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Ice Mobiles

Age: 0 to 5 Time: 1 hour+
Materials: twine, pie tins
Skills: Creativity, Curiosity, Behavioral Schema, Sensory
I’d seen photos of kid-made, outdoor ice mobiles and found them simply beautiful. It wasn't until we added a little scientific inquiry, though, that this ice art became fascinating to our kids. The first time I did the activity, I knew that we were aiming to make ice mobiles. Our girls, however, only knew that we were “doing an essperiment.” Our key questions were: What happens to water when we put it outside in the winter time? and What will the water look like and feel like if we leave it overnight? Over the next 18 hours or so, we answered our questions by watching, harvesting and exploring our ice mobiles. They were lovely to behold (especially in the sunlight), stimulating to touch (and even taste) and soon became the objects of rich conversation and pure fascination. We hung them up outside again, and the girls watched as temperatures rose until, quite suddenly it seemed, they were gone. We made more with our classes and hung them in the park, correct in our hunch that they would show even better in a truly natural setting. Our girls had played with ice cubes and crunched frozen puddles, but this experience with ice was special. Our 3 year old was still talking about mobiles weeks later, using words like experiment, freezing, ice, melting, and temperature. Our 1 year old still points out at the fire escape saying, “Ice?” A good reminder: what seems simple to us can be super compelling to them.

The Guide

  1. Find the right weather and the right spot: You’re looking for a forecast of temperatures at or under 32 degrees for 48 hours. You’ll also need a flat area in which you can leave your ice mobiles outdoors for at least 8 hours (overnight always works). For us, that spot was the fire escape, although we also “hid” some in the park overnight and, thankfully, they were still there when we returned in the morning.
  2. Talk about the experiment: Turn on the faucet and start playing with water. Ask kids, “What would happen to some water if we put it outside today?" Talk about how it feels outside. Ask, “What will it look like? feel like?” Accept all ideas. Then, say, “Let’s give it a try and see if we’re right!”
  3. Set up the experiment: Gather pie tins and place them outside. Pour in the water. Notice if anything changes right away. Agree that it will probably take some time. Stick a piece of twine into each container of water (this will become a handle).
  4. Gather some nature treasures: (We are always carting nature treasures home from the park, but you may need to make a trip out before this to gather treasures). Place some objects in and notice how they float/sink/move. Wonder if they will continue to move like that if you leave the water and treasures outside.
  5. Check and observe your water: If you can, go and peek after about an hour. Crystals should have formed on the surface, and change will clearly have started. Our girls went back to check repeatedly until it was time for bed.
  6. Explore and celebrate the results: Bring the mobiles indoors and either wait a few minutes or put them in a lukewarm bath (beware, too hot and you'll crack them!). Then, you can loosen the ice blocks from their molds and behold. Hold them up in the sunlight and watch. Feel them. Taste them. Hang them up outdoors and watch them for as long and as often as you like. Keep track of them as they melt and behold that reverse process.
  7. Talk about what happened: What does the water look and feel like at the start? After it stayed outdoors? Use as many descriptive words as you can; they are soaking it all in. Talk about ice and water, freezing and melting, solids and liquids. And, if you are like us, make more.
[Notes: To vary the shape, use different containers or place a cookie cutter in the center of a pie plate. Tape the cookie cutter down to the container and carefully pour water into the center of the shape. To play with color, add spices or food coloring to your water.]

Why is this activity great for kids?

This activity gives your kids the chance to build their own understanding of a major science concept, changes in the state of matter. Even better to the science teacher in me, though, it develops the habit of mind to wonder and the practice of scientific inquiry. Watching, holding and even tasting the ice make for a super workout for your child’s senses. If your kids are like ours, they’ll also add new words to their wordbanks, from terms like freezing and melting to descriptors like slippery, cool and slick. Unlike so many experiences in the digital age, this one requires waiting, helping kids develop patience. Finally, for the budding artists, here is yet another canvas on which to express themselves, and one that is free and widely available whenever winter rolls in.

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