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.

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