Whenever I go to a holiday arts and crafts fair around town there is always one booth that makes me spend money every time: the books! Every time I see a book booth, book store, or get invited to an Usborne book party at a friend’s house or on Facebook, I always buy new books for my kids. I’m a sucker for cute, good quality books and I’ll always pick books for my kids over toys. We have two full bookcases for the kids (one downstairs and one upstairs), plus they each have their favorite books in their rooms, because in my opinion you can never have too many books if the kids love to read!

Last week my son’s school had a book fair and of course I bought a few more books. One of the new books I bought is an Usborne book called 50 Science things to make & do. It has lots of very simple science experiments for kids. I’ve been wanting to do more STEM projects with my kids (and post them here on the blog) and this book has given me lots of great ideas.

This week’s post was inspired by the Jumping pepper experiment in the 50 Science things to make & do book. The experiment in the book promises to “Investigate the incredible effects of static electricity.” Ok, this experiment had me at static electricity! Talk about a fun way to teach science to kids. I’ve used this cute experiment as a starting point to write about 3 very easy activities that teach your kids about static electricity that you can do with materials you already have around the house.

Let’s start by talking about static electricity.

What is it? Why is it important to understand it?

Atoms make up everything. Atoms have a nucleus containing protons (positive charge) and neutrons (neutral charge) and the nucleus is orbited by electrons (negative charge). Normally, in atoms the number of protons in an atom is equal to the number of elections, so it has a neutral charge. Neutrons and protons are closely held to the atom in the nucleus, but atoms can easily gain or lose electrons when two materials come into contact with each other.

When a neutral atom gains electrons it becomes negative charged and when it loses electrons it becomes positive charged. Static electricity is caused by this imbalance of electrical charges in an object.

So when your baby/toddler goes down a slide and it makes their hair stand on end it Is just a transfer of electrical charges. This charge may give them a shock and a little scare when they touch a grounded object.

The only cases when static electricity can be dangerous are when flammable gases are involved (a spark caused by extreme static electricity could cause an explosion, this is the reason you fill gas cans on the ground and not in the back of a truck), or touching something with a large electrical charge on it. These risks do not exist for the simple experiments presented here, but it’s something to be aware of and alert your children to as they grow older.


Static Electricity Experiment 1: Spices

This experiment is a cool way to show how static charges work by viewing them in a box. This activity is ideal for older toddlers. It requires some patience and a longer attention span to complete the experiment, so I recommend this activity for kids ages 3+.

Materials needed:

  • Shallow, thin plastic box with a clear lid (I used a reusable sandwich box, but I think a thinner disposable box might work better)
  • wool scarf
  • spice (such as paprika, pepper, cinnamon, etc)
  • metal paperclip or safety pin

Safety:

Be careful not to get any spice in your kid’s eyes. If it gets in their eyes flush with water.

Supervise your child’s paperclip use, especially if it’s unfolded. This can be used to poke others or themselves, so make sure you’re watching the child when they have the unfolded paperclip in their hands (and a sibling nearby).

Procedure:

  1. Add a thin layer of spice to the bottom of the shallow box, then place the lid on the box
  2. Using quick movements, rub the lid of the box with the scarf for about 30 seconds

3. Watch the lid. The spice will fly up and stick to the lid. You should be able to see and hear the pieces of spice hitting the lid.
4. Touch the lid with the paperclip or safety pin. The spice will move away or drop to the bottom of the box wherever you touch with the metal.

What happened:

When you rubbed the lid with the scarf it charged the lid. The lid picked up extra electrons and now has a negative charge. The neutral spice moved to be closer to the negative charge (opposite charges attract, so the neutral and positive charges in the spice’s nucleus were attracted to the negative charge in the lid).

The paperclip is a conductor which grounds the charge, so when you touch the lid with the paperclip the negative charge is transferred to the metal, then your body and down to the earth. Since the negative charge was removed from the portion of the lid where the paperclip touched, the spice drops down or moves to other parts of the lid that still have a negative charge.


Static Electricity Experiment 2: Balloons

My daughter recently turned one (how did that happen so fast?!?). We still have balloons lying around the house leftover from her birthday party. One of my favorite things to do with balloons as a kid was rub it in my hair and clothes and them make the balloon stick to a wall.

This is a fun activity that babies, toddlers and kids will all love!

Materials needed:

  • Balloons
  • Hair or shirt
  • Wall

Safety:

Be aware that this experiment could result in a mild electrical shock caused by the build-up of static electricity. This shock is not painful and won’t cause any harm to you or your children, but it may surprise them.

Procedure:

  1. Blow up a balloon and tie it closed
  2. Vigorously rub the balloon on your shirt or hair (I prefer hair) for approximately 30 seconds
  3. Hold the balloon next to a wall and watch as it sticks to the wall and suspends against gravity!

What happened:

When you charge the balloon by rubbing it on our clothes or hair it picks up electrons and has a negative charge. Opposites attract, so the negatively charged balloon is attracted to the neutral and positive charges in the wall causing the balloon to “stick” to the wall.


Static Electricity Experiment 3: Slides

We live directly across the street from a playground. I take my children outside to play there almost everyday. Sometimes when my kids go down the slide at the playground their hair stands on end. Let’s use a fun day at the playground to learn about static electricity.

This is another great activity for all ages! 🙂

Materials needed:

  • Playground with a slide

Safety:

Be aware that this experiment could result in a mild electrical shock caused by the build-up of static electricity. This shock is not painful and won’t cause any harm to you or your children, but it may surprise them.

Always supervise your children on playground equipment (especially babies and young toddlers). My daughter is only one and can already climb up the steps and go down the slide on her own! This is exciting and terrifying at the same time. She is so fast, I’m worried if I turn my back for one minute she could end up lying on the ground!

Procedure:

  1. Take your kids to a playground
  2. Go to the top of the tallest slide on the playground (a tube slide is even better for this) and instruct your child to slide down on their back making as much contact with the slide as possible on the way down (including their head and hair)
  3. When they get to the bottom of the slide take a photo of their hair to show them how it’s standing on end.

What happened:

Electrons moved from your child’s hair to the slide. This causes a static charge to build up and now all their hairs have the same positive charge. Materials with the same charge repel each other, so the hairs try to get as far from each other as possible. This causes the hairs to stand on end, up and away from each other.


I hope you take the time to do these fun and easy static electricity activities with your kids. My children are ages one and three and both of them loved these activities! My one year old wasn’t too interested in Experiment 1, but she loved Experiments 2 and 3. My three year old was excited about all 3 experiments.

Let me know how it goes for your kids if you try these experiments at home.

If you have ideas for STEM activities for kids you’d like me to share on the blog, please contact me!

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