Just because it’s the holiday season doesn’t mean learning has to go out the window.

Combine learning activities and seasonal fun with these science experiments that are festive and educational at the same time.

Growing Crystal Ornaments

Shape pipe cleaners and thread into various ornament shapes – snowflakes are a natural here, and since every snow flake is different there’s lots of room for creativity. Tie one end of a string to the shape and the other end to a pencil or stick as a hanger. Suspend each shape in a jar filled with the following solution made of:

  • Boiling water
  • Borax – 3 tablespoons per cup of water.

(Make sure the Borax is totally dissolved before you put the shapes in.)

Crystals will begin to form overnight. When they have reached a size you like, remove the shapes from the solution and hang them to dry. They look lovely on trees or hanging in windows.

Variations:

  • Add a few drops of food coloring to the solution for a bit of color
  • Paint the pipe cleaners with glow-in-the-dark paint and allow it to dry before putting it in the solution
  • Replace the borax with Epsom salts, alum or even sugar (hint: you’ll need a lot more than 3 tablespoons) to compare the differences between the types of crystals different chemicals produce.

holiday scienceCandy Cane Chemistry

Turn the kitchen into a chemistry lab (or vice versa!) with this edible experiment. To liven up this experiment, don’t tell the kids what they’re making. Put the ingredients in containers marked “Ingredient One” , “Ingredient Two”, etc. and let them puzzle out the mystery for themselves. Make sure to have them record what happens at each step of the process to make this a true experiment!

Ingredients:

  • 3 cups granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon peppermint flavor
  • ½ cup water
  • ¾ cup corn syrup
  • ¾  teaspoon red food coloring
  • ¼ teaspoon cream of tartar

Step by step:

1) Combine sugar, water and corn syrup and heat on the stove until everything is dissolved.

2) Divide the mixture into two pans and bring each to a boil without stirring. They should reach a temperature of 280°F.

3) Add ½ teaspoon of the peppermint flavor to each pan and stir.

4) Add the food coloring to one pan and stir. Let both pans cool.

5) When the mixture is cool enough to touch, remove the candy from the pans and stretch it like taffy into ropes of red and white, twisting them together to make the traditional candy cane shape. Place them on wax paper to harden.

These are not only delicious to eat, but make great homemade gifts for kids to give.

Let It Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow

If the kids are hankering for a white Christmas but there’s not a snowflake in site, they can make their own snow, thanks to science.

Sodium polyacrylate is a non-toxic polymer that you can purchase at a garden supply store, or harvest from the lining of diapers. It’s the same substance used to make toys that grow when immersed in water. What it mostly does is absorb moisture – as much as 200 to 300 hundred times its own mass.

To make fake snow with it, all you have to do is add water – the more water you add, the slushier the snow will be! You can even refrigerate it to get a more realistic snow like texture.

While fake snow is fun to play with (and can be used to enhance your holiday decorations, too) don’t forget that this is supposed to be a science lesson.  Have the kids experiment with different amounts of the sodium polyacrylate and water, and record the results, and ask them questions about their observations.  The fake snow feels cool in their hands – why is that? What happens if you mix in other substances, like food coloring or salt?

This is a great way to introduce the concept of osmosis for younger students. Or, for older kids, use this fun experiment to kick off a unit on polymers, molecules and chemistry in general.

Clean up is easy: let the fake snow dry out and toss it in the trash when you are done. Be careful not to put the Sodium polyacrylate down the sink or toilet!

Rae Eriksen writes about science, energy and home efficiency for Air-n-Water.com.

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