You know, so she can cure cancer or collect cool rocks and stuff.
November 3, 2015 3:38 PM   Subscribe

What can I do to turn a play room into an awesome laboratory for a six-year-old?

After a recent trip to a Geology Museum, my six-year-old daughter has announced her plans to turn her playroom into a laboratory. I would like to make this happen for Christmas this year. Currently, her playroom is a converted walk in closet (no windows) with forest and alphabet decorations. She is mostly into geology at this point, with an ever expanding rock collection. She also likes microscopes. What can I do to design, stock, and decorate an awesome place for her to do experiments, study specimens, and generally "do science?" I am willing to spend money and do some minor renovations.
posted by Missense Mutation to Science & Nature (19 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
Lots and lots of shelves, plus table space, plus cabinets -- that she can reach -- and lighting. Divided shadow boxes on the walls (I've seen "golf ball display cases" at craft stores that work pretty well for this, but you might want to re-paint the inside so they're not just black).

Let her fill in the specific equipment, pick out posters, etc.

The thing about a laboratory is that it ends up being configured _by the person doing the science_ to fit their particular working style and interests.

It's cool that you're excited about it, but it will be so great if she can stock it herself, bit by bit, as _her_ interests evolve. That way, she can, for example, decide she's interested in rock tumbling, then pick out a tumbler kit, learn to use it really well, and decide how to display/process the results -- before choosing another interest (maybe a carving with a Dremel tool, maybe microscopy, maybe making displays incorporating plants, miniature figures, or scientific labeling) and really focusing on that.
posted by amtho at 3:46 PM on November 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

How about a rock tumbler?

Also, seeing how the room doesn't have windows maybe rig up different coloured lights. It wouldn't have an practical application unless she wanted a darkroom, but it would be a fun effect.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 3:46 PM on November 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

You might find some inspiration in this previous question.
posted by btfreek at 3:47 PM on November 3, 2015

Best answer: My children love the CRAP out of their World Discovery Box, which you can buy from them or replicate yourself with cheaper drawers and fill with your own specimens. We got the medium box and a starter set of collectibles, and they have been adding to it with dead bugs and collected rocks and so on and so forth. Relatives buy them small fossils and we go rock and plant hunting with friends and they LOVE IT SO MUCH.

Next to it we shelve books of "rocks of Illinois" and "National Geographic's World of Life" and stuff like that -- various field guides and illustrated kids' nature encyclopedias. They're of varying quality, but they love to flip through them all.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 4:17 PM on November 3, 2015 [7 favorites]

Jars, lots of jars. Maybe some labels to go on the jars. Gotta have somewhere to keep specimens! If they're into plants, a small plant press is inexpensive or can be made at home.
posted by congen at 4:29 PM on November 3, 2015

Best answer: My son is much the same way (and is heading off to college this fall to study biology). Here's some of the stuff he had at that age:

A digital microscope. They are great for kids that age: not as fussy to use as a traditional microscope, stand up to rough handling, can be used with both slides and three dimensional objects and many of them allow you to capture video* as well as stills.

Prepared specimen slides, to start with. This kind has a cardboard holder around glass, as her dexterity improves with age, you can get her blanks so she can prepare her own.

A rock hammer and properly sized eye protection, as well as a lot of more bio-related tools (tweezers, probes).

Lots of plastic labware. She can use some of those containers to test the composition of rocks with household vinegar.

I also got him a kid sized lab coat, a box of Kimtech wipes, and a lab notebook. Bonus if you personalize the coat and notebook with her name.

*I knew my son was totally into this when as a 7 year old he inadvertently sliced open his finger deeply enough to bleed profusely and came running down the hallway shouting, "Quick, get the microscope!" instead of crying for a bandaid.
posted by jamaro at 4:33 PM on November 3, 2015 [13 favorites]

On lack of preview, "Also, seeing how the room doesn't have windows maybe rig up different coloured lights."

Totally, some rocks fluoresce under UV.
posted by jamaro at 4:39 PM on November 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

We have a "nature table". I have a coupe printer's boxes and anything interesting we find goes on the table. I have also found really interesting little cases at the coin store. I carry a few around with me.
If we find a robin's egg shell it goes in the tiny clear plastic case and goes to nature table.
I also collect field guides at thrift stores.
posted by ReluctantViking at 4:48 PM on November 3, 2015

Best answer: *rubs hands together* Geologist here. Geologist since I was a kid here. There's some great answers in that previous question, so much that *I* want to decorate my office with some of that stuff as an adult. Also the answers here are great, especially around specimen boxes or jars. Have her come up with her own labeling methodology.

For the microscope: I would think your daughter's at that funny stage where she's a bit too old for little kid 'scopes and a bit too young for older kid scopes, maybe? You know what would work for her best, but there's some great microscopes for the 7/8-10/12 age on Amazon. If you think she can handle it, I would suggest this stereoscope, for the sole reason that there's no elevated stage and it's for a 3D view, so she can put rocks/grains of sand/shells, etc. on it. If you get the right slides there's clips for them as well, but the slides have to have objects in them that are made for 3D viewing and need to be a little thicker. There's also the advantage of having 2 eye pieces. If she really likes it, then maybe take the next step of getting her a 2D (compound) microscope with slides. However, I use a stereoscope to this day - it's not something she can grow out of if she continually likes rocks.

If I had kids I could make a better suggestion, but a lab kit with experiments and some "chemicals" like this one would be great. If you have a hobby store in your area it might be better to look at in person.

Role models are also important - the Lego set, for example, or a posters/books about around women scientists would be wonderful.

One thing I remember as a kid is that I really wanted to a) feel like a scientist (which meant dressing up with goggles, lab coat, and all) and b) do a lot of hands on stuff. I was really big into anything that was tactile.

A notebook and special pencil set for drawing and keeping track of her experiments. I loved my "science journals." My parents encouraged me to take them everywhere with me and write down observations and questions.

A crystal growing kit or experiment might be fun - there's instructions on the internet how to grow crystals, but there are kits too which are more fancy.

My dad used an engineer's plotter to make me this big blueprint of the steps in the scientific method. I LOVED IT. It was "sciency" looking because it was a blueprint, but I also had all the steps for an experiment right there to look at. I'll be honest: I still have it even though it's been ripped to shreds and taped back again. Something similar?

The thing I remember most about my lab area that my parents set up for me, though, was the questions my dad would leave for me on my "desk". Sometimes it was just a note to go out and bring back 5 kinds of grasses, or sketch 2 different kinds of clouds. Sometimes it was an actual little experiment, like "what happens if you drop 2 objects of different weight at the same time?" which forced me to design an experiment myself and collect the data, as well as follow the scientific method on my wall. Sometimes it was even as simple as "Come up with a question about why the dog does something and come back with an answer."

I don't remember what age my dad started doing that, but he would tell me at breakfast that I would have a "research assignment" waiting for me when I got home that night and I could hardly wait to get through the school day. When I had my "answer" I had to write it up following the steps in the scientific method and then give the report to my dad, and often give a "visual demonstration." Some of my fondest memories are of standing in front of my dad after dinner and giving my report; he would ask questions and sometimes would explain scientific concepts, or ask me how I would learn more. As I got older the assignments got more and more complex. Looking back, I got a lot of experience with the different parts of being a scientist with a lot of encouragement for developing my own curiosity and imagination. It actually makes me tear up a little thinking about it.
posted by barchan at 4:52 PM on November 3, 2015 [42 favorites]

This is a good kid's starter optical microscope, it is robust, the toplight is really useful, my son started using it when he was about 6.5 years and really likes it. When we go out I try and remember to take notebook and pencils for notes, and ziplocks, and we often bring things back (including dirt and rocks) to look at under the lens. He keeps little tupperware boxes of some previously collected stuff (cicada skins etc.).

He has a special shelf for special rocks/feathers/seeds/coins/twigs etc. Remember that what kids find interesting for exploration might not necessarily be what adults think is 'scientific.' As long as they are exploring that is fine with me.

More generally, he absolutely loves the DK Eyewitness kid's hardback books. There are plenty on STEM themed topics, I always pick them up second-hand on Amazon. Public libraries should have a selection. The Magic Treehouse series also encouraged this sort of interest in him.

History/archaeology is also a good related area to explore - get books, go to museums, etc. Science-themed postcards from museums etc. are fun to collect; in fact science museum gift shops are usually full of (over-priced) stuff like stick on stars/planets ...

Have fun!
posted by carter at 4:56 PM on November 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Giving this a stab (lifelong biologist). I was a kid who was really into science at that age and onward, and went on to pursue an undergrad and grad degree in the sciences. As a child, a few adults gave me stuff to encourage the interest, so this is my perspective looking back. I've taught bio at the uni level and some of these things I've done with kids, so...

-Nthing congen. Jars, jars, jars, and permission to run wild and collect things. Don't get in the way. Maybe there will be plants in there, maybe insects. Hands off!

-Also nthing Eyebrows. As a kid I bought a cheap box with compartments. Best thing ever for placing coveted insects, rocks, whatever weird thing I found. The box can keep up with evolving interests for years.

-I was going to point away from microscopes and stuff just because most stuff that you get as a kid isn't built to what it is supposed to and was more frustrating. But jamaro's microscope looks interesting.... So if you go that route and can actually see something through that, some samples that I think would be easy for someone to handle with an adult (even if the adult might not have background in it) would be things like living planaria. You can feed them stuff like egg yolk and watch them extend a proboscis and eat it. They respond to light, so you can do experiments with that. But I think planaria are instantly engaging for people of all ages because you can see it, it does something etc. Living dinoflagellates are also easy to handle and are beautiful specimens.

-Nthing that it had nothing to do with designing a space, etc., but more with the freedom to do stuff. I didn't have much money (or ability to spend money) as a kid, and if I could go back in time and through money at a younger me, science books and/or science magazines targeted to kids. Because if you read about it, become curious, then you want to experiment and learn more about it. (As an adult, I've seen some of the Eye Witness science books, with images of the insides of animals...this might get your child's interest, too.).

-What about biology? I've done owl pellet dissections with kids as young as 5, and most kids, as long as they are not squeamish, love it. You can talk about what they eat, hypothesize how many/what types of animals, and then look through and see how many/types of bones you can find. Kids (and adults) love pulling out little rat skulls. If an interest in biology persists, in later years, you can order sheep eyes, brains, etc., but I wouldn't that unless a child was about 10 or 11 to get something out of it.
posted by Wolfster at 4:56 PM on November 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

Oh! For the specimen boxes, a really cheap solution (that I still use) are fishing tackle boxes, like this or this. It's handy to have different size compartments.
posted by barchan at 5:14 PM on November 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: American Science and Surplus is an excellent source for containers of all sizes and types, cheap. Also other cool sciencey toys/supplies/projects/whatnot.

barchan: "It actually makes me tear up a little thinking about it."

posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:21 PM on November 3, 2015 [7 favorites]

Oooh, I just had an idea. Maybe she could use a label maker.
posted by amtho at 5:45 PM on November 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The bones of the space - I'm hoping to doo this soon for a corner and the plan is to use reconfigurable or grid shelves so she can easily switch things around and still have it accessible and visible. Things in drawers disappear. Clear small tool boxes that stack on each other and those pinboard walls you can hang things on are great for kids. Mine loves her cheap transparent toolbox, a fishing tackle box, and a hardware store will have lots of cheap durable options. Translucent is good too if you don't like too much visual clutter.

Also if you laminate print outs, then washi tape them to a wall, she can draw on them or label them and they are super durable. We laminated leaves and cutouts and they have stood up well. A whiteboard and chalkboard did NOT work for mine, but space to tape up pictures and printouts as a collage has hugely worked, mixed in with science drawings.

Ooh! And mix in portraits of cool scientists etc, 70% women, doing cool science. My kid thinks all astronauts are women, thanks Valentino!
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 5:54 PM on November 3, 2015

Sorry to threadsit in over-enthusiasm, but one last thing: the They Might Be Giants album HERE COMES SCIENCE! Which all have great videos too. Songs so good adult scientists might even sing along. Obligatory sample song: I Am a Paleontologist

Finding fossils is my aim, so I'm never in a rush
'cus the treasures that I seek
are rare and ancient things. . .

posted by barchan at 6:09 PM on November 3, 2015

If she has any interest in botany, you can get compact fluorescent light bulbs that you can grow plants with! they fit into a regular desk lamp - I have one in my windowless office and my desk plant is very happy.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 6:44 PM on November 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

Grow crystals!
posted by irisclara at 6:44 PM on November 3, 2015

Response by poster: Thanks all! There are a lot of great ideas here. I think we will put in some shelves and a desk to get her started. I'm going to try Jessamyn's white board idea, but if she ends up sticking laminated printouts over it that's fine with me. I'm still sorting through the microscope options- we will see what she prefers and go with that. I love all the suggestions for bottles, jars, beakers, etc.

We are both really excited! Thank you all so much.
posted by Missense Mutation at 7:45 AM on November 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

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