Giving science gifts is relatively hard. There are some gifts which are fun enough, but have no educational or scientific value whatsoever. Other gifts are so soaked in pure education that they're as joyless as study guides. Here, we've got the best of both worlds — the most awesomely fun and educational science gifts to buy, or make, for any age.
I have come up with a few actual science gifts that anyone can enjoy, but first I'm going to give you a quick, cheap, and plentiful chemistry set that you can gather for any young kid.
One Giant Jug of Vinegar
One Huge Carton of Baking Soda
Multiple Jugs of Bubble Solution
Candles and Matches
Key Component: At Least Three Coupons for Dry Ice
(You can get dry ice usually from supermarkets, butchers shops, or ice cream stores. Call around.)
Bonus: Some glycerin from a drugstore
Most chemistry sets come with a lot of cool stuff as set-up, but are sorely lacking in both volume and any chemical that might possibly be a hazard, giving kids few chances to play around with what they make. One demonstration, generally done by following instructions in a book, will not give kids a good idea of the chemical principles, and also won't give them leeway to experiment on their own, which is crucial if they're going to have a good time with science. This DIY chemistry set is plentiful enough for many free form experiments and plenty of goofing around. And the dry ice will hype up the cool factor. If you can, dry to get some dry ice on the day you give the "set," so you can play around right away. If not, a bottle of coke and some mentos will probably also satisfy the immediate goof-around factor.
The vinegar alone will give you plenty of stuff to do. Put eggs and bones in it to let the calcium dissolve overnight and make them rubbery in the morning. You can also put wire wool and vinegar together and let kids feel how the two heat up (because the wire wool is rusting and the vinegar is speeding the process up). Then, let the kids put a bunch of other things in the vinegar to see how it effects them over time. Let them experiment.
Next grab the baking soda and vinegar. Put them together to release carbon dioxide, and pour the carbon dioxide over candles to extinguish them. Explain to the kids what's happening, and let them try the experiment with multiple candles and many different shapes of containers, as well as different amounts of baking soda and vinegar. Next, try putting baking soda and vinegar in a sealed plastic bag or balloon, and watching it blow up as the gas is released. You can try it with plastic soda bottles, if you stand back. Try it underwater. Try it in a box full of those styrofoam packing peanuts everyone has around the holidays. (Remember, never let them put the two chemicals in glass or concrete. Nothing that can create flying shards.) Let them play around with that.
Grab the bubble solution. Bubbles will float on carbon dioxide, because it's heavier than air. Pour some baking soda and vinegar in a large container and watch the bubbles float and bounce off of an invisible wall. Try also to put the two in a thin-necked bottle that will shoot carbon dioxide up in the air and make a kind of invisible bubble accelerator for any bubble going in. Experiment with different sizes and shapes for the container, and different amounts of vinegar and baking soda. Try stretching bubble solution over the top of a bottle in a film and letting the mixture inside blow bubbles as it ejects gas.
If you've gotten the glycerin, you can have the kids add glycerin to the bubble solution. It will make the solution less breakable - up to a point. If they have clean cotton gloves, they can even hold the bubbles. Have them try out different amounts of glycerin and see how that affects the bubble solutions.
Now try all of that again with dry ice, showing the kids how different-looking substances make the same gas. (The invisible bubble wall is especially cool, since it can freeze bubbles and let you pick them up.) Stretch more film over a bottle with dry ice and water in it, and let it make cloudy bubbbles that the kids can pop. Remember that they need constant supervision with the dry ice, and that you need to be in a ventilated space so that the carbon dioxide doesn't displace your air. (Just pouring bubble solution on the dry ice is also a lot of fun.)
The coffee filters can help kids learn about chromatography. They can try the same basic experiment with their candy, with food coloring, and with any dyes they find around the house.
The cornstarch can be mixed with water to make a non-newtonian fluid. Let kids poke it and play with it, making different consistencies with different amounts of cornstarch. Then put it on a speaker and play different songs to see how it moves.
Finally, use the cabbage leaves to test the pH of various foods, and to make green eggs and ham. Get them to try it out again and again with different substances.
Obviously, none of this stuff is high tech. None will come with test tubes or lab coats, and sometimes kids really do like the official-looking components of a chemistry set. But instead of being limited by what an instruction book says, and by only a certain amount of each of the components, this DIY chemistry set will let beginning chemist try all kinds of different combinations, tweaking each experiment as they go. This is the kind of stuff that lets them engage in free play, experimenting over and over, testing to get the kind of results they want, whether it's a really tough bubble or a really good way to make a candle go out, or to see whether M&Ms are dyed with weird colors. And letting kids work out what they want to do, and how they can go about achieving it, can be both a lot more fun and a lot more educational than a pretty test tube.
And now to the gifts you can buy! Check our picks in comments below, and add your suggestions too!
Bubble Image: Brokenchopstick