I love my daughter’s school, but I can’t help but groan inwardly when I receive a note about an upcoming science fair. We all know it’s usually the parents who are up at late hours tracking down poster board and markers for a last-minute masterpiece. I’ve exchanged many weary glances with fellow parents at Home Depot, buying plywood and paint for a diorama.
After my child’s last school project, which involved a lot of spray paint and craft knives, I decided enough was enough. Instead of being a science fair for kids, it was turning into a competition to see whose parents would win the blue ribbon. I made a promise that from then on, my daughter would be in charge of her own project.
The only problem is, my daughter is six. She can’t exactly grab the keys and head to the local art supply shop to pick up glitter and glue. Nor can she do everything unassisted. But then I realized that I already have a ton of stuff around the house that can be used to make a great science project.
Armed with a pantry full of supplies, I made it my mission to discover the cheapest, easiest elementary school science projects that my daughter can do (mostly) by herself.
Affordable Science Project Ideas
Science projects don’t have to cost much – or anything at all. And though your child’s project may not be in the same league as the parent-made replica of the human brain, at least your child did the project herself – and learned from it. After all, isn’t that the point?
Here are five of the best kid- and wallet-friendly projects:
1. Weather Patterns
If your child is always asking why it rains or why it gets hot in the summer, try this project related to warm and cold fronts. Fill two flat bins, one with hot water and one with cold water. Then, fill up four water balloons, two with hot water and two with cold. Show how different “fronts” (the water balloons) move across Earth’s surface (the bins of water) when the weather is already hot or cold – the weather being determined by the water in each bin
This is fun because other kids can try it for themselves at the science fair, which also means extra points for interactivity!
2. Air Expansion
Teaching kids about how air expands due to heat is difficult, since they can’t ordinarily see the action. However, this can easily be demonstrated with an empty soda bottle.
First, remove the bottle cap, and place the soda bottle in the fridge until it becomes cold. Next, take it out of the fridge and place a coin over the open mouth of the bottle. Grasp the bottle with both of your hands, and after a few seconds, the coin will jump off of the mouth of the bottle. This is due to the air pressure expanding thanks to the warmth of your – or your child’s – hands.
Just remember, you need a cold bottle for this. It will help to bring a cooler filled with ice to school for the demonstration.
3. Bouncy Balls
If your child has been learning about the effects of hot and cold air, it’s fun and simple to use a bouncy ball to illustrate the point – and most only cost about a quarter in your grocery store candy machines.
First, grab a bouncy ball and rub it between your hands to keep it warm. Bounce it and measure its bounce with your child. Then, put the ball in your freezer for 10 minutes and repeat the exercise. How has the bounce changed?
Your child should notice that a cold ball doesn’t bounce as high as a warm ball. A heated ball is more flexible and compresses more than a cold ball on impact, which means that at the moment the ball is stationary (before bouncing up) it has more energy stored. This allows the heated ball to propel upward with more force than a cold ball, which has contracted molecules and less stored energy.
4. Egg in a Bottle
This classic trick always amazes viewers, but it requires adult supervision. Give your child’s teacher advance notice if you won’t be there for the project presentation.
It starts with a glass bottle – a milk bottle works best. Take a peeled, hard-boiled egg and rest it on the mouth of the bottle. It doesn’t fit, right? Then, remove the egg and light a couple birthday candles with a match, dropping them into the bottom of the bottle (don’t worry – it’s safe as long as it’s a glass bottle). Then, place the egg back on the mouth of the bottle. After a few seconds, the egg will be sucked into the bottle as the candles become extinguished.
What happened? The fire consumes the oxygen in the bottle, creating a vacuum effect that draws in the egg. This is a great project to illustrate how a fire consumes oxygen.
5. Sweet Taste Test
If your child wants to be the hit of the science fair, offer a tasting station based on the question, “Which is sweeter?” Raid your pantry for some sweet stuff, like granulated sugar, brown sugar, honey, and compare it to a sugar substitute. Help your child hypothesize which will be the sweetest, and then use toothpicks or small baby spoons to get a taste.
Your child should seek to determine how the sweetness of sugar substitutes compares to the sweetness of sugar: Are sugar substitutes as sweet as sugar? If you wanted to substitute one for sugar in a recipe, should you use the same amount? Do recipes have to be modified to use sugar substitutes like artificial sweeteners, sugar alcohols (like sorbitol), or natural sweeteners (such as honey)?
You might still have to lend a hand when your child undertakes a simple, affordable science project. But by grabbing free and cheap materials, it becomes less of a race to see whose parents stayed up the latest, and more about engaging children in the love of science. Plus, didn’t you already pass fifth grade? Give your child a turn instead!
What other affordable science fair projects can you suggest?