Sibling Activity: Make Your Own Volcano!

I babysit siblings twice a week, and the age difference makes it pretty hard to find things we can all do together–18 months + 4.5 years = recipe for frustration. What to do if the older brother just wants to play with his beloved Legos but the younger brother wants to smash that Lego helicopter and chew on the pieces?

Last week, we made a volcano!

We made the base out of homemade play dough and, in case you missed this elementary school milestone, the eruption happens when you mix baking soda and vinegar. First, the base! We made ours out of homemade play dough with this fantastically wonderful recipe. [It really is the “squishiest,” but double the recipe twice–it’s proportioned for small amounts of different colors, about the size of what you’d get in a purchased play dough jar. You need a lot more than that for a good volcano! We did well with a recipe doubled once but could have used more.] Here’s why making play dough was a great activity:

  • Play dough is fun to make and includes only food ingredients (flour, water, salt, cream of tartar, etc.). This means that both kids can measure and pour. The toddler loved doing this with me and the older one was thrilled to do it all by himself!
  • If the toddler sneaks something into his mouth, it’s no big deal, provided you stop him before he consumes enough of anything to give himself a stomach ache. This little dude is a cuddle bear, so he doesn’t mind sitting on my lap, which made this easier.
  • If you’re talking to a preschooler with enough maturity to respect cooking safety, he can stir as the play dough “cooks.” I asked this one to recite the rules before we turned anything on; his mom does a great job cooking with the kids, so he had had a lot of practice!
  • Measuring and pouring teaches the same skill set that kids use to do math and science.
  • We put a little food coloring in our play dough to try to make it brown–you could make it any color you want. We didn’t want food coloring to transfer to our hands after the play dough was all done, though.
  • You can talk about the chemistry of cooking while it’s happening, if you have a youngster as curious as my friend! Why does it form a ball? Because the water made everything dissolve together when it was wet, but it’s not as wet now, is it? Why? Heat makes water turn to gas, as we can see from the steam, so the now stuck together ingredients are getting dry. And that is why it forms a ball in the pan! (Yes, he’s a very smart kid who totally participated in that conversation. So much fun.)
  • While we cooked the play dough, the toddler was mostly happy playing with something else. Chemistry talk seems to bore him, understandably, and signal that it’s time to entertain himself! he did sometimes enjoy watching the chemistry happen from the safety of my arms.
  • Tip: only make the play dough if you have a lot of time. If you’re not pressed for time, you can stay calm and stay unattached to immediate success. Children just do very poorly with adult stress over perfection or time constraints. All of the play dough ingredients are inexpensive, and you can always start over. All of them are easy to clean up. None of them ruin clothes, so you can be playful about spills. If you do have to start over, mention that everyone who has ever cooked anything has had to start over.
  • The play dough cools off in about the time it takes to eat a good snack!
On to the volcano! As luck would have it, my toddler friend needed a nap after his snack. It was easier to make the “volcano” with just the two of us, but we did it in the backyard, so I suspect that if I had given the younger brother some play dough of his own or set him up with the sidewalk chalk, he would have been happy.

  • We made the volcano on a piece of cardboard so that we could move it around and used a baby food jar as the “mouth” for the eruption. Cutest thing C has ever said? “Won’t the eruption wake up my brother?” I explained that this eruption was for eyes, not ears, because it didn’t have fire like real volcanos. SO SWEET.
  • We put baking soda (lots–I let him pour) and food coloring (red + yellow) inside the baby food jar. Lots of baking soda turned out to be a great idea, because we could just pour some more vinegar inside every time we wanted a new eruption!
  • We used an ENTIRE GALLON of vinegar! I was so glad we had set up outside! C also experimented with putting baking soda on his hands, putting his hands in the puddles of vinegar we had made and feeling it fizz! He giggled with pure joy. He may even be interested in helping clean the bathtub, since I told him that I use the fizzy mixture to clean mine…

After the smashing success of our science project this week, I wanted a chemistry reminder, so I thought I’d include this for you:

[quote/]What actually happens is this: the acetic acid (that’s what makes vinegar sour) reacts with sodium bicarbonate (a compound that’s in baking soda) to form carbonic acid. It’s really a double replacement reaction. Carbonic acid is unstable, and it immediately falls apart into carbon dioxide and water (it’s a decomposition reaction). The bubbles you see from the reaction come from the carbon dioxide escaping the solution that is left. Carbon dioxide is heavier than air, so, it flows almost like water when it overflows the container. It is a gas that you exhale (though in small amounts), because it is a product of the reactions that keep your body going. What’s left is a dilute solution of sodium acetate in water.[/quote] [typography font=”Cantarell” size=”12″ size_format=”px”]Experiments By Students For Students[/typography]

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