Transcript: Simple Science Experiments For Toddlers and Preschoolers

This is a text transcript from The First Time Mum’s Chat podcast. The episode is called Simple Science Experiments For Toddlers and Preschoolers and you can click on the link to view the full episode page, listen to the episode and view the show notes.

Helen Thompson: When it comes to introducing children to science, many of us have preconceived ideas, often from our own childhood experiences. Many of the moms I speak with expect it to be costly, complicated, and even dangerous. My school experience gave me a poor experience of science, and I’ve always regretted that my teachers didn’t encourage me more.

Science can be an easy and fun activity for kids to do and explore their curiosity and you can get started when they are just toddlers. I’m excited to introduce you to this week’s guest, Dr Stephanie Ryan PhD is a chemist, author and a mom who uses her background to create educational products and content.

She can be found helping young kids explore the fascinating world around them. Dr. Stephanie has taught science to all age groups, helping toddlers learn about their world. You’ll hear some great tips and ideas to help you get started, introducing your toddler or preschooler to the exciting world of science, using materials, mainly found within your home.

Hi Stephanie, it’s great to have you here on First Time Mum’s Chat today. Science for toddlers and preschoolers is a topic that fascinates me, which I’ve wanted to introduce on First Time Mum’s Chat for some time. So it’s great to welcome you today. I’m looking forward to hearing about how parents can help their children learn science.

Stephanie Ryan: Thanks, I’m Stephanie Ryan and I have my own education consultancy company and I write curricular materials and assessments for students. But in my free time, which is while I’m being a parent, I have an account that’s, Let’s Learn About Science on Instagram and Tech Talk, where I share activities with parents that they can do with their very little children to help them learn science and still learn all of those skills that you want your children to learn like dexterity and making observations and sensory activity is learning how to write. So incorporating a lot of those things in, but also using some science in there too.

Helen Thompson: That sounds wonderful for mums to be able to do that, because I think a lot of moms these days think that science is all too difficult and all too complicated. I know when I was a kid, I certainly found science very complicated. I didn’t understand all the chemistry and all that kind of stuff. So I know what you’re saying that you can make it simple and you can make it easy and fun for kids to do and explore their curiosity, which I think is great for younger kids.

Stephanie Ryan: Definitely and a goal is to give the parents some confidence in themselves and give them guidance on how to do it. Because just like you just said, you had some experiences in the past that may have left you feeling like you didn’t understand science. Often when we are like that, we might not do science because of that.

I’m not going to teach my kid this because I’m not comfortable with it myself. And so what I do is I share all the materials you need. I make sure that most of the materials you can get in your house. So that it’s not something that’s a fancy lab, chemical or anything like that. And then I give them the confidence to do it themselves.

And it’s just also happened that sometimes adults find the activities fun too, and I’ll get videos of them trying it too.

Helen Thompson: Yeah, I think having the confidence is so important. So what are some of the activities that you can do? I’m thinking more of the younger age group, rather than a older age group. The two and a half to 5 year olds.

Stephanie Ryan: There are so many and a lot of them involve baking soda and vinegar. So this is something that as a parent myself, I thought two or three times, my three-year-old at the time would love it. Then he would get bored with it, but he’s five now and he still loves doing baking soda and vinegar.

It’s just the fizzing and the bubbles. So what you can do with your child is you can use silicone mould and make shapes in the baking soda. And so you could do a theme week with them where you’re talking about bugs and your baking soda pellet is shaped like a bug, and then they can do baking soda and vinegar.

But you talk about it. You say, what is this? Is it a solid, a liquid and then vinegar, is that a solid, liquid or a gas, and then you pour them together. Does it react differently if you use a dropper or pour it? And then the older the kids get, you could talk about why does the mass change? If you have a kitchen scale, you could watch that reaction and it’s because the gas is getting away when the bubbles pop.

And the older kids, you could ask them, how could we design the system to capture that bubble? And that would be putting a balloon on top of a bottle and you can catch it and the balloon would blow up. And so, just with baking soda and vinegar, you’ve done an activity that you could repeat for years.

Helen Thompson: Yeah. I come from a childcare background and I used to make volcanoes in a sandpit, which I used to love doing. And I used, I think it was baking soda, vinegar and it was something else in it and I can’t remember what it was. You just piled the sand up, and then you put a bit of baking soda and I think vinegar or whatever else it was and it just exploded like a volcano and you saw the little kid’s faces and they just loved it. And it was something they could do outside as well. If it’s raining, you can still get the kids out on a balcony or something and just put the sand out and just do an activity like that and it can still be fun!

Stephanie Ryan: Well, if the weather isn’t cooperative, which often it can be that way, you can do these inside, just use a bowl or a cookie sheet or a tray or some sort of dish to collect it because when it goes up, it’s going to come back down. But you want to make sure it’s not so messy, but I think that’s one way I approach and the other is I have, what doesn’t mix or does it not mix?

So when things don’t mix, they form a layer and when they mix you can’t separate them apart and I ask the question, do you think I could ever get this back? Is this now forever more the way we’ve done this? And so, oil and water, you mix oil and water together, and there are two layers. There are two liquids and they’re just right on top of each other.

And there’s some fun activities you can do with that, using Alka seltzer tablets, which I believe you guys have, citric acid tablets. I forget the brand.

Helen Thompson: Which is vitamin C tablets?.

Stephanie Ryan: Yes, you can use those. And what will happen is, and you want to add food coloring. So food coloring mixes with water but does not mix with oil. And so when you drop the vitamin C tablet in, it produces bubbles, the carbon dioxide that take that red or blue or whatever color we’ve used up and when they pop, the food coloring falls back down. So you’ve got like a lava lamps happening. And so it’s just something they can visualize and just watch.

And then with oil and water and food coloring, you can kind of do the reverse of where you have just a little tiny, thin layer of oil, and you’ve got water underneath it and you can have food coloring on the top, you dripper it in and you watch it and it starts to mix with the water the second it hits it and it looks like fireworks.

So there’s just a bunch of things, observations that you can have your kid draw that then. Draw what you saw and you’ll get some swirls and some pictures. But the key for them is focusing on what changed and the state of matter. I think by doing that, you set them up so well for later.

Helen Thompson: You’re giving them that curiosity, the curiosity of working things out. You’re teaching them those, those skills, which I think is really important. We mentioned sensory toys as well. You can buy sensory toys in the supermarket, we have them all the time, but I’m a great believer in making my own stuff, because I think it’s much more fun for the kids. Because you’re getting your kids involved rather than saying, right, we’re going to go and buy a toy and you take them to the supermarket and get them to choose it. But if they make it themselves, it’s giving them that sense of independence. It’s giving them that sense of self-esteem and self-worth. So what is your take on that?

Stephanie Ryan: That is the great thing about the lava lamp experiment that we have, is that when you are finished with it, you can add things inside it. So the glitter or confetti or whatever, you can add the theme that you’re looking for after the reaction’s totally done, screw the lid back on. You could use a bottle. Glue that on and you now have a sensory tube that you have made yourself and your kid can explain why the oil and the water are able to do that because they don’t mix together. And so that’s a fun one that you can do lots of times. So that’s something I do often, is we do theme weeks, like I said, and I swap out the confetti that I use and the color of food coloring and so you can do it for every holiday, you can do it for your learning about flowers, anything you want inside it. And so that’s something that I like about it is that you’re turning it into something else and you’re not just wasting the materials.

Helen Thompson: And you’re being resourceful too, and you’re recycling, which is another good thing to do these days cause it’s such a throwaway society.

Stephanie Ryan: Oh, very much so and during the pandemic, I really focused on making sure it was things that parents probably had some access to. And so a lot of our things involved a bottle because there are a lot of bottles around. You could get one from a neighbor, you could get one, somewhere, like a recycling bin in your building, you could find a plastic bottle and then we could reuse it in some way, instead of just sending it to the bin.

Helen Thompson: Yeah, I think your activities during the pandemic, must’ve been very, very good for parents because a lot of them couldn’t get outside. It didn’t affect us as badly as it did on the rest of Australia, but I know in America it was pretty tough.

Stephanie Ryan: It was in the beginning and that’s actually what prompted my account, was I pulled my son from school because we have such a tight relationship with our grandparents that we decided that we’d rather see them than have him in school and not be able to see them. So I became a preschool teacher, which is not my background and I wasn’t feeling very confident in myself. Am I doing this right? I usually teach older kids and I talked with his preschool teacher and she told me that I was giving him life lessons and we were doing stuff around the house and even measuring water is still something that is a skill, but she told me to take a step back and look at it through his eyes, learning it for the first time. And I was, oh, if I’m having trouble with this, so are other parents. I’m an educator and I was having trouble.

And so I was like, I need to switch gears and make this account more for the parents than the kids. The kids are great, but I want to make sure the parents feel confident. And it helped me through the pandemic by having an activity every day to do with my son, to show others. So it was twofold. It helped them, but it also helped me get through it as well.

Helen Thompson: I think a lot of parents don’t have confidence in homeschooling because they think that they don’t know how to do it but in fact, everyday life is education. I had this conversation with somebody recently. When I was a kid, when we went on road trips, my father always used to say to me, right, well, what does that sign mean? Is that a giveway sign? What shape is it? Is it round? Is it square? Is it rectangle and all these kinds of things. Any roadsign he encouraged me to read.

Stephanie Ryan: Oh, absolutely. I do some work with college professors and during the pandemic, labs were canceled and it was like, how can we get these concepts across? And I was like, you’re not gonna like to hear this, but you can balance equations and teach a lot of chemistry with baking soda and vinegar and a kitchen scale.

You could do that. It’s not flashy, it’s not one of the trickier kinds of reactions you could show but it would get the point across and they could do it in their own home. But yeah, and it makes it more equitable, so people will have access to more things. So science isn’t just for people who can afford a science kit, it’s for anyone who’s got it in their home.

Helen Thompson: And there’s so many different ways of learning too. I mean, I’m very much a sort of touchy, feely person. I need to see something in order to understand how it works. And with science, that’s something that if I can see the reaction of when I’m doing it, like, if I’m mixing oil and water. I can see it doesn’t actually work. And that’s easy for me to understand, or if I’m balancing something on a scales and somebody says to me, right, well, that’s two thirds and that’s two thirds. How much does that make? I’ll go arghh! But if I actually see it happening and you’re making something, you’re saying we’re putting two thirds in here and two thirds there and then we’re putting it all together and it blows up. To me, that’s more fun. And it’s a much better way of learning.

Stephanie Ryan: It’s more impactful too, because it helped you visualize it in your own brain and make your own mental model of how it works. And then you’re able to apply that when you see four sixths, or some other fraction that you’re doing. So by teaching that way, you’re able to apply it more down the road, which I think is so great. I’m so excited to see the way kids are learning now. They’re going to come up with some great stuff.

Helen Thompson: Yeah, I think using your imagination and using your own way of doing it, I think is so much better because I just wish I had learned math that way when I was at school. Cause I’m still to this day, not very good at maths and I have the stigma that I’m not good at maths or not good at science because I was, when we did biology, it was all this chemical stuff and all this sort of equations and this and that and I remember saying to the teacher, can you explain this in simple terms? And she didn’t know how to do it. She said, that’s it, that’s what you have to learn and I sort of thought, well, it doesn’t gel with me. I need to see it to learn and she didn’t get that. She didn’t get the fact that I had to see that.

Stephanie Ryan: Yeah and the way they teach science, when I was in school, it was facts. You read the book, there were facts, that’s all it was, you learned equations. But I couldn’t use those equations to explain anything. It would be like our tyres, the air in them would get lower when it was cold outside. Could I explain why? No, I knew the equation for why it happens, but I couldn’t tell you what was going on with the molecules. So I think that approaching it from a way of, let’s talk about why and how. How is this working? Why is it working?

Helen Thompson: And take them out and show them how it’s working and let them experiment. It’s all experiments and learning that way, especially when they’re little, when they’re at preschool, when there are about four, before they actually go to school. That’s their time for learning and being sensory. But as soon as they hit the sort of six mark, that’s it, they’re into all this sort of heavy stuff.

Stephanie Ryan: I know for science, they really are getting at the how and the why and making observations and supporting your claims with evidence. So if you’re going to say, I think this say why you think it and what supports you. And I think that’s great, especially since many adults can’t even do that.

Helen Thompson: Yeah and as we come back to, it’s fun for the child. It’s getting them to use their creative mind and be curious and discover things for themselves and want to learn new things, which I think is so valuable. It gives them confidence to experiment and have fun. Yeah, I love what you do.

I occasionally do babysitting and I’m always interested to see, what new things I can do that are different. I love talking to you because I’m going to use some of those things you’ve said when I get to work this afternoon because it sounds good.

Stephanie Ryan: Yeah, they are, they’re so fun and it is fun to do to come up with some of the things and they’re not always new ideas. Some of them were things that I did when I was a kid, but maybe parents have forgotten.

Helen Thompson: Exactly. Although I’ve worked in childcare, I know lots of the activities, but not so much of the science ones. So that’s what I think is intriguing about what you do.

So are there any other tips or anything else you’d like to add?

Stephanie Ryan: Yeah the only other thing I’d add is that as parents, we often want to correct our children when they have something that might not be right, but I want them to approach, it’s difficult. Admittedly so, this is a very difficult thing to do, but approach learning, like when they’re learning how to walk. So when they’re learning how to walk and they stumble, you don’t say, oh, you’re doing it wrong. You need to do it this way, you clap and cheer them on and you help them figure that out on their own.

And then when they get to it, it’s more powerful for them in confidence building that they did it themselves. So if your child says something really off the wall about what is happening and it’s really wrong. Don’t correct them. They’re really little it’s going to get fixed sometime down the road. Let them experience it, build a mental model of how they think it works and if it’s really backwards, show them another activity that helps them get to that. And because then their confidence in science will stay very high, their confidence that they have a voice and can talk for themselves and that is so important. But the second you say, no, that’s not it, they stop and then they’re like, oh, I’m wrong. I don’t want to do this. So I encourage parents to think of it like they’re learning how to walk.

Helen Thompson: Yeah. Now I can relate to that cause that’s what I try to do with kids all the time, because I don’t like to say that they’re wrong. Sometimes it is easier said than done because it can be very, very frustrating if your child is wanting to do something and they’re just not working it out, it can be very frustrating for you and it’s incredibly hard not to intervene.

Stephanie Ryan: Yeah. It’s just like when your kid is going out the door and they want to put their shoes on themselves and you’re like, come on, let’s go. Then you’re like, okay, you can do this.

Helen Thompson: I think from a parent’s point of view or an educator’s point of view, you’ve just gotta be strong enough to step back and say, okay, let’s just take time and plan. If you want to be out the door by 10 o’clock, I think you start getting them ready at about quarter past 9- 9 30, instead of rushing at five to 10 or whatever it is. Then they’ve got the time to do that and I think that’s the key as well.

And I think that’s the same with science. Giving them the opportunity not to rush the experiment, working it out so that you’ve got the timeframe to do it in rather than rushing and then they don’t enjoy it. They don’t enjoy the experience.

Stephanie Ryan: Yeah it’s a lot like when you do art work with little kids, where you show them what you’ve done, and then it comes out, however, they’ve decided to do it. And you’re, wow, that doesn’t look like a Panda bear, but it’s close and you don’t correct them and make them put the eyes exactly where they go, because you want them to build it themselves. And so with science you don’t want to just sit down and be really formal about it. And yes, there are some things that need to be added in certain orders and you can give that direction to them but in terms of watching baking soda and vinegar, just let them play with it and watch and wait until they have a question. Don’t overexplain, only answer the question they asked and just let them learn at their own pace. Meet them where they’re at.

Helen Thompson: And if you don’t know the answer be honest as well. if you don’t know the answer of why it works, be honest and say, well, let’s, let’s find out this together, so we can learn together, because I don’t know the answer to your question either.

Stephanie Ryan: And I think that is another great takeaway, is that the kids need to know that we don’t know the answers either, but that’s normal, that you’re not a failure. If you don’t know something because even PhD, scientists and doctors and people who are supposed to be really smart, they still have to collaborate with other people who are experts at what they do. So you’re not always going to know everything and you’re always learning. So kids knowing that, that learning is a lifelong endeavor, where to look for things, how to approach it, those are all really important.

And then you’re bonding with your kid. So that’s a really great takeaway too.

Helen Thompson: Yeah, I definitely agree with you there. So we’ve shared so much here. So if somebody wants to go and find out about all these lovely activities, how do people find you?

Stephanie Ryan: So I have accounts on Instagram, Pinterest, Tick-tock and Facebook, and it’s at Let’s Learn About Science for all of them. I’m excited that maybe more parents will do science with their young kids at home.

Helen Thompson: Yeah, I agree and thank you so much. I’ve really enjoyed talking to you cause I’ve learned a lot from you by all these different experiments and I’ve looked at your website and I highly recommend it to parents because I think it’s very informative and there’s lots of tips and advice on there. So thank you for sharing all your knowledge and coming onto the show, I’ve really appreciated having you, Stephanie.

Stephanie Ryan: Thank you so much for having me.

Helen Thompson: Dr. Stephanie shared some great ideas and I found her enthusiasm for all things science, contagious. I highly recommend checking out Dr. Stephanie’s website and her Let’s Learn About Science pages on Facebook and Instagram. I’ve included links to these in the show notes, as well as her Let’s Learn About Chemistry book.

First Time Mum’s Chat listeners also have access to free chemistry themed coloring pages, and I’ve included a link to these in the show notes, which can be accessed at Please help me spread the word to other mums by rating and reviewing my podcast on Apple Podcasts. This helps me support more mums, yes, just like you for a smooth journey into the exciting world of parenthood.