Bring the magic of science into your home with our compilation of easy experiments that you can perform with children. Science is a wonderful paradox of knowledge and magic – to the untrained eye it is astonishing but there is solid reasoning behind it.

As scientists, we are fascinated by things we don’t know and attempt to answer these questions during our research. The same is true for our children who, as any parent will know, have a tendency for exploration.

As a child, I was fascinated by how a simple mixture of cornflour and water could produce something liquid, yet solid; to tell the truth, this still fascinates me! This article aims to help you bring the wonder of science into your home to captivate your family.

Be both a magician and a teacher; no specialist equipment required!


Cornflour magic



Equipment:

  • Bowl
  • Cornflour (U.K) / corn starch (USA)
  • Water
  • Food coloring (optional)


Protocol:

  1. Add cornflour to the bowl
  2. Add a small amount of water and stir with a spoon.
  3. Keep adding water until all the cornflour is wet. This is when you would add some food coloring if desired.
  4. Keep adding water until a ‘slime’ consistency has formed.

Cast your magic:

Hit the surface of the solution: it will feel solid. Slowly run your fingers through the solution: it will be a liquid.


Expand your knowledge:

Most fluids are called ‘Newtonian’ because they remain fluid even when a force is applied to them. However, non-Newtonian fluids, such as the cornflour and water mixture, become hard when struck. This sudden shear-force causes the particles of cornflour to compress together, increasing viscosity. This property has been used in some forms of body armor, such as Kevlar.


For more information:

Questacon: cornflour slime


Nature: Impact-activated solidification of dense suspensions via dynamic jamming fronts



Red cabbage pH indicator


Slices of red cabbage on a table
Photo by Gabriel Gurrola

Equipment:

  • Jug
  • Drinking glasses
  • 3-4 red cabbage leaves
  • Warm tap water, ~400ml
  • Sieve
  • Household items to test, eg lemon juice, vinegar, baking soda, milk
  • Blender (optional)


Protocol:

  1. Tear up cabbage leaves into small pieces.
  2. Place in a bowl and pour boiling water over them. Allow to cool. If using a blender, add leaves and water and blend until the water turns dark purple.
  3. Remove the leaves using a sieve and transfer the liquid into a jug.
  4. Pour about 50 ml of the liquid into a glass.


Cast your magic:

Add a substance to the cabbage solution, eg vinegar. The solution will change color! Use a fresh glass for each substance you try.


Expand your knowledge:

Red cabbage leaves get their color from a natural pigment called anthocyanin, which can be easily extracted from the leaves using warm water. Water is a neutral solution (pH 7) so the anthocyanin remains purple. However, when it is exposed to acid (pH 0–7) or alkali (pH 7–14) solutions, the pigment changes color: pink-red for acidic solutions, and green-yellow for alkali solutions.


For more information:

BBC Science Focus: how to build a red cabbage pH indicator


IOP Conference Series: Materials Science and Engineering: the effect of pH and color stability of anthocyanin on food colorant



Paper towel art



Equipment:

  • Paper towels
  • Marker pens
  • Small tray of water
  • Scissors

Protocol:

  1. Fold the paper towel in half and cut into two squares keeping the fold intact.
  2. On the front square draw a basic image using a marker pen, eg a tree.
  3. Unfold the paper towel. The marker will have bled through so your image should be visible on the square underneath.
  4. Using more markers, color in the image on the bottom square.
  5. Re-fold the paper towel.


Cast your magic:

Place the paper towel onto the water and watch as the colors magically appear!


Expand your knowledge:

Paper towels absorb liquids through a process called capillary action. As the paper towel lands on the water, the water is absorbed into the paper towel allowing the design on the bottom square to show through. If washable markers are used, the color will dissolve in the water and absorb into the paper towel along with the water.


For more information:

Magic paper towel art


Chemistry Libre Texts: capillary action



Make a lava lamp


Picture of a red glowing lava lamp
Photo by Martin Lostak

Equipment:

  • A clean, plastic bottle
  • Vegetable or baby oil
  • Water
  • Food coloring
  • Fizzing tablets eg Alka Seltzer


Protocol:

  1. Fill the bottle with until it is about a quarter full.
  2. Top up the bottle with vegetable oil until it is almost full.
  3. Add a few drops of food coloring to the bottle.


Cast your magic:

Break a fizzy tablet in half, add to the bottle and watch the bottle turn into a lava lamp!


Expand your knowledge:

Oil is less dense than water, so it floats above the water. Food coloring is the same density as water and, therefore, mixes with the water when it is added. When the fizzy tablet comes into contact with the water, it starts to dissolve and release carbon dioxide. As carbon dioxide is lighter than water, it floats to the top. Some colored water is caught in the gas bubbles but when the air is released, the water sinks back to the bottom.

For more information:

Science fun: Lava lamp


Journal of chemical education: The real reason why oil and water don’t mix



Tornado in a bottle


Picture of a tornado in a dark sky above a field
Photo by Nikolas Noonan

Equipment:

  • 2 clear, plastic bottles
  • 1 sports-bottle cap
  • Jug
  • Sticky tape
  • Water
  • Food coloring (optional)


Protocol:

  1. Use the sticky tape to attach the bottle cap upside down onto one bottle.
  2. Fill a jug with water. If using food coloring, add to the water, and fill the other bottle.
  3. Attach the empty bottle onto the full one.
  4. Turn upside down. We recommend that this step is performed in a tray or outside in the event of leaks.


Cast your magic:

Swirl the bottles vigorously and watch a tornado appear!


Expand your knowledge:

At first, the bottom bottle is full of air, which results in the water being trapped in the top bottle. Spinning the bottles causes the water to form a water vortex and allows the air to swap places with the water. The centripetal force causes the water to swirl in a circle as it descends into the bottom bottle, which causes the formation of the ‘tornado’.

For more information:

How to make a tornado in a bottle (please don’t try the fire experiment at home!)


National Geographic: What we know – and what we don’t – about the science of tornadoes


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