Friday, November 20, 2009

What Do You Know about Air?

If someone were to ask you what you know about air/wind, what would you say? Depending upon your experiences, you might answer that air is invisible, unpredictable, soothing, or playful. You might also predict that wind can be powerful or destructive. These comments are based on your feelings about air and wind. A basic concept, often overlooked, is that wind is actually air that moves.

We asked adults and children questions about what they know about wind and air during the development phase of our exhibit, AirWorks. What we found is that understanding air concepts can be challenging, even for some adults. Our research showed that in addition to not understanding that wind is air that moves, children often hold other misconceptions about air. The first misconception we found through our research was the theory that air was unpredictable, some believing that it originated from fans.

So how do you explore the science of air with children when most children view the complexities of their world as magical? How do you show that air is predictable? A key component in understanding the basic science of air is the opportunity for repeatability when experimenting with air. You don't need to know a lot about wind and air to observe it.

Understanding air and wind begins with feeling air on yourself and then on objects. As children explore, they begin to form hypotheses about what air is, where it comes from, and what it can do. Our research showed that for most children, by the end of the preschool years, they understood that wind is moving air and can be powerful.

Play at Home
Have any ping pong balls at home? Take a straw and have your child blow the ball around on a table or floor. How far does the ball move if you blow softly? Does it move farther if you blow as hard as you can? What else can you use to blow the ball that will turn air into wind? Try an empty squeeze bottle, like an empty dishwashing detergent bottle.

Play at the Museum
Find one of our Air Tables and place a ball on top of an air source. What happens to the ball if you cover the other air sources? How far does the ball float in the air? What happens if you change to a smaller ball?

Stay tuned! In our next post we'll explore other misconceptions we found through our research. We'll look at additional ways children can explore the complexities of air and wind.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Exploring the Science of Air

Children's science inquiries are often based on their curiosity about their world. Exploring air is a natural science inquiry process for children. Their curiosity becomes the starting point to discovering what air and wind can do. Science for children under 6 years of age is more about how and what children feel when interacting with objects or their environment, rather than learning facts.

Air is all around us! You can't see air, but you can observe what air can do. You don't need to understand air in order to experiment with it. Wind and air can be powerful enough to evoke positive or negative feelings. How does it feel to have air blowing your hair? Wind in our faces evokes one type of feeling on a warm summer day, compared to a cold wintry day.

You can learn a lot about air by just playing with it. DCM has an entire exhibit area devoted to exploring air. AirWorks debuted in 2001. The research to develop this popular exhibit was funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation. Eight years later, we are still observing children's experimentation with basic air concepts and fine-tuning our air exhibits to invite their curiosity as they construct knowledge about what air can do.

Over the next few posts, we will look at some of our own active research about children's exploration with air and wind (moving air). In the meantime, do some research of your own. Here are two air explorations you and your child can do together at home. These simple activities can spark your child's interest and promote practice with basic scientific processes.
What do you see on a windy day? Find a flag flying in your community and try to observe it often. Is the flag blowing fast or slow? Is it blowing in the same direction as it was yesterday? Talk about what you see with your child. Every time you drive by the flag, ask your child, "What is the flag doing today?"

Feel the air. Collect empty squeezable bottles. Rinse them well and let them dry out. Have your child squeeze the bottle onto his arm and feel the air being forced out of the bottle. Ask your child "Is there anything in the bottle? What are you feeling on your arm?" (Source:

Be sure to make connections to your "at home" air and wind explorations the next time you visit the exhibits in AirWorks. Stay tuned! In our next post we'll look at some concepts about air and what you and your child can discover together.