Folktales can be a great way to introduce hands-on science into the primary-school classroom.
Earlier this year, I ran workshops for young children (aged 7–10) and their parents to do hands-on practical activities linked to a cultural story or folktale. In many UK primary schools there are pupils from many different backgrounds, with as many as 25 native languages being spoken at some schools. Despite their differences though, everyone enjoys a good story. Not only did some of these stories resonate with people from different cultures, they also promoted good values and contained some science.
Although these activities were originally developed for children and their parents, they use cheap, easily accessible equipment and can be repeated effortlessly in the classroom. Here, I describe activities that present very different aspects of science, all of which can be introduced with a folktale.
The first activity, making butter, is based on a Russian folktale.
Once upon a time, there was a big frog and a little frog. One day they went on a journey and found themselves on a dairy farm. While hopping around, they accidentally hopped into a huge bucket filled with cream. The sides of the bucket were too high and slippery for them to climb out.
The little frog said that they needed to keep paddling until someone came to rescue them, but the big frog said he was too tired to swim and he slowly began to sink. The little frog urged the big frog to keep paddling and as they paddled, the cream started to turn into butter. Soon there was a huge lump of butter floating on the surface. The frogs climbed onto it, and were able to hop out of the bucket and all the way home.
Cream is an emulsion: tiny droplets (in this case, of fat) suspended in another liquid (mostly water, but also proteins, sugars and minerals such as calcium). The process of shaking the cream (churning) makes the droplets bang together. If they hit each other with enough force, they stick to each other. The lump gets bigger as each additional droplet attaches.
You could ask your pupils, for example:
Based on a Hawaiian legend, this activity models the action of volcanoes.
One day, the sea goddess Namaka was angry with her sister Pele, the goddess of fire. So their parents, Mother Earth and Father Sky, sent Pele and her other brothers and sisters off in a canoe to find a safe place to hide from Namaka. They landed on an island and Pele began to build a home for them, using her digging stick to make a pit in which she then lit a fire. The fire rose up out of the earth, sending rivers of hot lava into the ocean and pushing the water away. As the lava cooled, it turned to stone, forming the island of Kaua’i: a new home for Pele and her siblings.
Namaka was still angry though, and sent huge waves to flood the pit and put out the fire, so Pele and her siblings had to move again. They found a new island and once again, Pele dug a pit and lit a fire; the resulting lava created the island of O’ahu. Again, Namaka sent the waves to flood Pele’s new home. Finally, the siblings arrived on the Big Island, which was too high for Namaka’s waves to drown the fire. Native Hawaiians believe that Pele is still living in the Kilauea crater on the Big Island.
A volcano is an opening in Earth’s crust through which molten rock (magma), gas and ash erupt with a lot of force. The gases that come out of volcanoes are mainly water vapour and carbon dioxide, but there are other, dangerous gases too.
The lava mixture in the activity is mainly bicarbonate of soda, an alkali. When an acid such as vinegar reacts with the bicarbonate of soda, bubbles of carbon dioxide gas are released.
Suitable questions to ask your pupils might include:
You could pass around some lava rock (e.g. a pumice stone), which is surprisingly light. Or you could introduce the Hawaiian words for different types of lava: Pahoehoe is smooth lava that cools slowly and moves slowly, and A’a is sharp lava that cools quickly and moves fast.
Based on Aesop’s fable of the crow and the pitcher, this activity investigates the displacement of water.
There was once a very clever crow. One hot day, he was thirsty and after flying around for a long time searching for water, he came across a pitcher [a large jug] of water, but it was nearly empty. He couldn’t reach the water, however hard he tried, and if he tipped the pitcher over, the water would sink into the ground before he could drink it.
The crow thought for a moment, then took a pebble and dropped it into the pitcher. He noticed that the water moved upwards. The more stones he dropped into the pitcher, the more the water moved upwards. Soon he was able to have a refreshing drink of water.
Because water cannot be compressed, it moves up (i.e. is displaced) by the same volume as that of the object added. This phenomenon can be used to determine the volume of an irregular object and thus, if we also measure the weight of the object, its density.
Volume and density may be challenging concepts for younger children, but the pupils can investigate which objects float and sink, and watch how the water level rises. Suitable questions to ask your pupils might include:
These activities were developed with the support of the UK’s Biochemical Societyw1.