Where we are is cold and dry in winter, the perfect weather for playing with balloons and static. Basically the drier it is, the better they will work, which I will explain further down! Balloons are great for building up a charge, but I’ve never yet been shocked by them.
- Tiny pieces of paper, thread, material, plastic, polystyrene, wool etc.
Babies: Baby fine hair is perfect, it will show a static charge really well. Quickly rub the balloon on their head then hold it a bit away and it will pull up the hair with it. This is something completely different for them to feel - a new sensation on the top of their head. They also love balloons generally, tie one on a string for a little baby to kick or let them knead and squash it (hint: only blow it up halfway!). For older babies who are getting mobile, balloons are brilliant to chase however they are moving, they can be batted around and won’t hurt anyone or anything. And trying to pick them up is hilarious
Toddlers/Preschoolers: Catching and picking up a balloon is a real test of co-ordination. They can try to copy rubbing it on their head as well. If they have good co-ordination they can rip up little tiny bits of paper to pick up.
Primary School: After picking up the paper and hair, challenge them if they can find other things to pick up and try it. This is predicting and testing. They may be able to come up with the rule that whatever the force is picking them up, it isn’t very strong so the things to pick up need to be very light, like hair, wool, paper, polystyrene foam, threads, some fabrics. They can even go further and work out that some shirts will be pulled but not others, and start looking at the labels of the shirts to see what they are made of. Here they are starting to discover the idea that it isn’t just weight, but materials that are important.
Another challenge is to rub two balloons and hold them near each other. They will push apart, but it needs a delicate touch to be able to feel this. An easier way is to hang them from strings, then you can see them move away from each other.
Explanations: Everything is made of atoms. They are positive in the middle with tiny negative electrons flying around the outside. When you rub your head some of the electrons are stripped off and attach to the rubber. This means the balloon is negative, and all the other little things are comparatively positive. Like charges repel, so the electrons in the balloons are pushing away from each other, and grab hold of other things to spread the charge around a little. It works best when it is very dry because the charge will attract the water in the air and spread into that so you don’t see much. That’s why you get more electric shocks when it’s very cold!
To adapt this explanation for toddlers, the very simplest way is to say that rubbing it makes the balloon sticky in a special way. If they ask for more or are a bit older, you can say that tiny tiny pieces of hair have jumped onto the balloon, and they are trying to get back. For older kids again you can introduce the idea of atoms, by saying that everything is made up of lots of little things that are too tiny for us to see, and when you rub the balloon some of these little tiny pieces are broken off and get stuck to the balloon, but the balloon is trying to get rid of them so it gives them to the paper.
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