Sheila has worked as a parent educator for eight years. She has also been an elementary school teacher and a children's author.
Designing a preschool science activity is simple and fun since it's really just about exploring the world. The main points to remember are to keep it fun, simple, and a time for play. Young children are naturally curious since everything is new. The whole world becomes a never-ending source of awe. One benefit of being a parent is that you get to re-experience the pure delight of existence along with them. What could be better than that?
This article aims to share some preschool activities that you and your children may enjoy. Keep in mind that with preschoolers, simpler is better. Many of the ideas come from my book Tot's Agenda: A Toddler Through Kindergarten Activity Calendar and Record Book, which I wrote and illustrated when my children were young, way back in the '80's. Others come from my years as an elementary and preschool teacher. Still others, I've used more recently while working as a home visitor and parent educator with Parents As Teachers.
Here are the nine activities you'll find in this article:
- Make mini rivers in the sand.
- Make a solid/liquid mixture using cornstarch and water.
- Help them grow their own alfalfa sprouts.
- Explore nature.
- Organize and categorize different objects.
- Make a magnetic car.
- Make a homemade mini ramp.
- Create a homemade volcano.
- Have fun with bubbles.
These preschool activities, of course, are only suggestions. You may enjoy exploring so much that you delight in extending these ideas further and making up your own activities.
1. Play in the Sand
Sand play offers a child lots of tactile experiences that are open-ended yet full of learning opportunities. Digging and filling cups and pails is lots of fun. Add an old set of measuring cups and you have something that he can refer to later when he is learning volume and fractions. You don't have to do a lot of talking about it now, but repeatedly filling up a 1/2 cup and dumping it into one cup sets the stage for realizing that two 1/2 cups is the same thing as one cup.
When I taught fractions in fourth grade, it amazed me how some children seemed to grasp concepts quickly while others seemed to have a block. One child couldn't get beyond the thought that because two is more than one, the two in 1/2 automatically made 1/2 more than 1!
Although I could understand her logic, I realized that what she lacked was experience playing with measuring cups and spoons. In other words, she needed to see for herself how the idea worked in the real world. Abstract ideas, especially for children, are meaningless unless they can pin them to some real-world experience. The kind of play experiences children have before they go to school really matter and influence their learning success.
Activity: Making Rivers
A fun activity you can try with sand is to make rivers.
- One piece of plywood—the larger the better
- A piece of board to help prop it up
- A hose
- Prop up the board to make a slight incline. Don't overdo it—a slight rise on one end is all you need.
- Cover the plywood with sand and smooth it out.
- Let water trickle from the hose at the high end of the board. The water will find its way to the lower end of the plywood. Watch the way it meanders. Watch it carve out banks in the sand. The steeper the incline, the straighter and quicker your river will be, but the most interesting effects are with a slower river.
- You can have additional fun by placing a small stick (a fallen "tree") at the top of your river and watch how it travels to the end.
2. Mix Cornstarch and Water
This mixture looks like a liquid. No, wait a minute, it's a solid! But look, it pours! This is crazy! I have done this project with lots of kids. In the video above, an adult is making what he calls "Oobleck." If you watch this video before involving the kids, you'll have a better idea on how to proceed.
Here is another video that gives a few tidbits of science information to go along with the experience.
As you can see in both videos, because of the scientific qualities of this stuff, kids of many ages may enjoy playing with it. The preschooler will just like the feel of it while the older child may also benefit from thinking about why it behaves the way it does.
- Water with a few drops of food coloring
- Container for mixing
- Once you have gotten the ingredients together, have the child mix them.
- The proper combination will result in a shiny-looking solid that will start to pour and ooze like a liquid when you tip your container. Weird. Your child may enjoy fooling around with the goop by sticking her fingers in it. It's fascinating stuff, and you may get hooked too.
3. Grow Alfalfa Sprouts
What could be more fun than having your experiment and eating it too?
- Alfalfa seeds or mung beans
- Clean jar
- Elastic band
- Soak beans or seeds overnight in the jar.
- In the morning, cover the mouth of the jar with a piece of cheesecloth and fasten it with the elastic band.
- Drain the water out of the jar through the cheesecloth.
- Put the jar on its side in a safe place and check on it every day to see if the seeds sprout.
- Rinse the seeds regularly by pouring water through the cheesecloth, swishing it around, and then draining it out. Don't let the seeds dry out or become too soggy.
- When the sprouts look ready, add them as hair to your funny-face sandwiches.
4. Go on a Nature Walk
When you are walking outdoors with young children, it can be a challenge to make headway. Everything you come upon is a reason to stop and wonder. If you can, slow down so that your little one can take in the natural world the way they were meant to.
Sharing Nature with Children is filled with great ideas and wisdom. Our family enjoyed many of the activities in this book. Inspired by the approach the author, Joseph Cornell, takes with children in nature, we spent many hours exploring the natural settings around our house and in the forest.
Even if you live in a city, there are often dandelions poking up through cracks in the pavement or ants crawling along the cement. Look anew at such wonders with your child. We are not meant to be separated in our own bubble from other living things. If you see how delighted your child can be chasing pigeons in the park, you can appreciate and reawaken your own wonder.
Here are a couple of things to take on your walk to make it even more fun and educational.
- A magnifying glass
- A plant and/or bird identification book
5. Categorize Objects
Almost any collection of items can be categorized: shells, stones, small cars, stickers, stuffed animals, etc. You can put them in rows according to color, size, or shape. Well-washed egg cartons can be reused to hold small items.
Matching socks according to size and color or the person they belong to is a great laundry day categorizing activity. Organizing cutlery in the drawer is another activity that requires categorizing skills.
6. Play With Magnets
This is a good activity for children who no longer stick things in their mouths. Remember to supervise them though!
If you can, gather a few supplies to put in a special cookie tin (oh, okay, a regular box will do, but a cookie tin makes it all the more fun) so that you can pull it out at a moment's notice and have a ready-to-go science experiment that will be fun to explore. If you are traveling, this is also something that can be packed up easily to bring along. Plus, the cookie tin can also serve as a little tray that your child can use to lean a paper on for drawing.
Stock your tin with a variety of magnets and objects that the magnets may or may not attract. It's fun to include a couple of bar magnets so you can experiment with attraction and repulsion. You may want to include a horseshoe magnet and a wand magnet, too. Here are some other fun additions: a funny face toy with filings for making hairdos and beards; magnetic balls; paper clips; washers; jar lids, etc.
As a reminder, children under three or who tend to put things in their mouths should not be given tiny objects that could be choking hazards. If you have a child who likes to put things in their mouth, jar lids and a larger magnet designed for preschoolers may work for you. Be extra careful playing with magnets with small children. No matter how old they are children should always be supervised during this activity since swallowing magnets can be very dangerous.
Activity: Car Magnets
This is a fun activity that will keep your child fascinated.
- Make a small flat car out of cardboard and glue a piece of magnetic tape to the back. (You can find this tape at craft stores or online. A large paper clip attached to the cardboard will work too but not as well.)
- Let your child help you draw a racetrack or a winding road on another sheet of cardboard.
- After you have decorated it, place the car, magnet-side down, on the cardboard and pull the wand magnet along underneath.
If you want, you can have a race with two or more cars or add other items and people to the scene. Just be sure to glue more magnet tape to the undersides of your additions so you can move them around like magic, too. If you have neither the time nor the inclination to make your own cars, animals, and people, you can find some great ones commercially.
You can also change up this activity by drawing a maze together. Tape it to a cookie sheet and use magnetic balls that you can maneuver along the track with a magnetic wand underneath. This can keep your child occupied for some time.
7. Have Fun With Ramps and Balls
Playing with a few balls and ramps can help young children learn about gravity and momentum.
- You can easily make this activity with some boards propped on blocks and a few balls and matchbox cars.
- You can also make a really exciting version with some vinyl molding you can find in a hardware or building supply store. "Cove" (for ceiling trim) or "inside corner" about an inch and a half wide are what you need.
- Golf balls work great with the moldings, but again, you have to think of safety and judge whether they would be appropriate for your child.
- You can also use ping pong type balls or small rubber balls. (These "raceways" were suggested by a flyer from The Children's Museum in Boston. They suggest using the ping pong balls or rubber balls.)
- You can bend these moldings and make loop-de-loops or otherwise manipulate them for exciting runs.
- Duct tape one end to the back of a chair or to a low table and use blocks beneath the bottom end to make the balls fly. Experiment with different variations.
- Your children may enjoy using balls (or small cars) of different weights and sizes and testing them to see which goes down the ramp the fastest. You could contrast this with a test as to which one goes the furthest once it leaves the ramp. Is there a difference and if so, why?
This Is a More Elaborate Homemade Volcano
8. Make a Homemade Volcano
This science project is an old favorite. The chemical reaction that happens when you mix baking soda and vinegar can be amazing, especially for the little ones. Who doesn't enjoy the thrill of making a volcanic explosion in a cup?
- an empty cup
- a spoon
- some baking soda
- a cup of vinegar
- food coloring (optional)
Do this activity on an outdoor table or have towels on hand to mop up the spills if you choose to do it inside.
- Put a spoonful or two of baking soda into the empty cup.
- Carefully pour in the vinegar. What happens?
- Try adding more baking soda, then more vinegar.
- As the parent, you decide ahead of time how much baking soda and vinegar to put out, but then the child gets to decide how much to put into the cup.
- Ask questions such as, "What do you think would happen if we...?" "Where did those bubbles come from?"
Things to notice: If you keep adding more baking soda without adding vinegar, at what point do the bubbles stop? What happens if you add more vinegar? Can you make the cup overflow?
You can vary the activity by adding red food coloring to the vinegar, but you may end up with stains. If you do the activity outside and the children are wearing old clothes, that may not be a problem.
If your child really enjoys this activity, you can extend the fun by making a volcano out of playdough with a hole in the middle where you can insert the cup. You could also make a mountain in your sandbox, as in the video below.
You have created a chemical reaction between the baking soda (a base) and the vinegar (an acid). The bubbles are carbon dioxide trying to escape. This works similarly to a can of soda, especially if you shake it up before opening. There's something really satisfying about making a reaction happen. Adding the mountain to the play can lead to discussions about the earth and real volcanoes that occur in nature. (Of course, in a real volcano, hot magma is released from deep beneath the earth's crust.) This discussion would be more appropriate for an older brother or sister as the preschooler is more interested in making the bubbles happen. However, an activity like this that can involve children of different ages can make the activity fun for the whole family.
9. Play With Bubbles
There's so much to learn by playing with bubbles! But most importantly, bubbles are just plain fun for children of all ages! Always supervise children when they're playing with water.
How to make bubbles at home:
1. Mix 1/4 cup of liquid dish soap (Joy works best but others will do) with one-quart warm water. To strengthen bubbles so they don't break as easily, add a few drops of glycerine. (If you don't have glycerine, you can use some cooking oil, but it isn't as effective.)
2. Slip a piece of string through two plastic straws and tie. Dip into a pan of the soapy water. Hold a straw in each hand and lift from the water. Blow for giant-sized bubbles. The size of the bubbles will depend on the length of the piece of string you have used.
3. Try dipping plastic berry baskets in the water and swishing them through the air. You can also use cans with the ends removed. (Be sure there are no sharp edges.) Other possibilities to try are canning rings, wire coat hangers, and funnels. You may have something else in your kitchen or basement that could work too.
4. Use a straw to blow bubble sculptures in a shallow tray of soapy water. Depending on the children's age, you may have to remind them to blow, not suck in, through the straw.
Reading about an activity and actually doing it with kids can be two different experiences. If you have done a couple of these activities, which one did you like best? If an activity didn't work with your kids, why do you think that was so? Tell us what happened!
© 2010 Sheilamarie
Suggestion Box: Preschool Science - Science Projects and Your Children
Sheilamarie (author) from British Columbia on April 27, 2013:
@JeffVilcinskas: I hope you get to try some of these projects. Let me know how they enjoy it.
JeffVilcinskas on April 25, 2013:
Well you have some awesome ideas here, just wish I had this lens when my kids were a little bit younger! Heck knowing them, they still might like some of these projects. Thanks for the awesome lens!
Sheilamarie (author) from British Columbia on November 03, 2012:
@anonymous: Thanks, keetykaa! I hope you get to try some of these ideas with your kids.
anonymous on November 03, 2012:
Excellent lens and ideas, I really like lenses with fun ideas for kids activities:)
TeacherRenee on October 06, 2011:
Thanks for the great ideas in the science area. They are sure to inspire young minds!
AlisonMeacham on July 30, 2011:
Some excellent ideas here. Angel Blessings to you
KonaGirl from New York on July 18, 2011:
Really good ideas to keep that preschooler occupied with something they can can understand in science.
Pat from Midwest, USA on September 28, 2010:
Great ideas for some bonding time! Maybe even some kodak moments. I've lensrolled to my Best Children's Books - The Early Years
SpellOutloud on September 16, 2010:
Love the ideas here. I'll be lensrolling this w/ my
Sheilamarie (author) from British Columbia on April 26, 2010:
Thanks, Evelyn. Yes, I know I need pictures! The page seems empty without them. I hope to add some soon.
Evelyn Saenz from Royalton on April 25, 2010:
Lots of wonderfully creative ideas here. I can hardly wait until you get a chance to add some pictures of your kids doing some of these fun, hands-on projects.