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Playing With Science

Science toys allow kids to explore their world. And they are an inexpensive way to have fun together.

Frank Signorello, manager of science programs and project director for science fairs at the New York Hall of Science, visited The Saturday Early Show to tell us what to look for when buying toys that teach.

The New York Hall of Science is New York City's only hands-on science and technology center. The Hall features more than 225 hands-on exhibits.

Some toys provide pure entertainment while others focus solely on education. When buying science toys, Frank says parents need to look for an item that's "edutaining" - a mix of both. The goal should be to engage your child so that he or she will want to play with the toy more than once. That's when learning happens.

As a general trend, kids today are just not as interested in science as generations past. Signorello observes. He says the children he sees at the Hall of Science appear almost jaded; they accept scientific advancement as the norm.

"When I was growing up, great strides were being made in space. It was a big deal, and we all thought it was really cool," he says. "There are just so many strides made now, every day."

Signorello points to falling science and math test scores as more proof that this generation is not focusing on biology and chemistry.

"They are into 'popular' science. They like special effects in movies and are interested in things like cloning. But, they're not getting into the foundations of this science," he says. "They may know what a gene is, but they don't know about atoms (which make up genes)."

Signorello says he believes that toys are the perfect way to lure kids back to science because they are "informal." Children are definitely learning, but that fact is not being pounded into their heads. Toys are also great because they make kids active learners. Instead of sitting passively in a school desk, they are using their hands and bodies to explore the world around them.

Signorello says any time a project spurs dialogue between parent and child, the child is learning. Parents should really plan to do all of the science projects we're discussing Saturday with their children. Many parents are used to sitting their kids down with a book, a puzzle or the TV and then walking away. Science projects are the perfect opportunity to spend time together. (Plus, a little supervision insures the safety of the child, pets and household.)

Price is another bonus for science toys: most quality kits and toys are under $50. This means they are accessible to everyone.

Here are a few examples of "edutainment" toys:

  • TWO POTATO CLOCK by Skilcraft ($18): A lot of people probably remember this trick from their childhood ... and it's still cool! By inserting copper and zinc probes into two potatoes, you can generate enough electricity to run a clock. Apples, avocados, grapefruit, plants, salt water, soda pop and a variety of other household objects will also do the trick.

    This is a great starter project because even young kids can poke the probes into potatoes and see the result. The project makes them think about their world a little differently and gets them thinking about "why" things work. As the box says, "It's like magic!" and this prompts kids to ask for an explanation.

  • SLIME SCIENCE by Science City ($13): This is not your father's chemistry kit. Sure, kids may be learning about chemical properties, but they do so by playing with slime. Today's kid loves oozy, goozy, gross products - the grosser the better. In this kit, young scientists (recommended for ages 8 and up) can make five different kinds of slime using combinations of skim milk, corn starch, glue, borax, guar gum and liquid starch – ingredients that are easily replenished.
  • AFTER DINNER SCIENCE by the Wild Goose Company ($22): The toy's box says it best: "Dinner's over and what seems like a mess is a gold mine of science fun! You become the center of attention as you stretch bananas and magnetize silverware. Milk boils colors at your touch and potatoes sprout straws." The kit provides straws, liquid soap, pencils, a magnet, string, a spoon and a few other similar items. Kids are responsible for all foodstuffs.

    What really makes this toy great is the instruction manual. It's easy and fun to read and includes plenty of illustrations. Most importantly, it includes a detailed "Behind the Scenes" section after each experiment that explains why kids were able to perform a "science miracle." (This is also a big help to parents who may not remember everything from science class!)

    The instruction manual also encourages further exploration or variations on experiments. For instance, after doing one experiment that involved tap water, the book suggests trying it again with soapy water, vegetable oil or soda pop. This makes kids closely examine what they've done and think about cause and effect instead of just following instructions.

    This particular kit is a good reminder that we perform science miracles every day. For instance, making ice cream changes a liquid into a solid. Parents should keep this fact in mind: You can teach your child about science without spending any money at all.

When buying a child's first microscope remember: don't spend too much money. You can get a quality scope for around $50. Then, as the child's interest grows, you can invest in more expensive equipment. Ideally, you want a microscope with glass optics (mirrors) and that's made of a durable material such as plastic.
  • SUPER GEO SCOPE by Super Science ($25): This microscope can be removed from its base and taken anywhere - even underwater. It magnifies objects 50 times and has a soft rubber eye cup.
  • MICROSCOPE MODEL 8200 by Meade ($69): This microscope is a tad over $50. It can magnify up to 400 times and comes with some prepared specimen slides.
Rockets remain immensely popular with kids and there are models out there for all ages.
  • JUNIOR STOMP ROCKET by Stomp Rocket ($13): For ages 3 and up. This foam rocket can be used inside and out. It's air powered meaning kids jump on a small pillow and by forcing the air out, they make the rocket fly.
  • THE METEOR ROCKET by Scientific Explorer ($22): This rocket is for pre-teens to adults. Baking soda and vinegar start a chemical reaction that powers the rocket 100 feet into the sky.
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