Advice Column, Child, Education, Parenting, Tween & Teen

Explore the microscopic world – Fun ideas for bored kids

Parents and caregivers need plenty of ideas to keep kids entertained throughout the holiday. If you have access to a basic microscope such as a Foldscope, these fun exploration activities will not only keep the kids occupied, but they will be learning at the same time!

To start, you will need a light microscope, microscope slides (glass or make your own from cardboard/paper), coverslips (or sticky tape) to secure the specimen to the slide, a clean container for sample collection, and purified water. Small forceps also come in handy to collect and manipulate specimens.

  1. Water bear (tardigrade) hunt

Water bears are fascinating creatures that occur all over the world. These micro-animals are able to survive extreme conditions such as freezing cold or high heat, low and high pressures, dehydration, and starvation. They’ve even been shown to survive in outer space! Finding a water bear in your own garden is a special experience, and is sure to pique the interest of children of all ages. 

Without water, tardigrades enter a state called “cryptobiosis” where their metabolism slows down and they become completely inactive. They are revived from this state when water becomes available again, allowing them to inhabit mosses and lichens that undergo periodic wetting and drying. 

Collect pieces of moss and/or lichen from bricks, walls, trees, etc. Using a clean implement such as a scraper or blunt knife, remove the moss or lichen and place into a clean container. Try to remove as much dirt from the sample as possible (water bears are more likely to be within the spaces between the moss than in the soil, and the dirt will make it harder to find your water bear). Place your sample of moss or lichen into a small container and add about 20 ml of purified water. Make sure your moss is completely submerged, but do not use too much water as it will be mean more water to search through. Leave the moss to soak for at least 4 hours to give the water bears time to rehydrate and become active. Using a pipette or a straw, collect some of the water and place a drop onto the microscope slide. Cover with a coverslip or sticky tape and place into your microscope or Foldscope. Now you are ready to look for water bears. You may have to make several slides or even find different moss samples if your initial search is unsuccessful. Don’t give up though! Water bears are incredibly abundant and it’s only a matter of time before your patience pays off.

Only about 1000 species of these micro-animals have been described by scientists, so there is a good chance you will discover a new species in your own backyard!

  1. Pollen

Each species of flower’s pollen has unique characteristics. It may be possible to see some of these characteristics using a basic microscope and children will enjoy trying to find the differences. You can collect pollen without picking the flowers by holding a piece of clear sticky tape to the pollen-covered anther. Place the sticky tape onto the microscope slide and observe! 

  1. Pond-/seawater

Pond- and seawater are teeming with microscopic organisms like amoeba, rotifers, nematodes and diatoms. Simply collect some water in a container, place a drop onto a microscope slide and observe. Try to identify as many organisms as you can. Since these creatures are alive and will be swimming around your slide, it is a good idea to take a video if you want to observe them more carefully. Coupling a Foldscope to your smartphone is a quick and easy way to get great videos of your specimens.

  1. Foraminifera – armoured amoeba

These single-celled microscopic organisms have existed on earth for 570 million years. They are found in all marine environments, but also occur occasionally in freshwater or even on land. Each organism builds a shell around themselves, and these shells have built up for millions of years within the seabed and regions where the sea once flooded the land. Foraminifera fossils are studied for clues about the earth’s climate millions of years ago. Not only are they useful, foraminifera also come in an endless variety of beautiful shapes and colours. If you are able to get some sea sand, you have a good chance of finding some of these armoured amoebae. 

  1. Tiny insects

Even the tiniest insect looks like a scary monster under a microscope! Ants, mosquitoes, fruit flies, aphids, and moths look impressive when magnified 100 times. Since light microscopes function on the premise of light  passing through the specimen, it is important to select only small insects for this activity. Some parts of the insect will be too thick for light to pass through, but it is possible to observe the legs, feet, mouthparts, and wings. If you have a lightbox (or a Foldscope with an LED light module), thicker specimens can easily be observed. We do not recommend killing insects for this activity. Instead, find dead insects in spider webs, on window sills or in the garden. Place your insect on a microscope slide, cover with a coverslip or sticky tape, and be prepared to be amazed!

Don’t have a microscope? Don’t worry! You can get an ultra-affordable origami-inspired Foldscope online from www.scibuddy.co.za. Foldscopes are durable, easy-to-use, and portable, with 140x magnification. They are available as individual kits or classroom kits containing 20 or 100 units. Deluxe Individual Kits contain an extensive set of accessories to collect specimens and prepare slides. These kits are packaged in a beautiful metal case making it easy for little explorers to keep their Foldscope close at hand. 

SciBuddy is the exclusive distributor of Foldscopes in South Africa. The owner, Arista Burke, has a background in microbiology and education. She believes that Foldscopes will be a gamechanger for South African children. 

To find out more about SciBuddy and Foldscope, visit www.scibuddy.co.za or their Facebook page, www.facebook.com/SciBuddySA.  

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