Play-based science activities for early learners - Questacon Science ...

Play-based science activities for early learners - Questacon Science ...

Play-based science activities for early learners


Introduction 1

Ant Farm 3

Bathtime Fun 5

Flower Fun 6

Exploring Textures 7

Coathanger Scales 9

Living Things 11

Mirrors 13

Air Play 14

Colour Mixing 15

Musical Instruments 17

Mystery Box 19

Shadow Puppets 21

Spinning Things 22

Sort it Out 23

Sound Quiz 25

Wobbly Balls 27

Measure Up 28

Ball Run 29

Notes 30

Published by

Questacon — The National Science

and Technology Centre

Questacon Science Play

Annex 13

Locomotive Workshop, Australian

Technology Park

Eveleigh NSW 1430

Telephone: (02) 9209 4110

Facsimile: (02) 9209 4091


ABN 71 460 521 691

Young children have special learning needs for their cognitive, physical,

social and emotional development. Questacon consulted early childhood teachers,

professional associations and academic reports throughout the development

of Questacon Science Play to strengthen the effectiveness of the programme.

We greatly appreciate their invaluable wisdom, generosity and expertise.


We know from longstanding research that

families and early childhood professionals

are in a unique position to support the

scientific learning of early childhood children.

Families and professionals notice what

children pay attention to, and together,

they generate important scientific learning.

For instance, four-year-old Jadea actively

seeks her mother’s explanation for something

she has noticed each day that she travels to

child care — as her mum explains:

We were in the car, and Jadea said to me, …

is your reflection there when you’re not there?

And I said to her “Some things we can see,

aren’t really there and that’s a bit like a

reflection,” and she thought for about two

seconds and she said, …“ So it’s a bit like your

words, when you speak we can hear them but

we can’t see them, but they’re really there.”

(SA) (Fleer, 1996: 147).

Even babies actively explore their world

and reach scientific understandings when

supported by the adults that surround them.

Satisfying a questioning mind or stimulating

curiosity in the everyday things in a child’s

world, have been shown to lead to a lifelong

interest in science.

When adults and children play scientifically

together, children actively build scientific

thinking and understanding. The adult’s role

in children’s activity is critical for building

scientific learning. In this booklet there are

a range of engaging science experiences that

you can do together with children to foster

scientific thinking. What is important here is

the scientific conversations you have about ‘what

you are doing together’, ‘what you are noticing’,

and ‘what you think you found out’ as a result

of making or doing the things suggested in this

booklet. Free flow conversations are important,

but so are conversations which seek to

understand the science in the activity.

Each of the activity pages helps you set up

the experience, and provides you with any

background science ideas you may need.

Importantly, after visiting the Questacon Science

Play y programme, children will be stimulated

and wish to seek and learn more. This booklet

provides a solid set of ideas that you can easily

do within a home or early childhood centre.

The ideas in the booklet reinforce or replicate

what the children have experienced at Questacon.

In this way, the children with adult support, will

think differently about the everyday things in

their world, and with these new scientific lenses,

will explain their world in new ways.

Professor Marilyn Fleer

Faculty of Education

Monash University, Peninsula campus

Fleer, Marilyn. 1996, “Fusing the Boundaries Between Home

and Child Care to Support Children’s Scientific Learning,

Research in Science Education, 26(2), 143–154”


Ants can be great

pets, but first

you need to make

them a home.

Ant Farm

What they explore

Living things are fascinating, especially

when they live in groups like ants, as

then you can watch what the individuals

do and also how they work together.

What you need




A one litre drink bottle

A clear two litre drink bottle


What you do

Cut the tops off both bottles at the shoulder.

Discard the tops but keep one cap.

Use the cardboard to make a platform that

covers the top of the smaller bottle and fix it

on with sticky tape.

Stick some more tape or some blue-tack

on the bottom of the smaller bottle and put it

inside the larger one. Position it in the middle,

so there is an even gap between the two and

push it down firmly, so the tape or blue-tack

will hold it in place.

Fill the space between the two bottles with

sandy soil, stopping about 8 cm from the top.

Carefully capture some ants. If you don’t want

to pick them up, put a piece of fruit or some

honey in an open jar near their nest and the

ants will come to you.

Transfer the ants onto the soil in your bottle,

then cover the top with paper towel secured

with a rubber band.

What to ask



Can you see the tunnels?

What do you think that ant is doing?




Observing and caring for the ants teaches

children a lot about living things, what they

need and how to look after them.

Sticky tape

Sandy soil

Paper towel




Rubber band

Cotton wool

A pin

Use a pin to make some fine holes in

the towel so the ants don’t suffocate.

Now you and your child can enjoy

watching and caring for your new pets.

Try not to move the bottles too

much or the ants’ tunnels could collapse.

Don’t keep them in direct sunlight.

The cardboard platform can be used

to hold the ants’ food and water.

Provide water by placing some cotton wool

in a bottle cap and soaking it with water

every day.

You can feed your ants breadcrumbs

dipped in sugar water or honey and small

bits of fruit. One half teaspoon of food

a week is enough for 10 to 20 ants.

When you have finished with your colony,

make sure you release the ants back

where you found them.


What things do both ants and people

need to live?



Bathtime is not

just for cleaning up.

It’s great for science!

Bathtime Fun

What they explore

Young children never tire of playing with

water and it is a great source of learning.

Using different containers helps them explore

different shapes and volumes, while developing

their coordination and pouring skills.

What you need




A bathtub or sink

Empty plastic bottles with lids


What you do

Give your child an empty bottle with no lid

to play with in the bath or sink. Point out

the bubbles that come out as it sinks.

Now give them a series of bottles with their

lids on — one empty, one full of water and

some in-between. Play with your child to see

which are harder to push underwater and

which ones float higher.

What to ask




Which bottles float? Which bottles sink?

How can we make this bottle float or sink?

Which bottle has the most water in it?

This activity with bottles lets children

explore floating and sinking and observe

how air bubbles tend to rise in water.

It also teaches complicated concepts

about buoyancy, such as the fact that air

can take up space inside an apparently

empty bottle and how something heavy

like a ship can float on water.

It’s great fun to dunk the empty bottle

under the water and watch it pop right

up when you let it go!

Y ou could make holes in the lid of one

of the bottles to create a small shower.



Flower Fun

Put fresh cut flowers or celery in water with food colouring.

Leave overnight to find out how plants drink.

Can you see where the coloured water has gone?

Exploring Textures

Babies learn through all their senses, including touch.

Introduce your child to different textures.



You can use coathangers to make

an excellent balancing game.

Coathanger Scales

What they explore

Activities like this help children learn

about weight and understand terms

like lighter than and heavier than.

What you need



Coathangers with clips (such as skirt

hangers) or normal coathangers with

clothes pegs as clips

A clotheshorse (or something to hang

things from)

What you do

Hang a coathanger from a clotheshorse.

Then hang two more hangers from this one,

one at either end. Use the clips or some

clothes pegs on the first hanger to stop

the other ones from sliding.

Get your child to try hanging various objects

from the ends of the two lower hangers and see

whether they balance or not. Some things can

be draped or clipped straight on to the hangers,

What to ask



Which side is heavier or lighter?

Do you think this will be heavier

than that?

It also encourages them to think scientifically

as they make a prediction, then test to see

if they are right.



Small bags or hats such as

baseball caps or beanies

Various items to weigh

while trickier objects can be placed in bags or

hats that are clipped or pegged to the hangers.

Ask your child which things they think will be

heavier and which will be lighter.

If you want to build on this activity, add some

extra hangers to the lower ones to create more

spots for attaching items. You can now try

balancing many combinations of things.


Will these two things weigh

more than that one?



Watching grass grow

can be fascinating!

Living Things

What they explore

Living things are fascinating. They look,

move and live very differently from us

and there are so many different ones

to explore.

What you need




A large jar

A knife or hammer and nail

Damp cotton wool

What you do

Find a clean jar and carefully use a knife

or a hammer and nail to make small airholes

in the lid.

Ask your child if they want to have a look at

a plant or an animal. If they want to do both,

you’ll need another jar!

For plants

Place some damp cotton wool in the bottom

of the jar and place some seeds on top.

You could use seeds from a packet or hunt

together in the garden to find some. If you

don’t have any seeds, you can try growing

a carrot top on the damp cotton wool.

Keep the cotton wool damp and observe

the seeds over the next few days to see if

they sprout and start to grow.

What to ask



Has it grown?

Is it alive?

This activity encourages observation skills,

teaches how to care for things and helps

children develop their concept of what is

and isn’t alive.

For animals

Go outside and hunt for insects together.

Once you find one you like, collect some

sticks and leaves from where you found

it and put them in the bottom of the jar.

Then carefully move the insect into the

jar and close the lid.

Have a good look at it with your child,

watch how it moves. Use a magnifying

glass to have a closer look.

To keep it for a while as a pet or for further

observation, use a book or the internet

to find out what it is and what it needs.

All creatures will need water, so put some

damp cotton wool into the jar and wet it

again every day. When you’ve finished

with the insect you can release it back

where you found it.



How many legs does it have?

What do you think it eats?



You and your child

can have a lot of

fun with mirrors


What they explore

Reflections fascinate young children

and help them develop perception skills

and self-awareness.

Young babies won’t realise they’re looking

at themselves until they’re 12–15 months

old, but they still love looking at faces.

Playing ‘peek-a-boo’ teaches children

about the nature of permanence.

What you need


Two mirrors (at least one hand-held)

What you do

P lace one mirror perpendicular (at right angles)

to the other to form a corner. You can make

lots of silly faces by putting your face up to

the edge of one of them and looking down

it to the other mirror. Depending where on

your face you position the mirror, you can

make it look like you have only one eye,

or an enormous mouth! Have fun with your

child by seeing who can make the silliest faces.

Set the mirrors up so they face each other.

If you stand between them, you will see

images of yourself stretching into infinity.

Try to count them with your child. Suddenly

you’re in a huge crowd!

What to ask




How many reflections of yourself can you see?

(Smile) When I do this, am I happy or sad?

How do you look when you’re surprised?

It can be reassuring for children to know

that when mummy or daddy goes away,

they will be coming back.

As they grow older, children can learn

about their own faces, practice different

expressions and try to copy the faces

you pull. Children can also explore the

emotions behind different expressions

and start learning about body language.

Try making different facial expressions in

the mirror and ask your child to copy them.

Get them to try making happy, sad and

surprised faces.

Very young children love mirrors too.

You can have a great game of peek-a-boo

by putting the mirror in front of them

and covering it with a cloth. Then pull

the cloth away, PEEK-A-BOO!



Air Play

Empty squeezy bottles are great for making puffs of air.

They can be used to move feathers and scraps of paper.

Colour Mixing

Cellophane is great for investigating how colours mix.

Look through it to see things change colour.

What happens when you combine different colours of cellophane?



Water and glasses

form one of

many simple


you can make

at home.

Musical Instruments

What they explore

Children love making music and singing

and playing along to their favourite songs.

Maraca Shakers

What you need

v Plastic cups, rice or beans

and sticky tape

What you do

Half fill one cup with uncooked rice or beans,

then place the other cup upside-down on

top of it. Tape them together securely.

Let your child practise shaking different

rhythms or keeping the beat to a favourite

song. Make more shakers with pasta or

lentils and compare the sounds.

What to ask

v Can you shake in time to the music?

Box Guitar

What you need

v A lunchbox and rubber bands

What you do

Remove the lid from a lunchbox, then

stretch a few rubber bands, ideally of

different lengths, around the box.

Get your child to pluck the rubber bands

to make different sounds, depending

on the tightness of the rubber band.

What to ask

v Which rubber band makes the

highest or lowest sound?

v Is it tight or loose?

These activities help them discover how

different sounds are made and how to

practice keeping a beat or rhythm.

Mini Drums

What you need

v Plastic containers or tins,

balloons and rubber bands

What you do

Cover a variety of containers with the rubber

from balloons, secured with rubber bands,

to make drum skins. Show your child how

to play them by tapping with their fingers.

Tap out a rhythm and ask them to copy it,

then swap roles. You can show how the

skins are vibrating by putting a few grains

of rice on the skin and tapping gently.

They can also feel their own vibrations by

touching their throats as they hum or talk.

What to ask

v Can you copy this rhythm? Can you

tap a rhythm for me to copy?



Exploring the world

can be a touching


Mystery Box

What they explore

Children love to touch. This activity

lets children practice using different

senses to explore the world.

What you need




A cardboard box (shoeboxes are great)


A variety of objects (ideally with different textures,

e.g. soft fur, smooth plastic, wood, metal, etc.)

What you do

Cut a hole in the side of the box, large enough

for your child to reach in with their hands,

but not so big that they can easily see in.

Secretly place an object in the box, then ask

your child if they can tell what it is just by

touching — no peeking!

What to ask




Can you tell what it is?

Is it hard or soft, big or small, smooth or rough?

What does it smell like?

They must also use their thinking skills

to interpret what they are touching and

match it to an object they’ve seen.

When they’ve guessed, they can peek in

or open the lid to see if they are right.

Change the game by putting smelly things

(like a banana) in the box and asking your

child to sniff to find out what it is.



Shadow puppets

can bring bedtime

stories to life.

Shadow Puppets

What they explore

Shadow play encourages children to use

their imagination and interact with others.

Stories can evolve night after night, as you

and your child become more skilful at creating

different shapes.

What you need





A darkened room

A lamp or torch

A wall

Hands or cut-out shapes

What you do

Shine a lamp or a torch at a wall and use

your hands to create shadows.

See what different shapes you and your

child can make, or cut out shapes from

cardboard to make puppets.

Make up a story together or use the shadows

to act out a story from a favourite book.

What to ask



How can we make the shadow bigger or smaller?

Can we tell a story with the shadows?

You can also explore how the angle of the

light and the distance affect the shadows

you make.

Try changing the size of the shadows

by moving your hands closer to or further

away from the light.

You could also use coloured cellophane

to make coloured shadows and see what

happens when you overlap different colours.



Spinning Things

Explore items around the home

that turn or spin.

What do they have in common?

How are they different?

Sort it Out

Sorting and matching are

important skills to encourage.

Challenge your child to match

a range of containers with

their lids.



You can learn a lot

when you listen!

Sound Quiz

What they explore

Quiz games like this stimulate young

minds. This activity encourages children

to use their sense of hearing to interpret

the world around them.

What you need



Noise-making household objects


What you do

Ask your child to cover their eyes or,

if they’re brave enough, blindfold them.

Tell them you are going to make a noise with

something and ask them to guess what it is.

You could try flushing the toilet, pushing

down the toaster, ringing the doorbell or

stirring a drink.

What to ask



What makes a sound like this?

Is it loud or quiet?

If they can’t tell what the sound is, giving clues,

rather than the answer, will help your child

develop problem solving skills.

If you have a sound recorder,

you could record the sounds beforehand

and then play them back to your child.

Later, you could have fun finding new

sounds to record together, around the

home or outside in the street.

You could also take a listening walk of

your neighbourhood and discover some

of the sounds that we normally ignore.



Adding water to a

beach ball creates

lots of wobbly fun.

Wobbly Balls

What they explore

As well as being great fun, chasing and

trying to catch a wobbly ball is excellent

for coordination and motor skills.

What you need



Beach ball or balloon


What you do

Create a wobbly ball by half filling

a balloon or ball with water. Blow the

rest up with air and tie it off or seal it.

Your child will have great fun rolling

and chasing it along the ground.

Give it a shake or get the water swirling

around inside, then see how it rolls or

try balancing the ball on one hand.

What to ask




Is it easy to catch?

Why do you think it’s so wobbly?

Is it heavy or light?

Children also learn about the properties

of weight, force, direction and momentum

and use higher-level thinking to try and

predict the ball’s movement.

Being able to see the water inside the ball will

help your child relate it to the wobbly motion.

Add a few drops of food colouring to

make the water easier to see.

If you have a normal ball handy, add it

to the game so your child can compare

the two.

It’s best not to leave the water in the ball

for more than a few days.



Measure Up

Keep a special place to measure your child’s growth once a month.

Try measuring other parts of the body like outlines of their hands

and feet. See how they compare to the rest of the family.

Ball Run

Make a changeable run for squash or table tennis balls

by attaching fridge magnets to cardboard boxes.

Move them to alter the ball’s speed or try to direct

it to specific targets.




Published by

Questacon — The National Science

and Technology Centre

Questacon Science Play

Annex 13, Locomotive Workshop

Australian Technology Park

Eveleigh NSW 1430

Telephone: (02) 9209 4110

Facsimile: (02) 9209 4091


ABN 71 460 521 691

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