by Dawn Franzen, M.Ed.
Parenting children means you’ll all too often hear that bored chant of “There’s nothing to dooo....” So wow your kids with a fun project that teaches science, too: a backyard weather station.
Start with a chart
First, make a weather chart to keep track of all your data. On a large piece of paper, make horizontal columns and label them “temperature,” “rainfall,” “air pressure,” “wind direction,” and “clouds.” Mark the dates along the vertical side of the chart.
Each day, have your kids record the temperature outside and also indicate if the weather is sunny, rainy, cloudy, and so forth in the spaces marked “temperature” and “clouds.” Then use your homemade weather instruments to fill in the rest of the spaces. Here’s how to make them.
Rainfall: make a rain gauge
Make a rain gauge from an empty plastic two-liter bottle. Remove the label and clean the bottle well. Then cut it in half with a craft knife. Turn the top half over and place it in the bottom half. Measure and mark the bottom half in inches or centimeters with dimensional (3D) paints, found in any craft store. Your kids can also use the paints to decorate the gauge.
Place the rain gauge in an open area, away from dripping trees and eaves. Secure it with a ring of stones so it won’t tip over. Empty it after every storm.
Air pressure: make a barometer
On radio or TV, have your children listen to or watch some weather reports, and point out to them how the meteorologists talk about high or low pressure and how it can predict future weather changes.
To demonstrate air pressure, blow up balloons and let them go (kids love this game!). Explain that the air you blow into the balloon pushes—presses—on it. The air pressing on the sides of the balloon makes high air pressure. When you let the air go, the pressure inside the balloon is low. (Be sure your kids clean up the empty balloons!)
When the air pressure outside is high, it usually indicates a clear day. When the air pressure is low, it means cloudy weather is on the way.
Make a barometer to watch the air pressure rise and fall by cutting off the neck of a balloon and stretching the remaining piece over an empty glass jar (a pasta jar works well). Secure it with a rubber band. Now you have trapped the air inside the jar.
Cut the end off a drinking straw to make a point, and tape the other end to the top of the jar. Attach a piece of cardboard to the back of the jar, and mark a line on it where the straw is pointing. This is your starting point.
As the air outside the jar changes, the straw will move above or below the line on the cardboard. If the air pressure is high, it will push down on the barometer, causing the straw to move above the line—clear weather. If the air pressure is low, the straw will move below the line—cloudy weather. Record the air pressure in your weather chart by drawing an arrow moving up (high), down (low), or even.
GardenGuides.com has a great series of how-to videos on making a homemade barometer.
Wind direction: make a wind vane
Winds are named by the direction from which they come. A southerly wind, for example, comes from the south.
Make a wind vane and use it to mark the wind direction every day on your chart. You will need a piece of thick fun foam, also found at craft stores. Make an arrow shape on the foam and cut it out. Next, tape a pen cap to the back.
Cut another piece of fun foam into a square mat. Mark your compass points on the mat, with north on the top, and south, east and west in the appropriate spots. Poke a knitting needle through the center of the mat. Place the pointy end of the needle inside the pen cap taped to your arrow. Your arrow can now move freely, blown by the winds.
Go outside and, using a compass, find north. Line up your mat’s north with the compass’s north, and weigh the mat down with stones. When the arrow is blown to point to north, you have a southerly wind.
A great book to read with your kids that teaches about not only the science but also the folklore of cloud formations is The Cloud Book by Tomie dePaola. Your kids will learn the basic cloud formations of cumulus, cirrus and stratus, and their meanings.
A fun follow-up project to this book is making a cloud chart with a blue piece of paper and cotton. Fold the paper width-wise into thirds and open it up. Mark each section with the name of the cloud formation and shape the cotton to resemble the clouds in the book.
Cumulus clouds are puffy balls high in the sky. Cirrus clouds are wispy. Stratus clouds are thick bands that hang low in the sky. Use a pencil to shade the clouds gray. Children can also spend a day making a cloud book of their own, using cotton to create the shapes and pictures they see in the sky.
Another fun weather-related book that kids love to read over and over is Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs by Judi and Ron Barrett. After reading it, kids will enjoy making their own wacky food-weather pictures and forecasts.
Yearlong fun and learning
The great thing about making a weather station is that it is an ongoing project. As the seasons change, so does the weather. You can add a snow gauge in the winter and make graphs of the monthly temperatures.
It is also fun to pick a foreign city in the newspaper weather chart, find it on the map, and keep track of its daily temperature, comparing it to our own.
It’s amazing how much learning can happen—right in your own backyard!
A parent and frequent contributor to St. Louis Parent Magazine, Dawn Franzen, M.Ed., has taught with the Summer Academies and Learning Labs of the Gifted Resource Council in St. Louis.