Geeky Parent Guide: Engaging Kids with Fun STEM Activities

Engaging kids with fun activities, especially when it involves some kind of science experiment, is a great way for parents to connect with their children. The process of learning how something works – say, building a balloon rocket – is one thing, but getting to see it in action is a completely different thing. When I get to see my own kids excitedly shout over seeing some of the STEM activities we worked on together, it’s the perfect excuse to continue doing more in the future.

Thanks to STEM Toy Expert, created by Dr. Mark Coster, my wife and I were able to tackle a few of the many activities listed in “Ultimate Boredom Buster: 101 Things to Do When Kids Are Bored.” All of these experiments were simple to do, but the results created a sense of awe from my two kiddos.

Let’s dive into these activities, so you and your kids can explore the wonderfully fun STEM world.

Balloon Rockets
Items: balloons, straws, string, tape

We tied one end of the string to our banister and then held the other end of the string at the opposite end of the living room. Then, we placed the string through a straw. Tip: If you have flexible straws, just make sure to cut off the bendable portion. We used a large straw and cut it to about two to three inches. For everyone who struggles to blow up balloons (like me), I’m so sorry. It does take some effort for me and make sure to hold onto the end when you’ve gotten it to a nice size.

All of these steps your kids can assist with, except for blowing up the balloons for my kids (ages 6 and 7). They weren’t able to help with that part, but it’s completely okay. They can tape the straw to the balloon, while also holding the end of the string.

And, of course, do an official countdown to set the stage and get them even more excited. 3, 2, 1 – BLAST OFF!!

This activity is fantastic for several reasons. It lets me explain how releasing air from a balloon causes it to propel itself forward. So, force releasing in one direction moves an object in the opposite direction. Additionally, it lets my kids see trial and errors firsthand. Meghan and I had to reposition the straw at different points on the balloon to finally get the best results. First, we started closer toward the top of the balloon, away from where the air releases.

Our very first try resulted in a slow, bumbling motion down the long string, spinning in circles along the way. Our second effort, after blowing up the balloon again, we moved the straw closer to the middle, about halfway from the top and bottom. Adelaide held onto the string during this attempt and it did much better as it rocketed down the string at a nice pace. The third effort resulted in a balloon popping in someone’s face, so watch out if you’re using the same balloon again and again.

Another great teaching lesson happened when Marshall held the string. We did the usual countdown, and as Meghan let go of the balloon, the balloon shot up into the air, zig zagging through the air. Instead of following its path onto the string, Marshall had let go of the string as Meghan let go of the balloon. Not only was it a comical moment, it was perhaps the kids’ favorite moment from this particular experiment. They were laughing and the word “Cool” was uttered many times. During his next attempt, he held the string and it rocketed quickly down its path. It’s safe to say, they enjoyed this activity and wanted to also recreate the accident to watch it fly uncontrollably in all directions.

Creating Tornadoes
Items: jar with lid or any kind of bottle with a top, water, dish soap, vinegar, blue food coloring

This was a super-quick experiment, but it’s had our kids recreating on their own since we first did it. We filled a jar with water about three-quarters of the way. We added a few drops of food coloring, which I’m assuming you could use any. We then added a teaspoon of soap and then vinegar.

I swirled the jar after closing the top. Yes, it did leak, so be prepared for a minor cleanup if this happens. The kids were mesmerized by the formation of this mini-tornado. Seeing how it swirled around and then dissipated was very important, especially since our kids will be learning about weather this year. Witnessing the motion allows them to better understand how the real thing, a gigantic tornado, would be able to cause a massive amount of destruction. Since it takes great wind speeds to generate a tornado, this experiment gave our kids a safe introduction into how a very destructive force works and what it looks like.

Building Structures
Items: pretzel sticks, marshmallows

Now, this initially was going to be an engineering feat of building bridges with straws, but we had to adapt our plan since we didn’t have that many straws on hand. It was very interesting to see our kids trying to build something, and understanding as they went along that their structures needed a support system of some kind.

They created square or triangular bases; for example: three marshmallows connected by three pretzel sticks. Then, they could build upwards from that base. Marshall also placed sticky marshmallows onto the table, with pretzels sticking out of each one, which acted as fixed items to lean his structure against.

This was probably the most frustrating activity for the kids. It was difficult to build something out of these two materials, but in the end, any frustration they might’ve had was wiped away when they learned a smores pie would be made with the used marshmallows.

Making a Volcano
Items: cylinder-shaped shot glass, baking soda, vinegar, red food coloring, Play-Doh, grocery store plastic bag, baking pan

Okay, our kids had this activity for their lessons in homeschool. So, even though it’s not a part of the many activities listed on this list from the STEM Toy Expert, I wanted to include their experience with this super fun activity.

Some of the items listed for this particular activity are strange. The baking pan is to place the volcano in and catch the eruption, so to help avoid playing a game our kids are quite fond of – “the floor is lava.” Next, the grocery bag is my alternative to not having any kind of newspaper or magazines to where I could papier-mâché around the shot glass, which helped create the mountainous shape. And, of course, the shot glass was a nice vehicle based on the limited supply of Play-Doh we had.
I think our kids would love to witness the volcano erupting over and over again. After learning about how volcanos were created, where lava comes from, and watching videos to see it with their eyes, this experiment let them have an up-close experience with how lava continues to move down the mountain after it “explodes.”

If you are looking for fun activities with your kids, I highly recommend any or all of the ones I tried with my own kids. Also, check out the STEM Toy Expert site as it “reviews & recommends the best Science, Technology, Engineering & Math (STEM) toys. From babies to adults, robotics to biology, we advise on educational toys for a wide range of purposes and audiences.”

Which of these activities have you or would you like to do with your kids? Share in the comments below, and don’t forget to like and share this article with your friends over on Facebook and Twitter.

Until next time, happy parenting and happy geeking.

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