Beyond pencils and stickers: Making the most of an Elementary School visit

Last week I had my first official school visit in my new location. I attended a local elementary school’s Reading Night event, where I was offered the opportunity to set up a table with library resources. I’ve done my fair share of sitting at booths for the library. Sometimes I feel a little bit like a vendor peddling my meager wares of free pencils and stickers while trying to give my “elevator pitch” about what the library offers. This time, I wanted to try something different, while still keeping things fairly casual and laid-back. I wanted to try to avoid Doing Too Much, as this sometimes tends to be my downfall. While talking with one of the higher-ups in my organization, she shared an idea from her YS days and now I’m sharing that with you.

It’s super simple and interactive with multi-purpose benefits. I had a giant pad of paper with the prompt “What are YOU reading?” and asked kids to add their favorite books or a book they are reading right now. Not only was it a good ice breaker, but it gave me insight into what the kids are actually reading–Harry Potter? Goosebumps? No surprise there, but I learned a few new titles, too.


My favorite part? The next day, I compiled the list and emailed it to my contact at the school, inviting them to share it back with the students and teachers or possibly print it in an upcoming newsletter for the families. I also plan to use the titles in a display next month, highlighting them as “Recommended Reads” from the students at that school. Like I said, super simple with multiple uses.

I liked that it put the power in the hands of the kids, rather than me coming in trying to be the all-knowing librarian with a list of books they “should” read. I’ll definitely do it again.

What’s your go-to school visit activity?


Science Saturday: Candy Science

About every other month, I’ve been doing “Science Saturday,” a program for school-age kids. Each time we do a different theme–the first one was Spooky Science, as we did it in October. We did experiments like blowing up a white balloon with a ghost face using a solution of baking soda and vinegar, making magnetic slime, and a lava lamp. The most recent one I did was shortly after Valentine’s Day, so we did Candy Science using discounted Valentine’s Day candy. Here’s what we did!


Experiment 1: Skittles Rainbow

20160220_112049In this experiment, we explored density using Skittles. We dissolved a different number of each color Skittle into separate jars in the same amount of water, then determined which was the densest (the one with the most Skittles) and which was the least dense (least Skittles). We then used a syringe to carefully pour the liquid from densest to least dense into a new jar, creating layers resulting in a Skittles Rainbow.

What went well: This experiment was nice because it gave each of the kids a chance to help out with at least one aspect. I chose volunteers to help me count the Skittles into each jar, to put the jars in order of least dense to densest, and to squirt each color layer into the jar.

What I’d do different next time: There were a few kids on the younger end (around 7 years old?) who had a tricky time carefully transferring the liquid using a syringe, so our “rainbow” became somewhat murky. When I made the sample one earlier in the week, it turned out pretty cool, with distinct colors. I should have provided a sample so they could see the final result even if there’s didn’t turn out so great.

Experiment 2: Floating M’s

20160220_112057Did you know if you dissolve an M&M in water, the M will eventually float to the top? That’s because it’s made out of edible paper which is more buoyant than the water. Cool, huh?

What went well: Each person got to do their own personal experiment for this one, and since the candy took different amounts of time to dissolve, we could move on to the next experiment while keeping our eye on our M&Ms. When someone’s M floated to the top, we all gathered around to see. It also provided a good opportunity for a little math, as I asked the kids to keep track of how long it took their M to float to the top. In general, it took anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes.

What I’d do different next time: A few kids had less-than-successful results, due to choosing an M&M that didn’t have a full M on it. Next time, I would let the kids put more than one M&M in their cup so they had more chances of a successful experiment.

Experiment #3: Rock Candy

20160210_155032 (2)Using a base of sugar rolled onto sticks, we grew rock candy in a supersaturated sugar water solution colored with food coloring and flavored with different extracts for good measure. The crystals making up rock candy take several days to form, so I had the kids label their sticks and left the candy on a tray in my office to grow. After about a week, I called everyone to pick up their finished candy.

What went well: Ahead of time, I had made enough rock candy for every kid to have one while they worked. Seeing an example of the final product added to their excitement and enthusiasm.

What I’d do different next time: Not the end of the world, but next time I think I’d send them each home with their own jar to grow the rock candy at home. For one thing, it would be cool for them to be able to observe the subtle changes each day. And as I figured might happen, a few of the kids never came back to pick theirs up and it resulted in a bit of sticky clean-up for me.

20160220_112808Experiment #4: Dancing Hearts

For this experiment, we dropped Alka Seltzer tablets into water filled with conversation hearts, then watched as the hearts bobbed up and down as the gas bubbles pulled them to the surface and burst. It was pretty basic, but the kids marveled over the colored foam the hearts made and enjoyed adding more tablets to keep the reaction going.

Experiment #5: Lifesaver Lights

This experiment is super easy–all you need is some Wintergreen Lifesavers, a mirror, and a dark room! If you chew up the Lifesavers with your mouth open, you can observe little “sparks” of green light as electrons are ripped from the sugar molecules. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a very dark room and I didn’t think it would be appropriate to relocate to the restroom or a dark closet (ha!), but I sent the kids home with a handful of Lifesavers each and told them to try it on their own. A few kids came back after the fact and told me they had done it at home. They got a big kick out of it!

Last minute, I took the opportunity to make a mini book display, with science experiment books and extra instruction sheets for kids to take home. I was pleased that many people checked out books, which isn’t always the case. I put the rest of the instruction sheets out in the children’s area for anyone who wasn’t able to come but wanted to have some sciencey fun at home. Almost all the sheets were gone within the week!

I don’t consider myself to be a very big science person, so for awhile I was pretty hesitant to lead a program with the word “Science” in the title. But after attending a few STEM-themed presentations at library conferences and talking to some librarian friends, I gained the confidence to give it a try. One sentiment that stuck with me is that science is all about asking questions, and since kids are always asking questions they are natural scientists!

Another thing that I like to remind myself of is that putting on a science program doesn’t mean you have to be the expert. Prepare a few facts ahead of time–write yourself a script if you have to (I did!)–and let the kids deduce the rest. BONUS: If there is a question you don’t know the answer to… Boom! You’ve just found yourself in the perfect situation to demonstrate the use of library resources to figure it out. But in my experience, it’s hard to get a word in edgewise, as the kids are too busy being blown away by the awesome experiments and discoveries they are making.

STEAMing things up with Artbots

Each Monday, my library has Open Art Studio, a two hour arts and crafts drop-in program, in which children ages 3-10 are invited to come and make stuff with us. Every week has a different theme. The first week was Animals in Art, so we made things like paper plate snakes, clothespin animals, and paper bag jellyfish. We also had a few “animal products” on hand (feathers, sheep’s wool, sea sponges) for the kids to dip in paint and utilize as tools.

This week, the theme was Robots. I got really excited when we started planning for this theme, not because I’m a crazy robot fanatic or anything, but because it provided the opportunity to try out something I had seen at the PLA Conference back in March – Artbots! What better way to combine Science, Technology, Engineering, and Art than to build robots that create art? And just look at how adorable they are…

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There are lots of different ways to make artbots, but the way they described it at the “Tinker with Technology” session at PLA was to cut down a pool noodle, shove the motor from an electric toothbrush inside, attach some markers for legs, and voila! A moving, breathing (okay, not really) artbot! Click here for a PDF of the handout from that session if you are interested. See p. 4 for info on Artbots, but definitely peruse the rest of the doc for lots of creative tech-based programs to try with kiddos.

Because this was a drop-in program that we do not require registration for, I unfortunately was not able to set it up as a “create your own” type project as we had no idea how many people would show up (and probably not a big enough budget to supply 100+ kids with electric toothbrushes, even though they are from the dollar store). So instead, I pre-made several artbots for the kids to experiment with, and provided a half-sheet handout for instructions on making their own at home.

The toothbrushes I found happened to be battery operated, so instead of ripping out a motor I just shoved the entire toothbrush into the center of the noodle. It worked out pretty well, and the on/off switch was on the bottom of the toothbrush, so it was perfect placement for turning the robot on and off.

The kids enjoyed playing with them, and several expressed interest in making them at home. The parents were on board with it, too, especially when I mentioned that the toothbrushes were only a dollar a piece (No expensive Sonicares were harmed in the making of these robots).

Things I learned from this project:

  • Have extra toothbrushes (and batteries that have proven to be compatible) on hand. $1 toothbrushes are CHEAP–not only monetarily, but quality-wise too. The battery life on these babies started pooping out about a half hour into the program and I tried replacing them with the extra batteries we had on hand, but somehow they required “special” AA batteries? The AA Energizer batteries I tried were not the right fit. Not exactly sure how that works, but I ended up having to rush out for a few more toothbrushes during the program so I could have at least one or two working robots, as they were dying fast.
  • Don’t over-accessorize your bots. Although they look adorable, the more stuff I loaded onto the artbots, the heavier they became. As the battery life wore down, I had to start stripping the costumes off my robots for the sake of weight.
  • Attach markers with rubberbands instead of tape. This makes for easier swap-outs if the markers start to die (which they did).

This is a fun, easy, inexpensive project to do with kids and I definitely plan on doing another Artbots program sometime in the future. Hopefully next time, I’ll be able to have a registration-required program so we can purchase enough supplies for everyone to build and decorate their own artbot to take home.