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Chemical Eye on WowyZowy Toys
by Preston MacDougall


October 13, 2005
Thursday PM

To borrow an expression, if science isn't fun, then you're not doing it right.

No toy comes with a guaranteed smile as soon as a child opens the box. And while the words "batteries not included," or "some assembly required", usually elicit groans from parents, the key to putting a smile on a child's face is their own imagination.

jpg Preston MacDougall

Since you can't buy an imagination, it is a good thing that we are born with one. However, judging from a few anonymous reviews that my research proposals have received, it seems possible that a person's imagination can be quenched.

Toys are very important to childhood development, and I see no reason to ever outgrow them. In fact, a lot of chemists that I know are being quite serious when they describe their research as grown-up playtime. And, unless Deans or Legislators are around, they might say something like "I can't believe that I get paid to do chemical research!"

Chemistry sets, such as the classic Gilbert Chemistry Outfit, no doubt set fire to the imaginations of many future chemists. I suspect that occasionally other things caught fire too, and this might be among the reasons why we seldom see them presented at birthday parties.

You might not be surprised to learn that there was one presented at a birthday party in my house several years ago. My son sure wasn't surprised. I guess he figured it was a matter of "when", not "if".

The new generation of chemistry sets are safer than the one that I received for my birthday over thirty years ago. "Safer" doesn't necessarily mean "less fun" - just no glassware, strong oxidants or alcohol burners.

They still include methylene blue, a colorimetric indicator that does a great "trick" with a high pH solution of dextrose and water. The solution immediately turns a deep blue when the indicator is added, but the color slowly, and completely, fades away. The original color "magically" reappears when the mixture is shaken. Repeat until bored, which takes a surprisingly long time with young children.

Children can't help imagining what might be happening to the substances that they mixed together, although they may not realize that shaking also mixes in oxygen from the air, a useful reagent that they never have to reorder. Imagination usually leads to further experimentation, often not according to instructions.

I can't help thinking of Thomas Gainsborough's painting The Blue Boy, and laughing to myself, when I think about this. Although I was never supervised, I soon agreed with my wife that unsupervised play with the chemistry set might not be such a hot idea.

To help children, and their parents, put the words "chemistry" and "fun" together, The Joy of Toys will be the theme for this year's National Chemical Week (officially celebrated October 16 - 22). Look for events in your area that are being coordinated by local section members of the American Chemical Society. Please visit for more information.

Most toy stores seem to cater to the desires of children, who generally watch a lot of cartoons on TV. Not surprisingly, such stores stock many toys that look an awful lot like the characters on the cartoons.

There are some toy stores, however, that cater to the desires of parents. They stock a large variety of toys that are designed to inspire creative play and keep imaginations expanding. I am glad to see more and more of these toy stores expanding their science toy sections. Toys that run on fuel-cells, kits to extract DNA from fruits, not to mention all-purpose chemistry sets, can all be found at places like WowyZowy Toys.

gif Wowy Zowy

Of course, for the truly imaginative child, the world around them is one big playground. The kitchen and the laundry room are chemistry labs. To encourage this level of wonder in your child, you might enjoy doing the following experiment together.

Half-fill a cup with water, then stir in two tablespoons of "20 Mule Team Borax" laundry detergent. Stir for at least 30 seconds. Into this solution, squeeze about two tablespoons of Elmer's Glue. Knead the blob with your fingers, dipping it in the solution repeatedly. After a minute of kneading and dipping, rinse the blob with plenty of fresh water.

Does it bounce? What happens if you leave it on a surface, that is neither porous nor flat, such as bubble-wrap, for several hours? You just made a toy that is both a bouncy ball and a transformer!

Encourage your child to imagine what might have happened, and to propose additional experiments to do together. Just don't encourage him or her to eat the blob. That would cause an owie.


Preston MacDougall is a chemistry professor at Middle Tennessee State University. His "Chemical Eye" commentaries are featured in the Arts and Public Affairs portion of the Nashville/Murfreesboro NPR station WMOT (


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