Toys as Tools: Everyday Science Experiences (2023)

By Peggy Ashbrook

Young children don't need highly specialized or expensive equipment to learn how to explore the natural world scientifically. They do need, as Rachel Carson mused in The Sense of Wonder, “the companionship of at least one adult who can share it.”

Simple toys and tools can engage children as they explore natural phenomena in ways that will support their later science learning. Adults who allow children to play and work through small difficulties by themselves support children as they build an understanding of how the world works. Resist the temptation to “fix it” or “make it go faster” or “use it the right way,” and you will build your child’s self-confidence and problem-solving ability.

1. Spinning Tops

Concept:Use these toys as tools to explore motion.

How to support exploration:Ask your child open-ended questions (questions with more than a yes or no answer). How hard do you have to push each type of top before it begins to spin? Are light or heavy tops easier to spin? Are tall or short tops easier to spin? Can a top with a penny taped to it maintain a spin?

Where to purchase:Look for tops in party stores or in catalogues that sell small plastic party favors.

Concept:Tools can extend our senses, allowing us to obtain more information than we would be able to on our own. Magnifiers extend our sight by making objects look bigger.

How to support exploration: This tool is fun to use to make the world look blurry and our eyes look huge, and to look closely at everything! Magnifiers reveal aspects of nature that are too small to see with just our eyes. Examine skin, coins, flower structures, and insects—all objects with small parts that make up the whole.

Variation:Fill a round, clear plastic jar with water and have your children look at their hands or a picture through the jar. Children often notice the change in apparent size. Ask them, “Did your hand look bigger?” Then let them examine it and ask, “Did my hand really get bigger, or did it just look bigger?” Take another look so children can be certain of their answer. Have your children pinch the lens of a magnifying glass between two fingers and gently run their fingers across it to notice that the magnifier is not flat but has a curved surface, just like the jar!

Where to purchase:Drug stores and discount stores sell inexpensive plastic magnifiers, or you can order them from a scientific supply company.

3. Eye Droppers or Pipettes

Concept:As children use eyedroppers and pipettes to move liquids, they learn a lot about how liquids behave. For example, they learn that when they squeeze the bulb the dropper pushes air out, and when they release the bulb it pulls water in. Children this age can also observe that water forms drops.

How to support exploration:Show your child how to squeeze the dropper to force the air out of the bulb and how to release it to allow it to pop back into shape, drawing in air or liquid as it reforms. Your child can feel the air as it leaves the dropper by holding the dropper up to her cheek (away from her eyes) as she squeezes the bulb. Use the dropper to suck up small amounts of rain from a puddle or to mix colored water from one dish with water of a different color in another. Turn the dropper upside down to create a fountain. All of these activities have the added benefit of helping your child develop small motor control.

Where to purchase:Buy just a few at a pharmacy or dollar store or order many from a scientific education supply company.

4. Bubbles and Bubble Wands

Concept:Bubbles teach children about geometry (shapes) and give them an awareness of air movement. How long will the bubble last, and where will it float?
How to support exploration: Bend a pipe cleaner into a square-shaped bubble wand and ask your child to predict what shape the bubbles will take. Introduce less common words like “sphere” as you blow bubbles to give your child the ability to describe a three dimensional shape and to expand his vocabulary.

Where to purchase:Look for bubble solution in party stores year-round or, during the warm months, in drug stores and discount stores.

5. Balls

Concept:Use balls of the same size but differing weights to explore how the mass (what we feel as weight) of an object affects its motion.

How to support exploration:Which ball will roll farther if we give them the same push—the heavier ball or the lighter ball? Children become very familiar with the effects of the pull of gravity as they throw or kick balls. They explore the properties of materials when they compare the height of the bounce of balls made of different materials. They will draw on these kinesthetic experiences in later science learning.

Where to purchase:Buy a variety of balls at toy stores, drug stores, and discount stores in the toy or sports sections.

6. Mirrors

Concept:Playing with mirrors to reflect light and wondering how our image is reflected teaches children a beginning understanding about the properties of light.

How to support exploration:Bounce light off of different surfaces. A large plastic “baby” mirror, held freely, is especially good for this. Have your children use mirrors to look behind themselves. “Catch” some sunshine and reflect it to another surface outside or inside. Children can use a mirror to examine their face to draw a self-portrait. Children are more likely to draw from the observations they see in the mirror and not from memory if they are encouraged to focus on parts of their face they don’t usually begin with, such as their nostrils. Ask, “Do you see the holes in your nose? How many are there?”

Where to purchase:Buy mirrors at a pharmacy or dollar store. “Baby” or designed-for-preschool plastic mirrors can be ordered from preschool, or scientific, education supply companies.

7. Magnets

Concept:Children can play with magnetic force and explore this property of materials. By using the phrase, “attracted to the magnet,” instead of “sticking to the magnet,” you reinforce that there is no “stickiness” involved—magnetism is a force that pulls or pushes. How it does this involves understanding that all materials are made of tiny pieces too small to see (atoms), a concept that children will build toward understanding around age 10. There is no need to rush this understanding. In early childhood, children can understand that being attracted by a magnet, or not, is the nature of a material.

How to support exploration:Ask questions such as, “What objects in my house can be attracted to a magnet?” and “Can magnetic force work through fabric?” Put the magnet in a sock and see if it can still attract objects.

Where to purchase:Be sure to buy magnets that are too large for a child to swallow. These can be found in hardware stores or toy stores, or they can be ordered from preschool, or scientific, education supply companies.

The most important science learning comes from experiencing the natural world. Without the natural world we could not manufacture any of the human-made materials that make our lives easier and more comfortable. The natural world is the most important science tool of all, so go outside with your child, breathe, look around, and explore.

Peggy Ashbrook is the author of Science Is Simple: Over 250 Activities for Preschoolers. She teaches preschool science in Alexandria, Virginia, and leads professional development workshops for early childhood teachers.

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