I've updated the Wacky Lab since writing this article. Go here to see the changes! Read on for the original.
For Little Mama’s second birthday, I had Mr. make her a sand table.
Here it is brand new and ready to present to the birthday girl.
It is a simple thing, inspired by Pinterest (of course), made with a few, cheap pieces of wood and a Sterilite underbed storage container. I showed Mr. some pics of what I wanted, and he designed and built his own version. For convenience, you can find some tutorials for tables similar to our set up here, here, and here.
After Little Mama received her sand table, she and The Boy spent a fair amount of time in the backyard playing with it.
This was taken just after we showed Little Mama her (their, really) new sand table. This picture is actually from the day she turned two.
When we moved to where we now live, I had an idea about how to increase the fun for the sand table. I don’t know if I saw this idea on Pinterest or if I made it up. I feel like I must have seen it on the Internet somewhere, but I looked on Pinterest just before I sat down to write this and didn’t find anything. Any who, the idea for a Wacky Lab cemented itself in my brain. I also feel like I probably stole that name, but again I couldn’t find anything. If you have seen this somewhere else, please let me know.
The Wacky Lab is essentially just the sand table with a lot science-y accessories. Think of it as a mud kitchen with a twist.
The Wacky Lab area. In my brain, all the science equipment would stay neatly organized on the shelving unit. In reality, it looks like this. I thought about tidying it up a bit, but then I decided that wouldn't be genuine. It pretty much always looks this way, but that means it's getting used. This is the back porch of the barn and not super visible, so I don't stress about the way it looks and let the kids have free reign. I did pick a few pieces up off the ground and put them on the shelf or in the sand table so that you could tell what they were. Speaking of the sand table, I hadn't inspected it since our last big play date, and when I went to take this picture I discovered there is more sand on the ground than in the container. I now have a bag of sand on my to get list. I have to add a bag about once a year (maybe twice depending on who comes to play).
It took some time to collect all of the pieces we have. There are beakers, funnels, droppers, a magnifying glass, measuring cups and spoons, containers that measure volume, goggles, a scale, and a great deal of other implements. (There’s a source list for the items we have at the end of the article.) I thought it would be fun for the kids to pretend they are scientists conducting experiments.
The goggles...maybe a smidge big for baby Little Mama.
Around the time I started creating the Wacky Lab area, Little Mama and The Boy both wanted to be scientists and were sort of doing “experiments” on their own. Maybe that’s how I got the idea…
The Boy got a science kit from my mom; this picture show some of the pieces with which it came. He really enjoyed doing the suggested experiments. This set became the first equipment used for the Wacky Lab.
They could have continued to use only things found in nature for important scientific work, and that would have been perfectly fine. In fact, they still do that. Pinecones, creek water, acorns, rocks—all these things and more frequently make their way into the lab area. But I thought some realistic science equipment would be fun for them and maybe a little educational.
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The Wacky Lab is stocked with a lot of items from Learning Resources (a brand I trust and use quite often) and mostly those from their Primary Science line. The pieces are sturdy, good for little hands, and colorful.
Here's a smattering of some of the Learning Resources tools we have. A lot of this was on the ground, but I threw it in the sand table so you could see what some of the pieces look like. You can also see how desperately low our sand supply has gotten!
From using these items, my kiddos have learned the various functions of science tools, and I also have hopes they are unconsciously absorbing information about measurements. For example, we have a graduated set of containers with markings for measuring liquid in liters, gallons, pints, etc. I hope that using these has helped the kids see what these amounts look like.
Somebody used a bucket from the balance to weigh blue aquarium rocks (from a nearby small world set up...but that's another article for another day) on the scale.
I’ve noticed when we have other kids over, some are really drawn to the Wacky Lab and others don’t care as much. Between my own kids, Little Mama uses it much more than The Boy. I guess that’s a function of an individual child's interest. Thinking of myself as a kid, I don’t know how any one could see the lab and bypass it. To be fair, they’re usually giving it up for the trampoline, tire swing, creek or playhouse. There are too many options around here!
Here's a friend diligently measuring tablespoonfuls of sand into a container.
Speaking of the creek… When we have company, a lot of the science equipment makes it way to the shore of the creek. Water and mud are essential components of any good science experiment. It never fails that we have to comb the yard for test tubes and such after every play date. And it’s like Easter--no matter how good you think you’ve looked and are sure you’ve found all the eggs, you will find at least one more afterwards.
To close, the Wacky Lab is great, messy fun. It encourages the imagination and investigative play, and the kids have really enjoyed it. It started as a simple birthday gift that can’t be found on a store shelf, and many times those are the best. In case you’re inspired to create your own Wacky Lab, I’ve included a source list for the various accessories we use with ours.
Supply list for the Wacky Lab:
Container: I mentioned that I used a Sterilite underbed storage box. That link is for the specific one, but I picked mine up at Walmart. These types of containers are usually cheaper in person. Plus, I recommend shopping for this component in real life so you can see a lot of options and pick what will work best for your situation. At our previous home, the sand table was fully exposed to the elements and we kept the lid on it to keep rain out. If we still had to do that, I think it would have worked out better to get a container with a lid that is clamped into place. Ours just snapped on and wasn't very secure. Now that it's on the covered back porch of the barn, we don't even use the lid.
Wood for frame: My husband went with cedar fence boards from Lowe's that he ripped down. Fence boards are cheap, and cedar naturally repels some bugs and doesn't have to be stained or finished to hold up.
- Learning Resources Primary Science Lab Activity Set: This 12-piece set was in our possession before the Wacky Lab was dreamed up. The Boy received it for Christmas from my mother and we really enjoyed doing the experiments suggested by the kit. After getting this, The Boy became extra interested in science. This is a basic set and one that I highly recommend starting with if you're thinking of creating your own lab. It comes with goggles, funnels, test tubes, droppers, beakers, and more. There is a 45-piece deluxe set, but it is much more expensive than the basic set.
- Learning Resources Mix And Measure Activity Set: We got this 22-piece set for Little Mama for her birthday with the intention for it to go straight to the Wacky Lab. As it includes a scale, measuring cups and spoons, and pitchers with lids, it's a cross between science and baking equipment. Those two things really go hand in hand, don't they? Cooking is simply math and science. In fact, fractions finally "clicked" for me in my home economics class. That was part of the motivation behind adding this set to our lab.
- Learning Resources Primary Science Viewscope: All good science labs need a microscope. BUT there was no way I was putting an intricate (even if cheap) microscope outside to be destroyed in about two seconds. The Viewscope is essentially a magnifying glass with the look of a microscope. It serves the purpose and holds up to the elements.
- Learning Resources Primary Bucket Balance Teaching Scale: A balance scale is another item all science labs need. This one has been great for comparing weights and discussing equilibrium. To be completely honest, though, the rough play it has received has ever so slightly affected it's ability to balance properly. With nothing in the buckets, the scale is a hair off zero. For what we use it for, it's not an issue.
- Learning Resources Helping Hands Fine Motor Tool Set: This nifty little tool set consists of four unusual but fun-looking devices that serve as droppers, scoopers, and tweezers. As their name implies, they are designed to promote the development of fine motor skills. We have a set with the lab, but I am getting another set to go with our abundance of sensory bins.
- Learning Resources Stem Sink or Float Activity Set: This set comes with a plastic raft and submarine and various weights and objects to put in or on them. The idea is to teach kids about buoyancy and density, and I'm pretty sure it's intended to be a bath toy. While the set doesn't scream "science lab" I thought it would be a good addition to ours since we have the creek and so much water from it ends up in the lab area. However, I've never seen any floatation experiments going on other than when I was directly involved. The set is great for what it's supposed to be and do, but I'm not sure I would get it again for the Wacky Lab. It gets plenty of use, but I think the point is missed. Overall, I have no regrets and maybe they are learning about the intended scientific topics and I'm just not seeing it!
- Learning Resources Classroom Liquid Measuring Set: This set is all about measuring volume. It includes measuring cups, spoons, and graduated jars. Those jars see a lot of action. Apparently, they are perfect for hauling water from the creek to the playhouse to use in the kitchen. I got this set because everything is marked, and I thought it would be great for subconsciously instilling the idea of what certain amounts of liquid equate to in reality. It's hard for kids to understand what a liter is by just telling them. It becomes much easier to understand, I hope, when they are consistently playing with containers showing them these amounts.
- Learning Resources Gallon Measurement Set: We don't yet own this set, but it is sitting on my Amazon wish list patiently waiting for it's turn in my cart. This is the last thing I would like to add to the Wacky Lab. It comes with a gallon jug, a half-gallon jug, and plastic cartons for a quart, pint, and cup. I want it for the same reason I purchased the liquid measuring set. This set has the added benefit of coming in shapes easily recognizable to kids (milk or bleach containers, heavy cream cartons, etc.).
- Learning Resources Graduated Beakers and Learning Resources Graduated Cylinder Set: These are both sets I considered but did not go with since our other sets included some beakers and cylinders. I added them to the list in case you're looking for something a little more professional looking than what comes with the sets I've listed above.
For more inspiration in the form of mud kitchens, see my Pinterest board.