss different types of skulls/adaptations, what do they think those animals ate, etc.

I've also seen this work well with kids; raising Praying Mantis(raise them from eggs into adults). You can learn a lot about their behavior, molting,etc., just by watchign them from the time they hatch until they grow to adults. Do read up in advance as to whether it is or is not okay to release them into the wild where you live.

I know these may sound over the top,but these are things that I think that I would have enjoyed as a child, and ....I have done these things with kids who are also enthusiastic about science, but YMMV.
posted by Wolfster at 2:15 PM on June 5, 2012

Borax and lighter fluid = green fire. First day of sixth grade and I was AMAZED.
posted by supercres at 2:17 PM on June 5, 2012

Invisible ink made with lemon juice or iodine and cornstarch.
posted by ActionPopulated at 2:17 PM on June 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh! and Oobleck. Messy, but very cool.
posted by desertface at 2:18 PM on June 5, 2012

Cheap magnifying device and pond water.

Putting fresh cut white flowers in food-coloring-dyed water.

Eating bits of apple and potato with your nose pinched.
posted by Mercaptan at 2:19 PM on June 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

My (small) elementary school had a science fun day every year. We broke up into groups, each teacher would lead a few different experiments in their classroom, and every 15 minutes the groups would switch to the next station.

Here are a few that I remember:

-Making gak

-Making circles, squares, and triangles out of folded construction paper, taping them together, and seeing which shapes made the most sturdy structures (for holding up increasing numbers of something flat and lightweight--I think we just used manila folders)

-Making boats of different shapes out of tinfoil and seeing which shapes held the most pennies.

-Pouring a bit of vinegar and baking soda into an empty pop bottle, topping it with a balloon, giving it a shake, and watching the balloon inflate.

-Seeing what color flame different chemicals produced.

-Playing paleontologist with a toothpick and a chocolate chip cookie. (This one was really lame, but at least we got to eat a cookie.)

-Rubbing a fluorescent tube lightbulb with a cloth in a dark room and watching it glow.

-Chewing wintergreen lifesavers in front of a mirror in a dark room.
posted by phunniemee at 2:21 PM on June 5, 2012

Grape balls of fire!
posted by spunweb at 2:23 PM on June 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

A couple of these are from my 5-year old's actual science kit:

Water + food coloring. Mix colors together, dilute or concentrate, demonstrate diffusion.

Balance a paper clip flat on top of water to demonstrate surface tension. (Give it a poke and it will sink.)

Put a dull penny in a bowl with lemon juice. Come back half an hour later to see what happened.

My favorite: Pour a cup of fresh (just-opened) soda. Put raisins in and watch them float and sink, float and sink, as bubbles gather around the raisins.
posted by chickenmagazine at 2:28 PM on June 5, 2012

Cutting a banana with needle and thread impressed me at that age.
posted by Perodicticus potto at 2:35 PM on June 5, 2012

Operating on the same principle as Duffington's trick (but more colorful!) is making "stained glass" from glue and food coloring. [On preview, more or less what malibustacey9999 said, although glue may work better if you want to use it to paint stained glass designs on wax paper afterward.]

Cartesian divers are also fun and impressive. It can be finicky getting the amount of clay just right, however, so you will need to help him with that.
posted by beryllium at 2:38 PM on June 5, 2012

The old mentos in the coke bottle trick?
posted by wwax at 2:41 PM on June 5, 2012

My kids and I just did this neat experiment: fill one bowl with plain tap water, and another bowl with salted water. A piece of carrot will sink in the freshwater but float in the salt water. My kids were amazed and spent more time than you would think possible sinking and floating the carrot over and over.
posted by not that girl at 2:42 PM on June 5, 2012

Oh, also, if you have a black light handy, try throwing some fluorescent food coloring (or a small amount of fluorescent kids' paint) into whatever slime/gak recipe you use. Fluorescent glowiness never fails to impress.

But you may not want to go into incoherent rants about electronic excitation in attempting to explain the underlying chemistry. Or maybe that's just my problem...
posted by beryllium at 2:47 PM on June 5, 2012

Also also, marker chromatography! Draw a line with black washable marker on a strip of filter paper or paper towel, dip the end in water, and watch the colors in the ink separate.

(Giving that particular link for the clear instructions and photos; the detective story angle is totally optional.)
posted by beryllium at 2:57 PM on June 5, 2012

My mom's favorite from long ago: changing perception of relative temperature.

Put tap water in 3 bowls: one as hot as is safe (hot bath temperature), one cold tap water with an ice cube or two, and one kind of lukewarm. Stick a hand in the hot bowl and a hand in the cold bowl, and count to 100, or sing a song, or otherwise wait at least a full minute. Then test the temperature of the middle bowl - it feels warm to the cold hand, and cold to the warm hand. Young me was fascinated!
posted by aimedwander at 2:58 PM on June 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

On the dangers of parabolic mirrors*: It is possible, given a sunny day and a magnifying (curved) mirror, to set fire to a marshmallow.

* After seeing that marshmallow burn without a fire, and without it touching anything but the skewer it was on, my little boy is good about not moving my mirror.
posted by MonkeyToes at 3:19 PM on June 5, 2012

Something that's slow but awesome is growing crystals of alum.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 3:33 PM on June 5, 2012

Cabbage water ph tester! Get some red cabbage, cut into chunks, add water. A couple minutes later: purple water. Ok, here's the cool part: put some in a glass, add a few drops of lemon juice (or any other acid) and the cabbage water immediately turns BRIGHT PINK. In another glass, add a sprinkle of baking soda (or any other base), and the cabbage water immediately turns BRIGHT GREEN. Totally cool.
posted by Ausamor at 3:55 PM on June 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Get him to cross his fingers and close his eyes. You then rub a pencil between his fingers and ask him if he feels one pencil or two. He will likely say two pencils, because he feels the sensation on the outside of the fingers, not the inside. The brain has not evolved to figure out this exception.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 4:00 PM on June 5, 2012

fun (and impressive)

From my experience as a four year old, nothing an adult can do is impressive because you don't yet know what is difficult or impossible. For example, a literal actual rocket ship, or a F1 racing car is impressive in that it's painfully loud, but it doesn't go at an impressive speed, because adults can make machines to do anything, what's the challenge? At some level, everything is more of the same.

But some aspects of nature are impressive. If you walk a block together, and then compare that to the size of the city, country, planet etc, then the distance between planets (if the earth is your thumbnail and the moon is you pinky fingernail, they're a yard apart), then then stars, clusters, galaxies, galaxy clusters, and average of 1.6 planets per star.

Things like that would blow my tiny mind :-)
posted by -harlequin- at 4:52 PM on June 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

I also second batteries and lights and wires and switches. It's impressive because it's not a demonstration, instead it's a first step towards empowering a kid to do their own science and build their own machines, rather than accept these the world and its devices as unintelligible magic handed down from another dimension that has locked you out.

Likewise - a set of screwdrivers...
posted by -harlequin- at 5:01 PM on June 5, 2012

The cabbage test can be done with all sorts of coloured vegetables/fruits. I have been known to collect the juice from frozen berries to play "colour change with chemicals". Also many food dyes do this too.
posted by kjs4 at 5:11 PM on June 5, 2012

Get a large can with a screw-on lid - we use lots of olive oil, so have 3 or 4 litre cans hanging around. Make sure it's empty, and then put a little water in the bottom (half a cup). Heat the bottom of the can up (eg on a gas hob) until you get steam coming out of the top. Take it off the heat and screw on the lid. Then WATCH. IT. IMPLODE... as atmospheric pressure slowly crushes it. Speed up the crushing by pouring cold water on the can. You can talk about submarines, weather balloons, condensation, vacuums, water's solid, liquid and gas states etc. My kids love this one and not a can leaves the house without being crushed by the atmosphere.

I've also been meaning to do the white carnation with a split stem experiment, one half of which is in water, the other blue ink. Spoiler, the carnation turns half blue. OMG!
posted by guy72277 at 12:21 AM on June 6, 2012

You might want to check out the Boston Museum of Science's Discovery Space acitivities - a lot of them can be done at home, and they have suggestions on tailoring the activity for infants, toddlers, preschoolers, etc.

Four-year-olds are indeed very difficult to impress! When I used to work at the Museum of Science, demos that impressed older kids and adults were lost on the preschoolers, and I think harlequin is on the right track as to why - they don't have as many preconceived notions about how things are likely to turn out. Basically everything a four-year-old does is an experiment. They're hard to surprise.

Stuff with animals is fun, though. Live animals or parts of dead animals. If you can get chicken feet you can pull on then tendons and curl up the toes one by one, like this. If you can get a pig/sheep/cow heart (or even a chicken heart) and make a few cuts to show the inside, kids can get really into that. If you can get lungs and an ambu bag to pump them up, you will either make this kid throw up or completely fascinate him.

If you explain that your fingers/heart/lungs and a chicken's toes/heart/lungs are pretty much the same, you have a chance at blowing the kid's mind and you're paving the way for talking about evolution.
posted by mskyle at 6:15 AM on June 6, 2012

Gummy Bears in candy. While the process of homeostasis may go over the head of a four year old, there will be growing, gummy bears. Impressive to me, and I'm only a few ticks away from a four year old in maturity.
posted by Stan Grossman at 9:50 AM on June 6, 2012

Straw paper worms!
posted by Mchelly at 4:37 PM on June 6, 2012

I still remember my mom sliding a piece of paper onto the top of a full (positive meniscus so that it seals well) jar of water and then turning it upside down. The water stayed in, the paper stayed on, and I learned about surface tension at a very young age.
posted by k8oglyph at 4:12 PM on June 7, 2012

I was reminded of this thread last night; my toddler was in the tub and I was blowing bubbles at him because we were out of bubble bath (as you do), and we discovered that he could "catch" the bubbles in his hands when they were wet or soapy. Both he and I thought this was a great trick, so I bet that both the 4 and 2 year old would enjoy it. It'd be a great intro to surface tension.
posted by tchemgrrl at 7:09 AM on June 11, 2012

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