Autumn means falling leaves, hot apple cider – and lots of opportunities for preschool science! Young children are natural scientists, asking endless questions, conducting countless experiments, and making innumerable observations. The following quick and easy activities capitalize on children’s natural inquisitiveness, and require little or no preparation.
Pumpkin Sink or Float – While you are carving pumpkins or cooking with pumpkins or other gourds, provide your child with a large bowl full of water, and give them everything that you are not using. Encourage them to put the different parts of the gourd into the water to see if they sink or float. This could include the seeds, stem, and fibrous strands, as well as pieces of skin and flesh. Ask children to make predictions about what will sink and float, and to test these predictions. To continue the independent play, provide them with a spoon, cups, child appropriate tweezers, and anything else that they can use to experiment with water. (NOTE: children should always be supervised when playing with water.)
Leaf Chromatography – Collect a variety of different leaves with your child. Try to get as many colors as possible. Back in the kitchen, cut or tear the leaves into pieces. Put each torn up leaf in a separate cup, along with a paper towel standing straight up, like a pH strip. Ask your child to move to the side while you add nail polish remover (acetone) or rubbing alcohol into the cup. Mix and mash the leaf pieces into the liquid. Then put the cups to the side.
After 3-4 hours, you should see a rainbow of colors on the paper towel. Each strip of color represents a color that is in the leaf. Note that the more liquid you put in the cup, the higher the colors will travel, and the more likely they are to separate. Show your child the paper towel, and talk to them about what colors they expected to see and what colors surprised them. This is also a great time to introduce the word chlorophyll, and to explain how leaves use the dyes on the paper towel to turn sunlight into food.
Seed Scavenger Hunt – It’s fall, which means seeds are everywhere! Maple helicopters, acorns, pine cones, milkweed, and seed pods all appear in the autumn. Gather the different types of seeds and bring them home. Allow your child to explore them freely. If possible, provide them with a magnifying glass and kid friendly tweezers. Also provide them with water colors or colored pencils and ask so they can draw what they see. As they observe the size, shape, and insides of seeds, talk about how different seeds are spread. For example, maple helicopters are spread by the wind, while acorns are spread by animals like squirrels. Finally, if possible, plant a seed and see what happens.
Apple Challenge – Cut up small pieces of apple and put them in 4-5 small cups or Tupperware containers. Leave one container free of liquid. In the other containers, add water, lemon juice, vinegar, tonic water, soda, or whatever else you have on hand. Let the apples sit for the day and watch what happens. The apple without any liquid will most likely brown: this is the apple reacting with oxygen. Different types of liquid will create different levels of browning, or will prevent the apples from browning. Take the apples out of the liquids and allow children to explore the colors and textures of each fruit.
Fall Engineering Challenge – Gather leaves, twigs, pine cones, pebbles, seed pods, maple helicopters, and whatever else you can find on a walk or in the yard. Then try to build with what you’ve found. Allow your child to use their imagination, or try to give each other challenges. How high can you stack pinecones? Can you make a leaf sculpture that stays standing up? After you are done building, encourage your child to use the materials to make a collage, or to incorporate them into pretend play.