Rust Experiment!!! (A Case Study in Following Your Child's Interests)

The other day Little M. and I were wandering around the library searching for great new books to discover. She stopped when she came to the window. Looking outside at the garden she exclaimed, “The children left their book out in the rain and now it's all rusted!” She has been going through quite an imaginative phase lately. She learned about the concept of rust from a book on Mars that she loves that explains that the red soil comes from oxidized iron.

Quite amused, I ran over to the window where she was looking. “Really? Can you show me?”

Her smile grew wide, she pointed to a random spot outside and said, “There! The book is all covered with rust from the rain!” She knew that I was in on the game.

“Do you think that books rust?”


Hmm. I didn't want to burst her bubble. I didn't want to tell her that, in fact, books would not rust because books do not contain iron or any other mineral that could oxidize. I didn't want to say, that in fact, paper would simply rot into the ground after it was soaked by the rain. I didn't want to tell her these things because I don't want her to learn that answers come from authorities. I wanted her to learn that answers come from reality. Science is not about trusting the information that everyone believes to be true. Science is about discovering what is really true.

I was left with one question to answer: How can I provide her with the environment that she will need to discover things for herself? We will have to conduct an experiment!

rust experiment: preschool science

The things we used to conduct our rust experiment include:

  • two containers made out of something nonreactive (plastic is good, you need it to be nonreactive so that the tray itself does not rust and make it look as though everything rusted)
  • random objects from around the house
  • paper towels
  • permanent marker
  • water

Conducting the Experiment: What We Did

I asked Little M. if she wanted to do a rust experiment with me. She enthusiastically agreed. First, I grabbed a couple of containers. I asked her to find a few items to test. I added a few items that I wanted to test as well. I asked her to sort all of the items into two piles: the items that she believed would rust, and the items that she believed wouldn't rust.

Once she sorted the objects, I filled the containers with water and closed them. I labeled them each with a post it note. We left them alone for a week.

preschooler examining rust on objects

After they had their soak, we opened them up. I wrote “Rust” and “Did Not” on two paper towels with the permanent marker. We took each object out of the container, one at a time. Little M. examined it and carefully placed it on the paper towel where she believed it should be. Afterwards, she examined the rust with a magnifying glass.

She was so absorbed in this experiment, so enthralled. It was as if I was barely there (in a good way, if that makes any sense). When you pay attention to your child's interests and enable them to teach themselves, real learning can happen.  She choose the objects to test.  She got to predict the outcomes.  She got to asses her results.  I was a guide, but I was following her lead.

If you enjoyed this activity, share or leave a comment. I'd love to hear from you! What sorts of activities have you and your child done together to learn more about the natural world? Looking for more science activities? Check out Cloud in a Bag Experiment: 2 Ways, Rain in a Jar, and our Weathervane.


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