Skip to content

Who hasn't heard the whine of "I'm bored" from their children, particularly during the quiet summer months? Usually it is enough to say, "Go try..." but sometimes they may need a bit of help to get started on a new project. This often happens in the late afternoon when we're all tired, and the weather is keeping us confined to the house.

To combat the occasional summer blahs, I have been making what we call a "boredom bin" each spring. When I visit dollar stores or secondhand shops, I pick up inexpensive items like puzzles, games, books and art supplies, and throw them in a bin hidden in my closet. Once tedium reaches maximum levels, someone requests a trip to the boredom bin. I suspect just the anticipation of something new helps. Each child gets one item without seeing what else is in the bin. No matter what it is, off they run to play with it. It is a very happy tradition at our house.

This year I'm taking things a step further and making a science-themed boredom bin. Having recently heard a mother explain how she finally had saved up enough money to buy an expensive science kit for her children, I want to emphasize you can do a lot of science with things around the house that don't cost much at all. Here are some ideas:

Because our family is studying the physical sciences, the first list is a physical science theme.

1. Inexpensive kites (often available in grocery stores for just a dollar or two), or balsa, string, tape and paper to make kites
2. Straws to make into kazoos, atomizers, droppers, bridges, you name it
3. Paper towel tubes, file folders and boxes to make marble towers, houses, airplanes, etc.
4. Plastic bags, bits of yarn or string, and action figures to make parachutes
5. Balloons to make cars, hover craft, drums, etc.
6. Inexpensive magnet and electricity kits, available used or at discount stores that sell returned/discontinued items
7. Inexpensive kitchen scale (garage sales) or materials to make a homemade scale
8. Flashlights, thermometers, magnifying lenses, prisms (we got a very inexpensive crystal pendent that works), aluminum foil to study light and heat
9. Building blocks and wheels (like Legos, Knex or Megablocks) (garage sales)
10. Plastic bins, toy boats, clay, soap, foil etc. to study floating and sinking
11. A good book of science activities to get you started, often available used

A chemistry-themed bin might include:
1. A box or two of cornstarch, to mix with about equal parts water to make cornstarch goo. Kids of all ages love to revisit this messy activity again and again.
2. Bubble mix or try the bubble science experiment in this blog
3. Pennies, nails. Add lemon juice from the kitchen to clean the penny, and copper plate the nail. Lemons can also be used to make invisible ink and with cabbage juice to explore acids and bases (see color experiments in this blog)
4. Oil, food coloring and water to study oil and water separation
5. Vinegar and baking soda to make volcanoes and rockets. For an incredibly simple, yet effective volcano: Have your child make a volcano shaped heap in a sandbox or loose soil, if no sandbox is available. Make a hole in the top, about 1 1/2 inches deep, and pour in some baking soda. Then pour in about 1/2 cup vinegar and stand back for the eruption. The cone can be rebuilt again and again. Add red food coloring to the vinegar to simulate lava.
6. Yeast packet, sugar, balloon and a water bottle. Mix the yeast, sugar and water in the bottom of the water bottle and then cover the opening with the un-inflated balloon. Watch what happens as the yeast begins to grow.
7. Metal objects such as nails, washers, paper clips, etc. Place in jars with either plain water, water plus salt, or plain vinegar and see what happens.
8. A good book of science activities to get you started, often available used

If you want a biology-themed bin, consider adding:

1. Bug catching and viewing toys such as bug vacuums, jars and nets. Encourage your children to catch, observe and release.
2. Seeds to plant in recycled containers
3. Dried beans to soak and sprout
4. Simple kits to make bird houses, feeders. Get more ideas from the bird watching activity in this blog.
5. String, measuring tape, pencils and paper, crayons, camera to study a tree. Keep a nature journal to see how the tree changes from season to season and over the years. Use the string to measure around the trunk and the tape to figure the length. Record what animals visit the tree. Make bark rubbings and press a few leaves. Check the tree flower activity, too.
6. Consider constructing a worm bin to recycle food waste. Red wiggler worms are the special type used in worm bins.
7. Gather materials to start and study a compost heap.
8. Herb seeds and pots to start an herb container garden. Kids like herbs because of their wonderful odors and textures, plus many herbs are hardy to grow, giving children success.
9. Inexpensive tape recorder. Tape insects, birds, mammals and frogs making noises, singing and calling.
10. Find a good book of science activities to get you started, often available used

Please let me know if you want further instructions for any of these projects, or if you have additional items to add to the lists. Good luck and hope you have a happy summer filled with science fun.

This weekend let’s go out and look for trees that are flowering. Whether you walk around the block or visit an arboretum, I bet you are going to discover more than you realize.

Certainly you are going to find trees with beautiful, colorful showy flowers like this desert willow. The buckeyes, horse chestnuts, tulip trees, catalpas, magnolias and fruit trees all have attractive flowers.

desertwillowflower

Do you have any ideas who might come to visit these flowers? In our desert willow we regularly have hummingbirds and carpenter bees. We’ve also noticed tiny birds, called verdins, poking around the flowers. The hummingbirds are collecting nectar, the bees collect pollen and nectar, and we aren’t sure what the verdins are after. They are probably drinking nectar, but they also catch insects. In the summer they love to eat the tomatoes in our garden. We forgive them though, because they are so tiny and cute.

You might have trouble spotting the flowers on certain trees, like this mesquite. They form catkins that don’t have petals, so may not look like flowers at all. Insects often pollinate trees with big, showy flowers; trees with small flowers may be wind pollinated.

mesquiteflower

Other tree flowers may be oddly shaped or peculiar compared to annual flowers. Check out the bell-shaped flowers from a bottle tree (Brachychiton populneum). From the side the flowers are whitish, and are hard to see. Facing the flower, however, the interior is dark red.

bottletreeflower

If you have studied flower parts, then tree flowers can offer some challenges. Sometimes trees will only have male flowers or only female flowers. Mulberries are examples of trees that have separate sexes. One tree will be female and produce fruit and seeds; another will be male and produce only pollen.

It's a good idea to jot down the date when you see trees in bloom. Recording the time of bloom gives information about phenology or dates of reoccurring natural phenomena. This information can then be used to study how plants respond to such things as weather and climate changes. Each tree has it’s own time to bloom and over the years you will see patterns.

If you can’t get outdoors, or you are interested in seeing more photographs of trees, check out the beauties at Julie Walton Shaver’s Tree Growers Diary. The Autumn in the Land Movie is particularly worthwhile if you love trees.

Believe it or not, flies are not my favorite insects, but there is an abundance of them in my garden right now. Do I have garbage out there? No, some very unusual flowers are attracting the flies, like the flower shown here. If you were sitting where I was to take this photo, you would think there was a garbage pile nearby. The odor was quite unpleasant.

euphorbia

This plant is a succulent in the genus Euphorbia. The plant deceives carrion and dung flies by producing odors that mimic decay. The flies are expecting to find some yummy rotting flesh or droppings to eat and lay their eggs on, but instead only find a devious plant.

Here is a fly that has been tricked:

fly on euphorbia

As it turns out, another similar plant is also flowering in my yard this week. This plant has bizarre red, star-shaped flowers. It is called Stapelia. It also mimics carrion.

flystapelia

Here is a green bottle fly that has been fooled. I have often seen thin white eggs in the centers of the Stapelia flower, laid by confused flies.

Take a look at this close up. You can see the pollen on the bottle fly’s thorax (behind the head). These plants are misleading the flies in order to be pollinated, and it seems to be working.

greenbottlefly

Carrion-mimicking flowers can go to real extremes to attract their pollinators. Two of the largest flowers in the world are big stinkers. The Rafflesia flower can be three feet wide, making it the biggest flower. The titan arum is definitely the tallest, reaching up to seven feet! Check the Library of Congress for some amazing pictures.

Hopefully the backyard jungle will smell better next week.