Island Science

islandThis charming little island really floats! Thanks to some well-placed wine corks, the island (and 2 little sailboats) will bob away in your bathtub, pool, or water table. This project is also a good way to introduce a some science terms to the story time set – namely, prediction, testing, saturation, buoyancy, and capillary action.

floating islandWe read An Island Grows, written by Lola M. Schaefer and illustrated by Cathie Felstead (Greenwillow Books, 2006). This non-fiction rhyming book follows the growth of an island from the first tremors of an underwater volcano to a busy and colorful island community. Don’t miss the last page which is full of the scientific information behind the book’s charming rhymes. 

You’ll need:

  • 1 box (mine was 4” x 4” x 4”)
  • 1 box cutter
  • A selection of patterned paper
  • 3 small fabric squares (approximately 2″-3″)
  • 3 short pieces of thin ribbon (approximately 3″)
  • 1 small seashell (optional)
  • 1 paper towel tube
  • 1 corrugated cardboard base (approximately 8″ x 9″)
  • Green construction paper
  • Brown construction paper
  • White construction paper
  • Flower stickers (optional)
  • 20 wine corks
  • Scissors, tape, and glue stick for construction
  • Markers for decorating
  • Hot glue

Begin with your island home. Use the box cutter to cut a door and three windows in the sides of a box. Decorate the outside of the box with markers and add a roof of patterned paper (or construction paper). Use tape (or hot glue) to attach fabric squares to the insides of the box, right above each window. Knot a piece of ribbon around the fabric squares to create a window sash. Finish by hot gluing a small shell to the door to serve as a doorknob.

houseNow for your palm tree! Start by cutting 3″ off the top of a paper towel tube. If you’d like, you can use markers to draw rings around the tree. Next, cut 4 rectangles from the green construction paper (approximately 2″ x 5.5″ each). Cut each rectangle into a leaf shape, and make small cuts around the edges so it better resembles a palm frond.

palm leavesTape the palm fronds to the paper towel tube (I taped mine to the inside of the tube, but younger children might find it easier to tape them to the outside). To make coconuts, cut small circles out of the brown construction paper, then attach them to the tree with little loops of tape.

palm treeAt this time, I’d like to give a shout out to Anou, age 8, who came up with the coconut portion of our craft. I was in our library’s program area, trying to find a way to make three-dimensional looking coconuts that didn’t require hot glue. Anou walked up, offered the tape loop suggestion, and it looks great! Brilliant Anou, thanks!

With the house and tree complete, it’s time to make your base. Start with a 8″ x 9″ piece of corrugated cardboard (I cut ours from copy paper boxes). Use the glue stick to attach green construction paper to one side of the base. Then hot glue the house and the tree to the top of the base. It’s important to keep the house and the tree fairly close together in the center of the base. This will keep your island balanced while it’s floating on water.

fairly close togetherOnce the house and tree are attached, add a little landscaping with green construction paper fringes and flower stickers (or just draw flowers on the base with markers). We also used red file label stickers to create stepping stones leading to the front door of the house.

stepping stonesTo make your island and sailboats float, you’ll need 20 corks. Since we needed to prepare enough supplies for 24 kids, we needed lots of corks (480 to be exact). So we hit up a couple local wine shops and bars (thank you Public Wines, Cool Vines, Princeton Corkscrew, and Yankee Doodle Tap Room). But the real jackpot was a restaurant called Mediterra. They had THESE stashed in their kitchen. Woo hoo!

corks To make your island’s “cork stilts,” begin by hot gluing 4 corks together like this:

four corksRepeat this step three more times until you have 4 stilts (composed of four corks each). Hot glue the stilts to the bottom of the cardboard base like so:

cork stilts on baseWe had to do a little trial and error to determine the total number of corks needed to get this project to work. You can turn our experimentation into story time science by doing the following…

Fill a dish tub with water and set it on a table. Have three different bases prepped. The first base is cardboard with no corks.

base 1

The second base is cardboard with cork stilts. The stilts are two corks each.

base 2The third base has cork stilts too. These stilts are 4 corks each.

base 3

  1. Start by saying “Let’s take a look at these bases and predict which one will work best for our island.” After the kids make their predictions, say “Time to test them out!”
  2. Place Base 1 in the tub. It will immediately become saturated. Ask “What happened? What do we need to change to make this float and stay dry?”
  3. Place Base 2 in the water. It will float, but barely above the water. Eventually, water will begin saturating into the bottom and edges of the base. Ask “Is this any better? What’s the problem now?”
  4. Place Base 3 in the water. The base will float above the water, keeping the island dry. Say “It finally worked! Any guesses why?”

During the experiment, you can refer to the concepts of saturation, density and buoyancy. A cork floats on the water because it is less dense than the water. This gives the cork buoyancy, meaning that upward force on the cork is equal to the weight of the cork. The cardboard base, however, was just too heavy for the 2 cork stilts. As a result, Base 2 sunk down and got wet. But Base 3, the 4 cork stilts, did the trick! They gave the island enough buoyancy to lift the cardboard (and the house & tree) above the water level.

Time for sailboats! Cut a small sail (mine were about 2″ tall) out of white construction paper, and color both sides with markers. Hot glue the sail to one side of a cork (make sure the paper doesn’t extend below the cork). Then, hot glue a second cork next to the first.

cork boatWe discovered that, as the corks get wet, the water seeps up the sail, pulling the ink with it. This is capillary action…in action!

before and after boatsIf you’d like to turn the sailboat activity into a quick science lesson, create the boat you see in the “Before” photo above. For best results, make sure the marker extends all the way to the base of the paper sail. Fill a dish tub or plastic plate with water. Then:

  1. Show the kids the boat. Say: “This sailboat needs a little more decoration. Want to see a super cool way to decorate the sail – without drawing on it?”
  2. Place the sailboat in the water. It takes a few minutes to really get started, so you might have to go for a couple rounds of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” while you wait.
  3. Talk briefly about capillary action (i.e. the ability of water to flow up or though something – sometimes in defiance of gravity itself) and how they just observed the water moving up the paper sail, carrying the ink with it!
  4. If you’d like, you can prep a bunch of sailboats with different color inks, and see if the different colors move up the sail at different rates.

And that’s it! Your island and sailboats are complete! Float them in a bathtub, dish tub, baby pool, water table, or, in my case, the giant fountain outside of the Woodrow Wilson School of International and Public Affairs (that’s Ai Weiwei’ s Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads you see in the background). The perfect place for an island getaway, yes?

fountainLooking for some more island experiments? Do you like coconuts? Check out this post!

Villainous Vegetables?

creepy carrotsThey’re coming…sneaking up on you with a soft tunktunktunk…breathing that awful carroty breath. That’s right, you are being stalked by CREEPY CARROTS (or, as my daughter calls them, “cweepy cawwots”)!

We read Creepy Carrots, written by Aaron Reynolds and illustrated by Peter Brown (Simon & Schuster, 2012). Jasper Rabbit loves to snack on carrots, and munches quite liberally on the ones that grow in Crackenhopper Field. Until the carrots start stalking him. It begins when Jasper is brushing his teeth. Glancing in the mirror, he sees three creepy carrots leering out at him from the bathtub. But when he whips around, the carrots appear to be nothing more than innocent orange bathtub items. The drama continues. Carrots appear everywhere, breathing their terrible carroty breath, stalking him (“tunktunktunk“) and generally driving Jasper mad. Finally, Jasper builds an elaborate fence (complete with an alligator moat) to keep the carrots from leaving Crackenhopper Field. The carrots rejoice. Their plan worked – Jasper will never be able to get into Crackenhopper Field for carrot snacks again!

We made some creepy carrots in a basket, oh yes we did. But then we challenged kids to  get their carrots into Crackenhopper Field. And sometimes, the carrots sneaked back out!

sneaky carrotsYou’ll need:

  • 1 box (mine was 4 ½” X 4 ½” x 9”)
  • 1 strip of tagboard (approximately 2.5″ x 14″)
  • 2 brass tacks
  • 1 piece of white construction paper (mine was 5″ x 8.5″)
  • 1 long piece of brown raffia (mine was 120″)
  • 3 paper towel tubes
  • 3 sheets of 8.5″ x 11″ orange construction paper (or regular orange printer paper)
  • 1 small rectangle of white card stock (approximately 1.75″ x 5.75″)
  • Green raffia
  • Green crepe paper streamer
  • Green construction paper
  • Green paper crinkle
  • A selection of eye stickers
  • 1 creepy carrot mouth template, printed on 8.5″ x 11″ white card stock
  • A few slivers of black self-adhesive foam
  • 1 Crackenhopper Field (more on that later)
  • Scissors, tape, glue stick for construction
  • Markers for decorating
  • Hole punch

carrots in a basketWe’ll start with the basket, then add some creepy carrots! First, cut the lid and the tabs off the top of the box (or, if you’re using a tissue box, cut the entire top off).

basket step 1To make a basket handle, punch a hole in both ends of the strip of the tagboard. Then punch holes in the sides of the box. Attach the tagboard handle to the box using brass tacks. Finish by taping the tagboard handle to the interior of the box to keep the basket from wobbling on its handle.

To create a wicker effect on your basket, tape one end of a long piece of raffia to the outside of the box, then wrap it around the box. Tape the other end securely.

We also drew patterns on white construction paper and lined the bottom of the basket with a “basket mat.” You can see the taped handle, the raffia wrapping, and the basket mat in the photo below. Your basket is finished!

completed basketOn to the creepy carrots! Draw lines on a piece of orange paper.

carrot paperThe lines, of course, represent the bumps or rings on the outside of a carrot. Technically, those are called “lateral root scars” (thank you World Carrot Museum, UK. Did you also know that average person will consume 10,866 carrots in a lifetime?). Wrap the lined paper around a paper towel tube and secure with tape. Repeat these steps with the remaining 2 paper towel tubes.

To top off the carrots, we prepped a bunch of different types of carrot greens – fringed construction paper, pieces of raffia, swathes of crepe paper streamers, and crinkle.

carrot greensYou can attach these items to the interior of the paper towel tube OR you can try our patented carrot hairstyling technique. Namely, tape the greens to a small rectangle of white card stock…

carrot top step 1Then, flip the card stock rectangle over and apply glue with a glue stick.

carrot top step 2Gently circle the card stock, keeping the glue on the outside…

carrot top step 3And slip the card stock circle into the top of the paper towel tube. Push the glue onto the interior of the tube.

carrot top step 4The final step is creating carrot faces. You can simply draw the faces on with markers, or you can use eye stickers, mouths from the template, and small pieces of black self-adhesive foam for eyebrows. And there you have it. Creepy carrots.

creepy carrotsOff to Crackenhopper Field! The field doesn’t have to be fancy. In fact, in can just be an empty box, bin, or paper grocery bag. But since we had a couple large, flat boxes on hand (and because I’m never one to “rein it in”) we built a fenced field with two little doors for carrots to sneak in and out of.

field box finishedFirst, we taped the boxes together to form a rough rectangle (60″ long x 26″ high x 23″ deep). We left plenty of room inside the box for one of us to sit.

field box 2Then we used a box cutter to cut two small doors in the front of the box.

field box 1Next, Katie the Stupendous Assistant (you officially met her in this post) wrapped the front and two sides of the box in black paper (we left the back undecorated). I cut fence pieces out of white poster board and Katie hot glued them to the box.

field box 3She super-reinforced the little doors with packing tape so they would hold up to a bunch of kids tugging on them.

During story time, kids were challenged to toss their carrots inside the field or sneak them in through one of the little doors. I, however, was sitting inside the box, tossing carrots back, rocketing them through the doors, or making the carrots poke their heads above the fence and laugh in a semi-creepy way. I lost count of how many times I was bonked in the head by paper towel tube carrots but who cares…they loved it!

field 1After story time ended, a delighted parent took Crackenhopper Field home for further adventures (the blank side was going to be converted into a play castle for a party). I managed to catch them as they were heading out of the library. What a way to travel!

field goes home


Many thanks to Kendra Tyson for recommending this fabulous book! Is there a book you’d like to see us do at one of our story times? E-mail danas@princeton.edu

Yes, They Do Float

coconut experimentI’m talking about coconuts of course. If you’re ever stranded on a tropical island and need to make an escape raft…yes, coconuts do indeed float. This experiment was part of To Be Continued, our reading program for 6 to 8 year-olds. You can read about some of our other activities here and here.

We read Nim’s Island by Wendy Orr (Yearling, 1999). Nim is a little girl who lives on a beautiful, yet isolated, tropical island with her scientist father, Jack. When Jack leaves for a three day research trip at sea, Nim is left alone on the island with her friends Fred the marine iguana, Selkie the sea lion, and Chica the sea turtle. The family hut is equipped with a laptop computer, and Nim is delighted to learn that Alex Rover, world-famous adventure novelist, has written Jack to inquire if it is possible to build a coconut raft. So far, so good…but…Jack doesn’t return as expected, days pass, and Nim finds her surivival skills put to the test. Her correspondence with Alex (i.e. Alexandra!) Rover continues, and another story begins to unfold. A story about facing fears, courage, and love.

The kids asked many questions during the reading of this book (more on that below), but the one that intrigued me the most was – do coconuts really float? I decided that we needed to find out.

coconut Finding coconuts wasn’t difficult. Whole Foods Market carries them in their produce section, as did Wegman’s, a local grocery chain here. I never realized how cute coconuts were – in a hairy sort of way.

I put the coconuts in one dish tub, and filled another dish tub with water. The experiment was ready!

coconut experiment set upBut before we embarked on some coconut science, I set a tropical mood by handing out colorful leis and putting on an Echoes of Nature: Ocean Waves CD (Delta Music, 1993).

leisI let everyone pick up the coconuts and examine them. Then we took a vote. Who thought the coconuts were going to float? Why? Who thought they were going to sink? Why? Coconuts are very hard and rather heavy. So they’re going to sink, right? I rolled them into the water. They floated!

they float

Then we moved to a different table to try yet another coconut experiment – a taste test!

coconut waterCoconut water is all the rage these days. It’s the actual liquid that comes from inside a coconut (as opposed to coconut milk, which is made from the grated meat of the coconut). This is the stuff Nim drinks in the book, so we tasted it! The reactions to the flavor, as you can see, were a bit mixed…

taste testBut everyone gave it a good try (one little girl even asked her mom if she could get some for home!). Typically, I don’t do food in my programs (you can read more about this in my food allergy post). And, in fact, one of the kids participating in this program did have a food allergy to dairy. But the connection to the book was so fabulous, I decided to put in some legwork to make it possible.

First, I checked Vita Coco labels to see if there was any potential contamination with dairy products (there’s not, it’s actually a vegan product). I doubled checked with the company. Then, the week before the activity, I approached the mother of the child with the food allergy and explained what I wanted to do and what I had learned from the company. I brought the Vita Coco packaging with me so she could check the label herself. After Mom gave the OK, we were good to go!

Having floated coconuts and tasted coconut water, we had one more connection to make. In the books, Nim plays coconut soccer with Fred, Selkie, and Chica. Unfortunately, it was raining outside so we couldn’t try our version of it, but we did try coconut bowling!

coconut bowling 2Basically, I set up two sets of 6 toilet paper tube “pins” and let ‘em rip! And there you have it. Three fabulous Nim’s Island activities, all inspired by the humble, yet surprisingly versatile, coconut!

A few of the other questions that came up during this book were:

  1. What’s a machete?
    A quick trip to Google images solved this one.
  2. What does a marine iguana, sea lion, and sea turtle look like?
    Google images again!
  3. What’s the difference between an ocean and a sea?
    A sea is part of the ocean partially enclosed by land (from National Ocean Service)
  4. Are coconut pearls real?
    Apparently, they’re a myth. Boo.