Build a “rocket,” send an airplane (without wings) soaring through the air, create a rainbow using food coloring, and more with these hands-on science activities. We asked staff at the Franklin Institute to pick out their favorite projects using household items, bringing entertainment for kids at every age.

For more science projects, check out the Franklin Institute’s “Science Recipes” page (fi.edu/science-recipes), offering three new activities every week.

PRE-K

Color Formulas

Use food coloring to learn about secondary and tertiary colors, as well as how to create different hues, tints, shades, and tones.

“It’s deceptively simple and gets preschoolers doing chemistry without them even knowing it — it’s sneaky chemistry,” says Rachel Castro-Diephouse, Franklin Institute manager of curriculum resources. “And we’re always so surprised at how long kids want to engage with it.”

Mixing food coloring reveals how secondary and tertiary colors are made.
Courtesy the Franklin Institute
Mixing food coloring reveals how secondary and tertiary colors are made.

When you’re finished, try using the leftover dye to show how different materials absorb color.

“If you put a celery stalk in the water, for example, it will eventually start to absorb the water and change colors over the course of a couple days,” says Castro-Diephouse.

Materials:

  • 3 medium-sized cups or small bowls
  • 3 food coloring colors (ideally colors that are pretty different from each other, like red/yellow/blue or pink/purple/orange)
  • Water
  • White paper
  • Mixing wells: White or clear containers with separate “wells” for mixing, such as ice cube trays, plastic egg cartons, or small clear cups
  • 3 eye droppers (or spoons or straws)

Instructions:

  1. Fill the cups half full with water. Add 3-4 drops of food coloring to each to make three different colors of water. Put an eye dropper in each cup.
  2. If mixing wells are clear, place a piece of white paper underneath to make the colors of your mixtures easier to see.
  3. Choose one color, and carefully use your eye dropper to transfer a few drops of colored water into one of your mixing wells. Choose another color, and add a few drops to the same well by using a separate eye dropper
  4. Make observations about what happened. What color is your new mixture? How does it compare to the original colors?
  5. Continue to explore by mixing colors together in the wells. Talk about these questions as you go: What happens if you use the same amount of each color? A lot of one color and only a little of the other? What happens if you mix all three colors? Can you make more than one kind of green (or purple, or other color)?

Other ideas to try:

  • Make as many shades of the same color as you can.
  • Write down the formulas for the different colors you create by counting how many drops of each color you used (for example: 32 blue, 13 yellow, 5 red).
  • Name your color creations, just like a paint or nail polish company does (like “robin’s egg blue” or “razz-a-ma-dazzle”).
An airplane with hoop "wings" can fly just as far, and if not farther, than a classically constructed paper airplane.
Courtesy Jessica McDermo
An airplane with hoop "wings" can fly just as far, and if not farther, than a classically constructed paper airplane.

ELEMENTARY

Wingless Airplanes

Can an airplane fly without “wings”? This project swaps classic paper airplane wings for hoops, while exploring a variety of engineering and flight principles.

“[Hoop planes] very rarely do that paper airplane thing where they fly straight into the ground,” says Jessica McDermott, Franklin Institute assistant director of camp programs. “They aren’t super fast, but they’ll glide straight and you can get them to go a pretty long distance.”

To level it up, turn the experiment into a competition, and see which family member’s plane flies the farthest.

Materials:

  • Sturdy paper like construction paper, card stock, or a thin folder
  • Paper or plastic straws
  • Scissors
  • Tape

Instructions:

  1. Throw the straw by itself like a dart. Make some observations about how it flies, glides, or falls. Did it go straight? How far did it go?
  2. Cut a strip of paper 1-inch wide and 10-inches long. Cut another strip of paper 1-inch wide and 5-inches long. Curl each strip into a circle and tape the ends together. You should have one small and one bigger hoop.
  3. Tape the small hoop to one end of the straw and the large hoop to the other end of the straw, placing the hoops in line with each other.
  4. Hold your glider in the middle, small hoop in front. Gently throw your glider like a dart. This may take a few practice throws. What did you notice about how it flies? How did it compare to when you threw the straw by itself? What happens if you throw it with the large hoop in the front?
  5. Experiment by making changes to your design. Some ideas to try: Make the hoops bigger, smaller, or both the same size, add more hoops, cut your straw to make it shorter, tape two straws together to make them longer, put one hoop on top of the straw and the other hoop underneath.

To learn more about why and how your hoop glider flies, click here.

Use a balloon to power your own "rocket," one that can transport materials from one place to another, just like those that fly to the moon.
Courtesy the Franklin Institute
Use a balloon to power your own "rocket," one that can transport materials from one place to another, just like those that fly to the moon.

MIDDLE SCHOOL

Cargo Rocket

Put on your engineering cap, and learn to build your own “rocket” — one that can transport materials from one place to another.

“This is a very simplistic way to look at the same physics principles that make any rocket that goes into space work,” says Buddy Muhler, Franklin Institute camp programs supervisor. “Plus, you’re working through the process that an actual engineer would take — researching, brainstorming, building, testing, and then redesigning and retesting.”

Once your design is complete, play around with seeing how much cargo your rocket can carry, adapting the design as needed to see what tactics make it more powerful.

Materials:

  • Balloons
  • String or fishing line, 6-10 feet long
  • Straws
  • Tape
  • Binder clips or paper clips
  • Materials for building a cargo basket, such as:
    • Straws
    • Craft sticks
    • Cardboard from cereal or tissue boxes
    • Small paper cups
    • Pipe cleaners
  • Cargo, such as:
    • Coins, washers, or paper clips
    • Small plastic animals or figurines
  • Paper and pencils, crayons, or markers

Instructions:

  1. Blow up a balloon, and instead of tying the end, pinch it closed with a binder clip or paper clip.
  2. Tape the straw to the balloon lengthwise, so one end points toward the top of the balloon and the other points toward the pinched-off end. Thread the string through the straw. You might need another person to help with holding everything at once.
  3. Tie the ends of the string to two sturdy objects (like two chairs, or a chair and a doorknob) so the string is stretched tight between them, with the balloon hanging from it.
  4. To launch the balloon rocket, slide the balloon to the end of the string nearest the pinched-off balloon end. Release the clip on the end of the balloon.
  5. Do some research on your rocket’s flight by launching it a few more times. Observe how the rocket moves. Does the rocket move smoothly? Does it wiggle side to side or spin in a spiral? How far along the string does the rocket travel? What happens if you put more or less air in the balloon? What else might change how the rocket moves?
  6. Now you’re ready to engineer a cargo basket for your rocket. Think about everything your cargo basket will need to have or do. You might want to draw a picture and/or write a list. For example: Be big enough for the cargo; have a way to get the cargo in and out; carry the cargo all the way across the string without falling out; keep the cargo safe if the rocket wiggles or spins; not be too big or heavy for the rocket to carry.
  7. Use the materials you collected to design and build your cargo basket.
  8. Test your rocket and cargo basket while you work. If it doesn’t work the way you planned, keep trying. If it does work, think about what you could change to make it even better. Engineering is all about testing and improving your designs.
By using the key forces of balance, learn how to create a kinetic sculpture that moves atop your finger.
Courtesy the Franklin Institute
By using the key forces of balance, learn how to create a kinetic sculpture that moves atop your finger.

HIGH SCHOOL

Kinetic sculptures

Can you build a device — using only household items — that swings back and forth while successfully balancing on your finger? Try this activity to learn how to make a kinetic sculpture.

“Kinetic means it’s moving, so this becomes a lesson about balance,” says Jacqui Schneider, Franklin Institute floor programs manager.

An object balances when its weight is evenly distributed around its base of support. Start small, using items like spoons, buttons, and bottle caps to build your sculpture. As you experiment and start to discover the fundamentals of balance, you may be ready to create a bigger sculpture to show off.

“With older kids, you can think outside the box and use larger objects just hanging around in the garage. Items like rope or duct tape can tie it all together,” says Schneider.

Materials

  • Ruler
  • Penny or metal washer
  • Tape
  • Different objects to add to your sculpture, such as forks, spoons, pencils, crayons, clothespins, small toys, paper clips, buttons, shapes cut from paper or cardboard, metal washers, hex nuts, or bolts
  • Materials to connect your sculpture objects together, such as pipe cleaners, rubber bands, yarn, string, twist ties or thin wire
  • Scissors (to cut the yarn or paper)

Instructions:

  1. Do research about balance by trying to balance the ruler on the end of your finger. Hold one finger straight out in front of you with the fingernail facing the floor. Rest the flat part of the ruler on the end of your finger. Move the ruler around until you can make it balance on your finger. Where on the ruler did you need to put your finger to make it balance? Can you balance the ruler on its edge instead of the flat part? Can you balance it on the short edge at the end?
  2. Stick the penny or metal washer to one end of the ruler with a small piece of tape. Try to balance the ruler on your finger again. Where on the ruler did you need to put your finger to balance it this time?
  3. Move the penny to different places on the ruler. How does that change where your finger needs to be? Test some of the other objects you collected.
  4. Now you’re ready to create a kinetic sculpture. Use the materials you collected to make a sculpture that can balance on one of your fingers and has parts that swing or move. (For inspiration, search “kinetic sculpture” or “balancing sculpture” online.) Questions to consider: What object will you use for the base (the part you balance on your finger)? Where can you attach other objects to the base? Which parts of your sculpture will move? How will you attach them? What else will make your sculpture interesting to look at?
  5. Test your sculpture while you work by putting it on your finger to see how it balances. If an idea doesn’t work well the first time, keep trying. When you’re happy with your sculpture, demonstrate it to a friend or family member.