Ready for some blue ribbon-worthy activities? Just in time for summer, we’re exploring the world of county fairs
―and letting them inspire activities rooted in math, science, art, and more! It’s our hope that the hands-on work in this unit study will inspire interests your child can explore all season long (and beyond!), so don’t worry if several of the projects take more than a week to accomplish. After all, there is no deadline for learning! Click here to download this week’s skills tracker, and then let’s get ready to go to the fair!
Note: Occasionally we include project modifications (which can be useful for including younger siblings) and upgrades (for children ready for more). We’ll mark those with the minus (-) or plus (+) symbols.
What you need:
Books (find at your local library or order below on Amazon):
- Country Fair by Gail Gibbons (or you can read it here on OpenLibrary) OR Come to the Fair by Janet Lunn (or you can read it here on OpenLibrary)
- The Cotton Candy Catastrophe at the Texas State Fair by Dotti Enderle (or you can listen to this read aloud)
- Mr. Ferris and His Wheel by Kathryn Gibbs Davis (or you can read it here on OpenLibrary)
- The Popcorn Book by Tomie dePaola (or you can read it here on OpenLibrary)
Recommended chapter book:
- Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
Optional additional book:
- (-) Night at the Fair by Donald Crews (or read it here on OpenLibrary)
Supplies (use what you have, but here are links to shop if you need anything):
- paper + access to a printer (don’t have one? we like this model)
- 3-6 bottles
- rings (or you can make your own out of pipe cleaners)
- mini rubber ducks
- permanent marker
- clear plastic bags, 4″ x 8″ inch
- clear glycerin soap
- large saucepan
- metal pouring pot
- small spray bottle
- rubbing alcohol
- plastic fish
- ribbon (or string)
- cotton candy machine (optional)
- ingredients for this recipe
- ingredients for this recipe
- mini muffin papers
- mini needle-nose pliers
- hot glue gun + glue
- paper plates
- toilet paper and paper towel rolls
- masking tape
- embroidery thread
- embroidery needle
- chalk or vanishing fabric marker
- sandwich bag
- vegetable cuttings (see activity for recommendations)
- ingredients for this recipe
- popcorn kernels
- construction paper
- ingredients from this kettle corn recipe
- pipe cleaners
- pony beads
What to do:
We recommend doing the below lessons in this order to build on each skill your child will develop, but don’t feel that you *need* to do them in this order. Do what works for you and your child. If they love an activity, feel free to repeat! Not a winner? Skip and try the next thing. Have fun!
Has your child ever been to a county or state fair? They are wonderful experiences for children, packed with opportunities to see animals, crafts, art, machinery, shows, and more up close. There are also often a variety of rides and games to play! For an overview of traditional country fairs, read either Country Fair (or you can read it here on OpenLibrary) OR Come to the Fair (or you can read it here on OpenLibrary).
Activity 1: Let’s play some fair games to get our week started! The ring toss is a classic game of skill you’ll find at most fair midways. Let’s use our version to practice reading and writing some sight words. Here’s how to set up:
First, write 20-30 words your child is working on reading on small pieces of paper and drop them in an opaque bowl or bag. If you need word ideas, check this list.
Next, set up 3-6 bottles in a triangle shape (you may want to fill them with water or small stones to weight them down first) and give your child a few rings, like these (or you could make some by weaving some pipe cleaners together). Mark have the bottles with the word “read” and half with the word “write.”
Now you’re ready to play! Give your child the rings and have them draw a word. Next, toss the ring! If it lands on “read,” have them read the word. If it lands on “write,” have them write the word! If they miss, have them toss more rings until they get one. Repeat as many times as your child has interest!
A variation of the game can also be to spell the word.
Activity 2: Another popular fair game involves children choosing a rubber duck from a large tub. A number or color on the bottom of the duck determines what kind of prize they win. Let’s use that to inspire some math work today. You will need 20-30 mini rubber ducks like these, a permanent marker, and a large tub of water. (Looking for a simpler option? Print these ducks on white cardstock and cut them out instead.)
On the bottom of each duck (or on the back of the paper ducks), write numbers 1-20 or 30. Place the ducks in the tub. Now you have a few different options for how to play!
- Practice charting with even and odd numbers. Create a chart on a separate piece of paper with evens and odds on each side of the chart. As they pull ducks, have them create tally marks under the correct side depending on if the number is even or odd. After 10 pulls, have them record whether they pulled more evens or more odds.
- Use the numbers for addition or subtraction practice. Pull two ducks and either add them together, or subtract the smaller number from the larger one.
- Use the numbers to practice multiplication (we recommend using only ducks 1-10 for this method).
Activity 3: So your child rocked their fair games…that means they’ve earned a prize! A common prize you see at many fair midways is a goldfish. Let’s play on that with this “fish in a bag” soap craft.
Before you make the soap, let’s learn a bit about the science happening here. By definition, chemistry is a science that deals with the composition and properties of substances and various forms of matter. Different soap ingredients have different properties depending on their chemical makeup. When we heat the ingredients and mix them, we’re creating a chemical reaction.
There are essentially two ways to make soap:
- completely from scratch with lye
- with a soap base (also called melt and pour)
Lye is a highly caustic and harmful ingredient that generally becomes harmless after it goes through the process called saponification. But, in handling lye, you are instructed to wear a mask, goggles, and gloves. Our tutorial uses the soap base method. Just like it sounds, the melt and pour method means you melt the soap base and pour it into the mold. You can also watch this video to learn more about the science of soap.
Some states also hold state fairs, which are even bigger versions of a county fair! There are state fairs all over the Unites States that have become world-famous for their incredible array of booths, events…and foods! Let’s read a fictionalized story about a dessert gone wrong at the real Texas State Fair in the book The Cotton Candy Catastrophe at the Texas State Fair by Dotti Enderle (or you can listen to this read aloud).
Activity 1: Cotton candy (also called candy floss) is a treat that delights many children, but it also involves a lot of science! It all boils down, literally, to a trick called caramelization.
Caramelization is what happens when sugar melts. A crystal of granulated sugar, scientifically called sucrose, is held together by chemical bonds, but energy from heat can break these bonds, splitting the crystal into its two component sugars, glucose and fructose. These sugars break down further, freeing their atomic building blocks: carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. Hydrogen and oxygen atoms reunite to form water, and the carbon clusters in increasingly larger clumps. Eventually the water evaporates and the carbon starts to burn. However, if you stop this process while the sugar is still a liquid, you can make spun sugar.
Pastry chefs in 15th-century Venice created masterpieces with spun sugar. Using forks, they drizzled the golden syrup onto a broom handle, and then worked the warm, pliable threads into different shapes and even entire scenes. Their artistry decorated plates of preserved fruits and other desserts. Spun sugar was a treat for the wealthy
―the two essential ingredients, sugar and time, were luxuries for most people. Spun sugar is still made today, but modern recipes include cream of tartar and corn syrup, ingredients that help prevent recrystallization.
In 1899, John C. Wharton, a candy maker, and William J. Morrison, a dentist, received a patent for “certain new and useful improvements in candy machines.” Wharton and Morrison worked together in Nashville, Tenn., to design a machine that made spun sugar, a process normally done by hand.
Instead of melting sugar in a pan over an open fire, it was melted by an electric heating element at the base of a funnel-shaped dish. Instead of flinging the substance with a fork, the machine rotated rapidly, flinging the syrup through tiny holes in the funnel using centrifugal force. An outer bowl caught the threads as they cooled. The finished product was fine and fluffy, almost ethereal. Thus, the inventors dubbed it “fairy floss.” The name “cotton candy” didn’t become popular until the 1920s.
Here again, sugar’s chemical construction was instrumental to the outcome. The molten sugar was flung so forcefully and cooled so rapidly that the molecules didn’t have time to reorganize as crystals. Cotton candy, like caramel and toffee, is thus called a noncrystalline candy. (source) Click here for a video about how cotton candy is made.
Want to try making your own cotton candy? It’s easier than you might think! There are a variety of countertop machines available for purchase (here’s one that’s not too expensive!), or you can try this recipe to make it without a machine.
Activity 2: Another fair delicacy found at virtually every county and state fair is fried food! Many fairs have taken fried food to an art form, frying everything from turkey legs to Twinkies to sticks of butter. (We’re not so sure about that last one!) Have you ever wondered what makes fried food so tasty? It turns out, the answer lies in the science!
Various chemical and physical changes occur in deep-frying, including the Maillard reaction, which causes the aromatic browning to occur on the crunchy crust of a deep-fried treat. (If that sounds familiar, you might remember learning about it when we made fries for our Level 2+: Cooking + Favorite Foods Unit!)
But first, a series of complex processes involving heat and mass transfer must occur between the food and the frying oil. The process of deep-frying can be divided into four stages:
- initial heating: In the first stage, the food is completely submerged into the hot oil, until the surface of the food reaches the boiling point of water. At this point, the heat from the oil is transferred to the food’s surface by diffusion and also by convection, or the way in which heat is transferred by the movement of liquids or gases. While convection uniformly heats the food’s surface, it doesn’t cook the center of the food. Rather, the food’s center is heated through conduction, or the flow of heat inside an object (think of a pan being heated when it’s placed on a burner).
- surface boiling: In this stage, we see tiny exploding bubbles sizzling at the surface of the food. Contrary to popular belief, this doesn’t mean that the oil is boiling. Instead, the hot oil surrounding the food causes water inside the food to evaporate, so the little bubbles surface as bursts of steam escaping to the food’s exterior. The movement caused by the bubbling circulates the currents of the frying oil, which increases the rate of heat transfer by “forced convection” and cooks the food faster. These steam bubbles are important because they form a “steam barrier” around the food that repels the oil at the surface and prevents the oil from diffusing (diffusion is the movement of particles from where there are more to where there are less) into the food, which would otherwise turn your crunchy fried treats into a soggy, greasy mess.
- decreasing heat transfer rate: As the crust continues to dehydrate, it conducts less heat to the rest of the food. The remaining moisture inside of the food is slowly heated to the boiling point of water, which cooks the food inside as if it were boiled. Now, most of the moisture from the food is lost.
- bubble end point: This is the last stage of deep-frying, in which very few bubbles appear on the surface of the fried food. At this stage, water from inside the food is no longer evaporating. At this point, the fried product should to be removed from the oil, or else the oil will begin to seep into the fried product and make it soggy, since there are no more water vapor bubbles to counteract the diffusion of oil inwards. (source)
Want to bring all that science to life? Here’s a simple recipe to make your own funnel cake, a favorite fried fair food, at home.
Activity 3: Now that we’ve learned about some popular county fair snacks, let’s set up our own snack bar! Print this menu and receipts for your child to run their snack shop. You can choose whatever pretend items you’d like for your food (play dough is a great option for pretend cooking!), and we also recommend using real money for play.
Take turns with your child pretending to be the customer and the shop owner, letting them total up what is owed and if any change needs to be returned.
The hallmark of many fairs are their thrilling rides, and none is more iconic than the Ferris wheel! But how did this classic ride come to be? (Hint: It also had to do with a fair!) Let’s read Mr. Ferris and His Wheel (or you can read it here on OpenLibrary) to learn the whole story.
Activity 1: Want to try a little Ferris wheel engineering of your own? Let’s make this model wheel.
Activity 2: The Ferris Wheel was just one of several important inventions that debuted at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 (other included the zipper, the washing machine, and Wrigley’s chewing gum!). For our last activity today, let’s get your child thinking like an inventive engineer as they create their own version of another popular fair ride
―the roller coaster! To build, they’ll need several paper plates, toilet paper and paper towel rolls, masking tape, and a marble or other small ball.
Begin by having them think through the height they would like their roller coaster to start at, keeping in mind that gravity will be the primary force that keeps their coaster rolling. They may also wish to draw out their plan before they begin building, or look at this post for some inspiration.
Once they’re done building, send the marble for a ride! If things don’t work the way they thought, make adjustments until they’re happy with their creation.
Activity 3: Now that those creative juices are flowing, let’s apply they to some creative writing! Using this comic prompt to get started, let your child create their own story about a roller coaster ride with an unexpected result!
County fairs are a great opportunity for people to show off the animals they have raised, crafts they have worked on, and even produce they have grown. In many cases, there are contests where the prize goes to the biggest animal or produce, or the most creative or beautiful craft. The classic children’s story Charlotte’s Web shares more about what goes into raising an animal for a fair contest, but from the perspective of the pig! Let’s begin reading this chapter book today while we learn more about some of the activities that are often judged at a fair. (Depending on your family’s situation, each of these projects could become something your child works on long-term. You may even wish to look for a local county fair where they could show off their work!)
Activity 1: Agriculture is a popular focus of many county fair competitions. We have learned about how plants grow in several past units (including our Level 1: Spring Unit and Level 2: Spring Unit!). Today, let’s look at how you can use propagation to grow a garden of different foods.
Plant propagation is the process of growing new plants from a variety of sources: seeds, cuttings, and other plant parts. While your child is likely familiar with growing a plant from a seed, they may not have realized that many plants can regrow from a cutting of that plant or fruit. In the case of your vegetable scraps, the plant reabsorbs the nutrients from the old plant into new root and leaf growth. Propagating your vegetable scraps is another efficient way to divert food waste and minimize what is sent to composting facilities, it also lessens your carbon footprint. (source)
Here are 15 different food scraps you can use to grow your own garden in pots, or you can try this method of growing tomato seedlings from a tomato slice.
Activity 2: Many local crafters and makers will also bring their creations to be judged and sold at county fairs. This can include everything from woodworking and metal crafts to quilters and other sewing projects. Would your child like to tackle a simple sewing project they can play with all season long? Let’s make this hand-sewn tic tac toe board.
Activity 3: Another popular contest at county fairs? Baking! Let’s end today by creating a sweet treat from scratch: an apple pie. Use this simple recipe to get started. (If you’re feeling really brave, have a pie eating contest where each member of your family eats a slice as fast as they can
―without using their hands!)
Let’s spend our final day exploring the science and tastes of another popular fair fare, popcorn! If your child is interested in learning more background of this sweet and savory treat, start by reading The Popcorn Book (or you can read it here on OpenLibrary.
Activity 1: Does your child love popcorn? This popular snack is actually the result of an exciting chemical change! Good popcorn kernels (or zea mays everta, as they are known scientifically) seem dry and firm in plain sight. But inside each kernel is a tiny droplet of water surrounded by a hard shell called a hull. Popcorn can be heated by hot oil, air, or a microwave. The heat turns that water droplet into steam, building pressure inside the hull. Then
―POP! ―the hull can no longer keep in the pressure and the kernel explodes. The popping sound you hear is due to the rapid escape of water from the kernel.
If there is not enough water in the kernel, or it becomes scorched during heating, the kernel will not pop. (source) You can also watch this video to learn more about the science behind popped corn.
Next, let’s use some popped corn for a quick lesson in volume.
Volume can sometimes be difficult to explain to children. You might start with this explanation. Imagine we put up a fence around the edges of the room we are in. The fence represents the perimeter of the room. Next, imagine we laid down wall-to-wall carpet on the floor. The carpet represents the area of the room. Finally, imagine we filled the room with water to the very top, like a swimming pool. The water represents the volume of the room.
For this STEM activity, your child will attempt to create a container out of construction paper and tape that has the exact volume they need to hold a small bowl of popcorn.
Begin by giving your child a bowl of popcorn (it can be anywhere from 15-30 pieces). First, encourage them to determine the number of pieces they have (by counting) and the average size of the pieces (by measuring). Have them estimate how big of a container they might need to hold their amount exactly.
Next, give them construction paper and tape to build their container. Some shapes they might try are cylinders, cubes, or even envelopes. It will likely take several tries to get a container with exactly the right volume for their amount of popcorn, but each attempt will give them a more concrete idea of how volume works! When they have created the right size container, have them measure and label the containers dimensions.
Activity 2: At fairs, you are even more likely to find a sweetened version of popcorn, like kettle corn. This treat requires a few extra steps in the popping process, but the results are truly delicious! Would you like to try making your own? Check out this post for instructions as well as some variations your family might enjoy.
Activity 3: Work those fine motor skills to make this corn craft, which can also become a toy for pretend play!
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