How science helps Santa go down the chimney…and 4 more easy holiday science activities to break up students’ breaks

Elementary and Middle School


As students prepare for their break, you can gift them all kinds of fun and engaging science activities with simple materials they have at home. And just in from the North Pole…our activity download that reveals all the pressure on Santa to get down the chimney.

This activity demonstrates how atmospheric pressure works as one of the scientific principles behind Santa’s ropeless chimney rappel. Watch the Ward’s Science video demonstration of this activity above. Then download the activity guide.


Download Lesson


Scroll down for even more super-easy activities. We’ve created a list and checked it twice to find out which are knotty or ice. Students can discover that physics, chemistry, and other STEM topics don’t take a break from the world around them, even during the holidays.

 

It’s just knot science
Use physics to wrap the perfect gift.

There are a lot of gift-giving occasions throughout the year. Once you’ve picked the perfect gift and wrapped it neatly, you might use a ribbon for the finishing touch.

Inspire your students by showing them how they can use the principles of physics to explore the perfect knot to secure their gifts. This activity will inspire young minds to dig deeper to untangle the fascinating theories on the world of knots.

Physicist Basile Audoly of the Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris developed a theory to predict the force needed to tighten very simple overhand knots. In 2015, Audoly co-authored the publication, Untangling the mechanics and topology in the frictional response of long overhand elastic knots

The theory is that the best knots are based on the give-and-take between topology (twist charge, crossing numbers, handedness), friction, and bending. So, ask students to grab some ribbon and test it out.

Any sailor will tell you, the strength of a knot depends on the knot's configuration. Students can use a simple square knot with the ribbon to secure their gifts, the one used to tie shoelaces.  This is done by making two half knots. Start by crossing the ribbon in the right hand in front of the one in the left hand and then threading the right hand one over and under the left to form a simple "overhand" knot. Once they've swapped hands and pulled this snug, they repeat the process to make a second overhand knot on top of the first—except they have to cross the end that's now in their right hand behind the one in their left. Ask students why merely repeating the first square knot exactly the same way on the second knot would produce a weaker knot (aka a granny knot).

It can be a powerful lesson for students to see that science plays a role in even the simplest activities they perform every day. In their observations, students see the role friction plays as more twists result in more rubbing between the two ends of the ribbon. Audoly and the researchers even wrote a formula for the pulling force in terms of three variables: the thickness of the material, its stiffness, and the number of twists.

Students can investigate why some knots seem to hold tight while others easily slip apart.? Do you think anyone enjoys retying the same bow over and over again? We’re a frayed knot!
 

A totally tubular activity!
Use cardboard tubes to bring wavelengths to light.

Can students use science to combine gift giving and recycling? Absolutely! Those cardboard tubes leftover from gift-wrapping paper present endless possibilities for science activities.

Colorful lights always make any occasion more festive. So, it’s the perfect time to use the recycled tubes to create a spectroscope. The first spectroscope was invented in 1859 by chemist Robert Wilhelm Bunsen and physicist Gustav Robert Kirchhoff.

Scientists use spectroscopes (spectrophoto-meters, spectrographs, or spectrometers) to measure properties of light over a specific portion of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Students can observe all the rainbow colors when they use their own spectroscope to split light into different wavelengths.
 

 

Image Credit: buggyandbuddy.com


So, before their parents heave the leftover cardboard tubes in the trash, ask students to grab one. They’ll also need

  • Craft knife or scissors
  • Blank or old CD
  • Pencil
  • Small piece of cardboard or cardstock
  • Tape
  • Paint (optional)
  • Aluminum foil (if necessary)

If students want to get creative and show off their artistic skills, they can paint the cardboard tube before building their spectroscope. Next, instruct them to

  1. Ask an adult to use a craft knife (or scissors) to cut a thin slit at a 45° angle toward the bottom of the cardboard tube.
  2. Directly across from the slit, make a small peephole or aperture using your craft knife (with adult supervision).
  3. Trace one end of your paper towel roll onto your small scrap of cardboard or cardstock. Cut it out.
  4. Cut a straight slit right across the center of your cardboard circle.
  5. Tape the circle to the top of your spectroscope.
    1. The slit will allow light into the tube and must be very thin. If your slit is too wide, tape two pieces of aluminum foil over it, one above and one below, so they are very close together but not overlapping.
  6. Insert the CD into your 45° angled slit with the shiny side facing up.

Let there be light! First, students can take their spectroscope outside to see how it works. Point the top slit up at the sky (not directly at the sun). They can look through the aperture to see the rainbow colors inside the tube.

Next, they can test other light sources like:

  • A computer screen
  • A TV screen
  • A fluorescent light bulb
  • Streetlights

Explain to your young investigators that a CD has a mirrored surface that contains tiny evenly spaced grooves or pits. When light reflects off the CD, the grooves make the light spread out (diffract), revealing rainbow colors. The CD’s mirrored surface reflects the light to your eye.

Because the slit at the top of the tube is so narrow, the light that passes through it splits into different colors, similarly to light passing through a prism. When the colors are split, students can see the light spectrum.

Safety Note: Never look directly at the sun through your spectroscope! You can severely damage your eyes.

 

The science of crystals made clear

This basic exploration of crystals is a gem.

A lot of images of the holiday season use beautiful snow scenes. Snow does make it easier for a gift-laden sleigh to make its way around the world. And people of all ages are captivated by the stunning ice crystals that form snowflakes.

Crystals are a solid, containing an internal pattern of regular, repeated, and geometrically arranged molecules that form a lattice. That’s partly why the likelihood of two large, complex snowflakes being identical is zero. The intricate shape of nature’s tiny ice sculptures is also determined by the conditions it meets in the atmosphere as it falls from the sky.  A crystal might begin to grow arms in one way, and then minutes or even seconds later, slight changes in the surrounding temperature or humidity causes the crystal to grow in another way.1 While it always has six sides, the final shape of the ice crystal can go in any direction. No two snowflakes will follow the exact same path as they fall to the ground; therefore, their shape will differ. Although, researchers have developed up to 80 distinct classifications of snowflakes.1 You probably can add that to your little-known facts list.

Your students can make their own crystals at home. Ask them to get permission to grab a sprig of pine from the holiday tree or an evergreen tree or shrub in the backyard to get started.  Using a few household supplies, this simple chemical process demonstrates the science behind crystal formation. Items they’ll need

  1. A sprig of pine (evergreen) tree or bush
  2. A few inches of string
  3. Scissors
  4. A wide-mouth jar (mason jar or jar thick enough to handle boiling water)
  5. Bowl
  6. Measuring cup
  7. Boiling water
  8. Borax (approximately 6 – 9 teaspoons) (borax flakes, not the detergent)
  9. A spoon or stirrer
  10. A pencil

Attach the string to the stem-end of the pine sprig and secure the other end to the pencil.

Prepare the borax mixture:

Students should ask an adult to prepare and pour the boiling water to avoid accidents. We recommend safety gloves.

1. An adult fills the jar with boiling water.

2. Have students mix the borax into the water one tablespoon at a time. Use three tablespoons of borax per cup of water. Stir it until dissolved— it’s ok if some of the powder settles on the bottom of the jar. The final mixture should look thick or very cloudy.

4. Carefully insert the sprig into their jars so that the pencil rests on the jar's lip and the sprig is suspended in the borax solution. The sprig should not touch the sides or bottom of the jar.

5. Instruct students to put the jar in an undisturbed area of their home-learning lab or another location that an adult has designated.

After 24 hours, students can carefully remove the crystalized sprig and display it. They could even turn it into an ornament for their holiday tree or decoration on the fireplace mantel.

You can explain the hot water causes the water molecules to move further away from each other so that more of the borax can dissolve into the solution.  Once the solution reaches a point where it cannot dissolve any more borax, it becomes supersaturated.2 As the solution cools, the water molecules come closer together again, causing the forming borax crystals to cling to the pine sprig.

 

How candy canes get bent into shape

Explore the sweet moves sugar crystals make when heated.

Students can combine the science behind knots and crystals discussed above to put a new twist on a popular holiday treat.

The candy canes hanging on the Christmas tree are hard and brittle (yet quite tasty) but adding heat changes how the candy’s molecules behave. Both table sugar and corn syrup contain linked glucose and fructose molecules, but corn syrup has much more fructose than glucose, and the fructose interferes with sugar crystal formation. 4 The corn syrup has more fructose, which means the candy's sugar crystals don’t fit tightly together. The crystals have space between them, which allows them to bend and move without cracking, allowing us to form the iconic cane shape.

 

 


Image Credit: lemonlimeadventures.com


To make their own peppermint knots, your students will need:

  1. Wax paper
  2. Cookie sheet
  3. Oven (adult supervision required)

To get started on this tasty activity, instruct your students to:

  1. Snag a few candy canes before they get displayed around the house (red-, blue-, green-striped; any color will do).
  2. Preheat the oven to 250 F (with adult help).  
  3. Line a cookie sheet with wax paper.
  4. Place the candy canes on the cookie sheet.
  5. Leave them in the oven for 3 to 4 minutes. Then an adult can use oven mitts to remove the candy canes. Safety note: After removing candy from the oven, an adult must ensure the candy has cooled enough to touch.

When the candy is heated, the bonds holding the crystals in place weaken, allowing you to twist the candy into a different shape. We recommend the half knot shape described above, but students can use their creative skills to form other shapes.

Once they’ve formed the shape and the candy cools, the bonds will tighten again and reform into the new shape.

You can’t go wrong with any of these at-home science activities; they’re each as simple as they are impressive!

Don’t have time to gather and assemble these items for each student? We can help! With Ward’s Quick Kits, you can build your own supply kits with these simple supplies and more for your remote or in-classroom lessons.

 

The team at Ward’s Science hopes you and your students have an enjoyable, safe, and science-filled holiday with your families. Happy holidays!


1. NOAA - How do snowflakes form. Get the science behind snow.  2. C. Magono and C. W. Lee, Meteorological Classification of Natural Snow Crystals, Journal of the Faculty of Science, Hokkaido University, 1966 3.  http://teachers.egfi-k12.org/activity-create-a-crystal-snowflake/ 4. Andrew Schloss, Amazing (Mostly) Edible Science

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