Summertime Choose-Your-Own-Adventure: The Buy-Nothing Edition

For summertime, I’m taking some of my favorite activities and combining them in new ways. This collection is filled only with activities that require no special purchases. You might need cardboard, ice, a printer, or a pencil, but you won’t need a trip to the store.

For activities you can do with just a few simple purchases from the grocery store, see my post here.



Explore Gravity With a Marble Run

WatchMinute Physics: What Is Gravity?
OK Go — Upside Down & Inside Out (music video filmed in zero-g)
OK Go – Upside Down & Inside Out BTS – How We Did It

Activity: Ball experiments

  • First, do the classic gravity experiment: hold two different objects (for example, a big ball and a small ball) and ask the kids which one will hit the ground first. You can try this with a variety of objects after, too.
  • Then get a variety of balls and try bouncing them individually. Formally or informally, measure how high they go. Then try dropping two balls together with the smaller ball on top of the larger ball and observe the results. (Either do this outside or drop the balls in the second part from a shorter height — they really go flying, and you could cause some serious damage!). Experiment with balls of different weight and bounciness and make predictions about what combinations will launch balls the highest.

Activity: Marble run
Kids can have plenty of fun with the cardboard marble run (above), but if you love marble runs and have Duplo blocks handy, you might consider adding marble run blocks to your set. It gives a toddler’s toy new life.

(For more like this, see Teach Kids About Physics.)


Investigate Simple Machines and Inclined Planes With Ramp Walkers

WatchThe Science Behind Jiwi’s Machines (inclined planes section)
Gravitational Illusions (pause and guess what will happen with the two ramps)
More marble tracks

ActivityRamp walkers
Make ramp walker toys out of cardboard.

For instructions to make ramp walkers out of cereal boxes, see 2:54 in the video, and for instructions to make them out of corrugated cardboard, see 3:30.

  • Ramp walkers require quite a bit of fine-tuning to get them working — adjusting the angle of the ramp and also the curvature at the bottom of the legs (and you also want the legs perpendicular to the body — sometimes you need to pinch them a little at the crease, though be careful with the corrugated cardboard, because too much bending and pinching and it will all go limp).
  • I strongly recommend that you make several ahead of time, so kids can play with them immediately. (Small children will have a hard time sitting through the measuring and the adjusting.) Older children can then practice making their own, after they’ve played with ones that already work.

(For more like this, see Teach Kids About Physics.)

Test Your Skills With Science Games

Model Natural Selection With the Bean-Counter Evolution Game

WatchEvolution 101 (quick, but simple and short)
Or The 12 Days of Evolution — Complete Series (longer, but on a variety of evolution topics)

ActivityBean Counter Evolution
A really fun and active game to demonstrate evolutionary fitness. All you need are beans, cups, and a variety of kitchen utensils. In this game, each player tries to capture as many beans as possible with their chosen utensil. Keep the game going through multiple rounds and how natural selection changes the population. (The instructions recommend at least 15 players for this, but I’ve played it successfully with only four.)
(For more like this, see Teach Kids About Evolution and Biomimicry.)

ActivityNOVA Evolution Lab puzzles
This free online game is a fascinating way to explore evolution. Some kindergarteners will be able to play this on their own, but it’s perfect for older kids (and you can play it with younger children if you explain as you go, too).

(For more like this, see Teach Kids About Evolution and Biomimicry.)


Explore Multi-Tasking and the Brain with the Stroop Test

ActivityStroop test
Complete instructions and a demonstration of how to conduct the test in the video above. This test, using color, brilliantly demonstrates the difficulty the brain has in doing two things simultaneously. If you have a reader and a pre-reader in your house, your children might find it fascinating that the pre-reader will have no difficulty at all with naming the colors, while the reader will likely stumble and get flustered. I think it’s worthwhile to draw all of this up on paper, but there’s also an interactive online test here.
You can find further discussion of this test here.
(For more like this, see Teach Kids About Color and Vision.)


Try Human Echolocation and Learn to See With Your Ears

Activity: Find the best place in your house to get echoes
Ask the kids what makes for a good echo spot and why. You can demonstrate how sound works with a big rubber kick ball — bounce it on a hard surface like a floor and it comes back to you, but bounce it on a soft surface, like a couch, and it stays there. Compare that to how sound works, then try to find places in the house with lots of hard surfaces. You might end up in a bathroom. Make echoes, then remove all the towels and textiles and try again — a great experiment (and often you can tell a big difference). You can also go to a public space and find good echo spots there. School and university campuses on weekends are often great echo-seeking spots.

WatchHow People See With Sound… Feat. Molly Burke!

Activity: Experiment with human echolocation (as in the above video)
Blindfolds are very handy for this (and with us they’ve proved to be very popular beyond just this experiment). You will want to progress through the following exercises with each child:

  1. Have them make a loud “shhhhhhh” sound while they move their hands in front of their faces. Can they tell how the sound changes as their hands move around? Try the same again while they bring a book toward their faces. Ask them if they noticed a change in the sound as the book got closer to their faces.
  2. Next, have them make a loud “shhhhhhh” sound into a large mixing bowls. Can they tell how the sound is different?
  3. Now blindfolded, the parent or teacher moves mixing bowl in front of child eventually. Have the child say “stop!” when he or she detects the mixing bowl’s presence.
  4. Still blindfolded: the parent or teacher holds the mixing bowl to one side and asks the child to click their tongues loudly in various directions to try to locate the mixing bowl, then reach toward it. Hopefully after a few tries they might be able to punch right into the bowl!
  5. Next, try clicking or shhhhhing in the corners of rooms to get a sense of space
  6. Try also clicking or shhhhhing in front of doorways and to the sides of doorways to get a sense of how sound changes against a wall v. out in open space.

After you’ve done these exercises, children might want to try walking through the house blindfolded, to see if they can navigate just by using sound. (Supervise this as necessary!)

(For more like this, see Teach Kids About Sound and Hearing.)

The Science of Hot and Cold

Thermoreceptors and Sensation

Activity: Desensitization and distinguishing hot from cold
This surprising and delightful activity asks children to plunge their hands into warm and cold buckets of water for a little while and then plunge them into other buckets with water of a different temperature. How does that feel and why? A wonderfully simple experiment that requires only water and vessels to hold it. Full instructions and explanations here.

Activity: Finger bath
A similar experiment, but this time using two fingers on the same hand. Get two cups of water, one warm and one cold, and place them side by side, right up against each other. Have children make the “peace” sign with the fingers of one hand and then stick one finger in each glass. The sensory signals run along the same nerve here, so what do the kids feel? Does one finger feel hot and the other cold? Or do they both feel the same? Is it a confusing sensation?

(For more like this, see Teach Kids About Touch.)


Explore Convection With a Colorful Experiment

Activity: Inverted bottles
Fill bottles with colored hot and cold water, then let them mix. What will happen when the hot water is on the bottom? And when it’s on the top? Full instructions here.


Have Fun With Topology by Making Tetraflexagons and Möbius Strips

Activity: Make tetraflexagons and hexaflexagons
For a video guide to making tetraflexagons (and fractal tetraflexagons from the cut-out centers), see this video. For hexaflexagons, see this video and these templates. If you’re working with younger children, tetraflexagons are quite a bit easier to make and flip, but both of these projects are terrifically exciting.

Activity: Make a Möbius strip
For instructions on how to make one and also more amazing Möbius strip demonstrations (like how to make an interesting Möbius strip sculpture), watch this video.

(For more like this, see Teach Kids To Have Fun With Math.)


Practice Addition or Multiplication With a Dinosaur Math Battle

Activity: Dinosaur Math Battle!

Take whatever dinosaur dinosaur (or animal) figurines you have and collect some dice. You might tape a ring on the floor with washi or painter’s tape, too. Have each child choose a dinosaur for each round and 1 each of matching dice (this is great with dice with 12+ sides). There are two ways to play this game:

  • For younger children, have them call out the number they roll, then identify which player rolled the bigger number. (You might consider adding in identifying odd and even numbers, too.) The dinosaur whose player rolled the biggest number wins. (And gets to knock down the other dinosaur.)
  • For older children, consider giving them each 2 or more dice. After they roll, they each have to add up (or multiply) their scores to find out who won. The player with the biggest total wins. (And gets to knock down the other dinosaur.)

Some other variations: Each player gets only one die, and the one with the biggest number wins. But players must then add both totals together to find out the repercussions of the fight: whether they were friends again after the fight (total > x, they’re friends again, total < x, they’re enemies forever, or total=x, they fall in love) or even/odd to decide if the losing player was seriously injured — anything to make the adding have an exciting result.

It helps if the referee yells things like, “CHOOSE YOUR COMPETITOR!” and “THE COMPETITORS HAVE ENTERED THE RING!” and “TRICERATOPS VERSUS T. REX!” As the winning dinosaur prepares to knock over the losing dinosaur, you might chant, “KNOCK IT DOWN! KNOCK IT DOWN!” This is all very exciting. The more it sounds like a wrestling match, the better.

(For more like this, see Teach Kids About Dinosaurs.)


Figure Out a Classic Probability Puzzle by Acting Out the Monty Hall Problem (and Have a Snack, Too)

WatchThe Monty Hall Problem

Activity: Act out the Monty Hall problem
You might think this is a stretch with younger children, but I’ve found that it’s wildly popular and thrilling (particularly if you use an edible prize, like marshmallows). Label your “doors” (any boxes will do) with sticky notes and put dud prizes in all but one. (We used dinosaur skeletons and marshmallows.) Try selecting first by sticking with your original choice, then try switching your choice after the host’s reveal. Do it at least ten times each, keeping track of the results. Which strategy was more effective? Then try it with more doors (like 5) and see how the results compare.

Activity: Probability trail mix
Make trail mix with a variety of small, similarly-sized pieces (raisins, nuts, chocolate chips, candies). Put in different amounts of each, but keep track of how much is in each bag and label them. Then have kids reach in a set number of times and record what they draw out each time. How often did they pull out the most common item? The least common? (From Eat Your Math Homework [Amazon].)

(For more like this, see Teach Your Kids To Have Fun With Math.)


Explore Sound as Vibration by Playing Wine Glasses

ActivityPlay wine glasses
This one produces beautiful results, and you might find yourself playing with the glasses for a very long time. Full instructions here.

(For more like this, see Teach Kids About Sound and Hearing.)


Explore Sound as Vibration With Coat Hangers

ActivityMusical coat hangers
A brilliant demonstration of the idea that sounds are vibrations. Bang a hanger into the wall and you hear a tinny noise; wrap strings around the hanger and your fingers, then bang it again with your fingers in your ears — music! Loads of fun to be had trying this experiment with different items and materials. Good fun for adults, too. Full instructions here.


Practice Making Beats With Just Your Body

Watch13 Levels of Beatboxing: Easy to Complex
Shlomo Teaches the Basic Sounds (Beatboxing Masterclass Part 2)
Using the Sounds (Shlomo Beatboxing Masterclass Part 3)
Activity: Use the above beatboxing videos as tutorials and learn how to do some basic beatboxing (or try to master it!)

WatchWorld’s Fastest Clapper (802 Claps in 1 Minute)
Clapping Music for Five Performers
Activity: Clapping games
If you know these already, great! If you don’t, these videos will teach you the words and hand motions. (You might find it useful to print out the words, too.) Find the words here.
Miss Mary Mack
A Sailor
Down Down Baby
Alternate Down Down Baby: Sesame Street: Handclapping Chants
Tic-Tac-Toe Hand Clapping
Slightly easier version of Tic-Tac-Toe
How to Play the Double Double Clapping Game
Optional/harder: The Cup Game (with plastic cups)

(For more like this, see Teach Kids About Sound and Hearing.)


Art & Artists

Make Pop Art Like Andy Warhol (Using a Photo of Yourself)

ReadWho Is Andy Warhol?
(Images of Andy Warhol)
ActivityMake Art Like Andy Warhol
First, take a look at some of Warhol’s works: from Marilyn Monroe (and scroll to the bottom for installation views) and Lita Curtain Star [Lita Hornick]. Take pictures of the kids and yourself against a white wall, and then print them on a black-and-white printer by indicating on the print menu that you want six copies per page, filling the page. (For preschoolers, they might get the most enjoyment out of coloring a single big image.) We used good-quality colored pencils, and these came out beautifully.

(For more like this, see Teach Kids About Color and Vision.)


Explore Surrealist Techniques like Joan Miró

LookJoan Miró’s automatic painting (scroll down and click on “automatic painting”)
(Image of Joan Miró)

Activity: Automatic drawing
Have children close their eyes and move a pencil or marker or brush freely around the paper. After they open their eyes, they can color in the spaces made by their markings, or they can leave it as it is.

Activity: Blindfold drawing
Choose an object to draw and then, with a blindfold on or with eyes closed, draw the object. Turn the paper over before you look at it, or have someone set it aside. Draw the item again with your eyes open, then compare the two drawings. Consider displaying them together.

Activity: Blindfold drawing in 3 colors
Select three colors of pencils or markers beforehand, then close your eyes. Draw anything you like (perhaps a star or a tree or a face) first with one color, then with the other two, all without opening your eyes. It might be helpful to have someone hand you your colors when you’re ready for them.

(For more like this, see Teach Kids About Art.)


Explore Early Animation and Vision

WatchThe Awesome History of Animation

Activity: Make a thaumatrope
You can find an instructional video for this activity from the Royal Institution here and the templates for these thaumatropes here.

Activity: Make a phenakistoscope
You’ll want to print these templates on cardstock, but all you need otherwise is a pencil, a thumbtack, and a wall mirror. Find the frog and blank one here, the horse here, and a Coraline one here.

(For more like this, see Teach Kids About Animation and Visual Wonders.)


Watch Some Stop-Motion Films, Then Make One Yourself

Watch: A collection of short stop motion films
Streamschool (video and making-of details and clips)
Cooking with Wool
Cooking with Wool: Pizza and Cooking with Wool BTS: Pizza 

Using people or animals:
Sorry I’m Late
Tricky Dog (commercial)

Lego Adventure in the City
Lego Chocolate Cake
Lego Breakfast
Lego Breakfast with Super Mario

Stop Motion Activities

For these activities, you’ll want to have a stop motion app on your phone or tablet. I have used and liked the Stop Motion Studio app. You might also want a tripod. I’ve used this one for my phone and while it’s not perfect, it got the job done. (You could also try attaching a phone to a sturdy desk lamp or a yardstick. Or prop it up on a book!) If you’d like more thorough guidance on making a stop-motion film, you can consult the helpful guides here and here.

Activity: Make a stop-motion film on paper (flat)
For this, you can decorate a paper background any way you like (we happened to have a background from a sticker book) and use either paper figures or animal figurines tipped on their sides.

Activity: Make a clay or Lego stop-motion film

(For more like this, see Teach Kids About Animation and Visual Wonders.)

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