Children are born curious: their interest in the world around them is what helps them learn and grow. Parents spend the first few years protecting their little rug rats, cruisers, and toddlers from the potentially harmful effects of their curiosity.
Kids learn what can and cannot go in their mouths, that it’s not safe to poke electrical outlets (that’s why they’re covered with childproof plastic plugs), and the all-time favorite, what happens when you pull Mom’s hair, hard.
When it’s time for outdoor play, parents become the recipients of all kinds of offerings, from leaves and insects to sticks and blades of grass. Each time a child displays their curiosity about the world around them, they present a learning opportunity to parents and teachers.
By elementary school, most children understand opposites like loud and quiet, day and night, or big and small. The wonders of the world increase as they expand their adventures, stargazing on summer nights, or discovering the intricacy of snowflakes.
Helping your children explore the astonishing abundance of living things in the world around them, down to the microscopic level, builds their curiosity to help them understand how and why scientists do experiments, and what they can learn from taking a close look at the local environment.
Microscopy isn’t just for budding botanists and biologists: it exposes kids to a learning method relevant to diverse fields like geology, oceanography, medicine, and the visual arts.
Encouraging and channeling children’s natural curiosity through controlled experiments with microscopes can open new worlds for them. This tool can help them understand how microscopic organisms function, and their effect in the larger world beyond. Try a few of these easy microbiology activities at home to set your little scientists off on a lifelong journey of learning.
What You’ll Need
There are many types of microscopes available for home use. Newer types are portable that can work with mobile phones to record and analyze samples taken from the home or yard.
In addition to the microscope itself, you’ll need slides to hold samples, glass vials or jars for collecting samples, and droppers or pipettes for placing small amounts of samples on slides. You may also need slide covers, or slips, to spread and protect specimens on the slide and prepare them for observation under the microscope. Tweezers, scissors, and cotton swabs come in handy for collecting and transferring specimens to slides. Finally, consider a strainer or filter to separate specimens from liquid.
Have some distilled water on hand. This helps dilute thick liquids like yogurt and make them more spreadable on a slide. Also, keep a supply of nitrile gloves on hand to avoid contaminating yourself or your samples when preparing slides to examine.
An individual home microscope kit from Foldscope includes everything you’ll need to get started with your microbiology experiments. These kits include an assembled paper microscope and many accessories needed to collect and prepare samples for examination.
Now, what can you look at through your home microscope? Try a few of these specimens, and encourage your kids to write observations in their own scientist’s notebook.
The first signs of spring are invertebrates—insects without spines that fly, buzz, and flutter all around your yard. With adult supervision (to ensure proper clothing and protection from tick bites and harmful plants), kids can have fun collecting specimens from the grass and flowers around your home.
Give each child a jar for catching ants, ladybugs, or beetles. In the evening, use a firefly trap to collect lightning bugs and watch them glow.
Using tweezers, transfer a small insect to a slide made from a strip of household tape, with two ends folded over for gripping, leaving an exposed sticky part in the middle. The bug will stick to the tape, and can be examined with the microscope. Encourage kids to note how many legs, wings, or eyes the insect has.
Yogurt packaging often emphasizes the presence of beneficial, live cultures of bacteria. Take a closer look at those beneficial bacteria by putting a small dot of yogurt on a slide. Add a drop of distilled water and spread the yogurt in a thin layer across the slide’s surface. Place the slide under the microscope lens, and write down what you see.
Take the container of yogurt and set it aside in a dark, warm spot for 24 hours. This renders it inedible, but it may become a lot more interesting under the microscope! Take a sample from the open container and look at it on a slide under the microscope. Compare what you see now with what you recorded when the yogurt was fresh.
We don’t tend to think about hair until something goes wrong. Either there’s too much of it in the wrong places, or not enough of it in the right ones. Split ends and frizz are common hair issues, but wouldn’t it be interesting to see what’s going on with hair shafts that look smooth and silky, and compare them to hair that looks dry and frizzled?
Using tweezers, place a strand of human hair on a slide and look at it under the microscope. Record your observations. Compare straight hair to naturally curly hair, or dyed hair to natural hair. You can even compare human hair to dog hair!
Using two clean plastic bottles, put active yeast and warm water in one bottle. Add yeast, warm water, and a teaspoon or two of sugar to another bottle, and mark that one with an “S” using a permanent marker. Screw the tops on, and shake each bottle. Then, remove the caps and stretch a balloon over the open top of each bottle.
Leave the bottles in a warm place for several hours. What happens to the balloons? Using a clean pipette or dropper, suction up a bit of the yeast solution from one bottle and put it on a slide. Using a clean pipette or dropper, do the same for the other bottle. Look at the slides under the microscope and compare what you see.
Place a very thin slice of onion skin on a slide and add a drop of water. Look at it under the microscope and record what you see.
Then, using tweezers, carefully transfer the onion skin to a small dish of salt water. Let it soak for about 20 minutes. Carefully place it on a clean slide and use the microscope to look at it. How has it changed from what it looked like before the salt water? What do you think happened?
You can take your Foldscope out into the field to look at interesting plants, insects, and soils you notice on your adventures. You can also keep it with you as you go about your house: you’ll discover more easy microbiology activities you can do at home. Take a swab of the surface of your kitchen counter, or a drop of water from your dishrag, and discover the abundance of bacteria that lives all around you! (You may want a new supply of disinfectant wipes when you’re done, and don’t forget to launder that dishrag regularly!)