the science of sound

My kids adore science.  I don’t think I ever had the love for it that they have, but perhaps it helped that their initial exposure to science was very hands-on–mixing colored water, making vinegar-and-baking-soda volcanoes, and the like.  When determining our path of scientific learning, I chose Bernard Nebel’s Building Foundations of Scientific Understanding to be my spine.  It was highly reviewed by folks with a scientific background and lauded for digging deeply into concepts, laying logical foundations, interweaving scientific topics rather than keeping them separated into categories, and not underestimating the intelligence of kids.  Having received the book and read through it, I do appreciate all those things about it.

Nebel’s one lack is in activities.  His book is excellent for laying out explanations and discussions to lead kids to solid scientific understanding, but while he includes lots of observation and discussion elements, he doesn’t suggest many demonstrations or experiments.  While plotting out our studies, I found myself unenthusiastic and uncertain.  I finally realized the problem: my science plans were missing the key element my kids love about science–hands-on discovery.

Thus, I started over again.  Using Nebel’s book as a topical guide, I looked for additional resources from our library (Nebel does include resource lists for each topic, but our library didn’t have many of the suggested books) and hunted online for activities to flesh out the concepts I wanted to teach.  I specifically searched for activities that were easy to orchestrate with inexpensive materials, and preferably without even a trip to the store.  I decided that instead of leading with discussion, I would lead with the activities and let those spark the discussions naturally.  Thus, all of these are simple, inexpensive activities designed to go along with Nebel’s discussions, but they are intended to generate those discussions organically rather than making them parent-driven.

(You may notice that this first science unit of the year is appearing mid-April.  That, dear readers, is a tale for an entirely different post.  For now, suffice to say that I’m sure glad this is only kindergarten.)

And now, without further ado, the science of sound, taught in activities.

Discovering Sound
Demonstration 1:
Plastic wrap
A large bowl
A rubber band or tape
Uncooked rice
Drum (or large pot lid and spoon)

Stretch your plastic wrap across the top of the large bowl and secure it with the tape or rubber band.  Be sure it is taut.  Sprinkle a handful of uncooked rice on the top of the plastic wrap.  Hold your drum or pot lid nearby and hit it.  Can you see the rice dance?  You’ll have to get pretty close to make it work.

Demonstration 2:
Put your fingers on your voice box.  Make high and low sounds.  Discuss what’s happening in your throat.

Demonstration 3:
Hold a blown-up balloon against your cheek.  Have someone else press their mouth against the balloon and hum.  Can you feel the vibrations?

Demonstration 4:
Using a slinky, demonstrate longitudinal or compression waves.

NPR’s “What Does Sound Look Like?” on YouTube  (We only watched the first 30 seconds–the actual sound wave.)

Understanding Sound
Activity 1:
Have a child knock on wood.  Then have them press their ear to the wood as they knock.  What do they notice about the sound?  Repeat this experiment using your voice and water.  Put some water in the tub.  Try talking/listening above the water and under the water.

Activity 2:
2 tin cans, yogurt containers, disposable cups, or similar
Several yards of string, preferably a compact string like dental floss
Something to poke a hole in the bottom or each container

Make a good ol’ fashioned tin can telephone.  The longer your string, the more impressive the demonstration seems to the kids.  Make sure it’s pulled nice and tight and that you use good string, though.  As a kid I tried this once with yarn and was sorely disappointed by the result.

Activity 3:
Play with rubber bands of different lengths and thicknesses.  How do they compare?  What can you learn about the vibration of long things vs. short, thick things vs. thin?

Activity 4:
Play with a funnel.  What happens when you speak into it?  When you put it up to your ear?  (Refer back to the old ear trumpets of yore.)

Activity 5: 
Stand a few feet behind the child and whisper something to them.  Why is it hard to hear?  Have the child cup their hand in front of their ear while you whisper again.  What is the difference?

After taking a few lessons to work through all these activities, I asked my kids to create a page of a book to show some of what they learned about sound.  Each of them plotted what they wanted to say, labored to write neatly, and drew elaborate illustrations.  We’ll continue to create pages for all the topics we study so that they have something they can proudly look back on to remember what they’ve learned.  (They love writing books!)  They can’t wait for our next topic–electrical energy!


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