Sometimes all it takes is one really neat toy to spark a lifelong fascination of science in children, though what that toy is tends to vary, depending on the tastes of the child. I’ve been attempting to achieve this by running a table of various “scientific curiosities” for the past couple of years, in my neighborhood. Broken here into categories, I list some miscellaneous items that seem to attract the most attention.
Yikerz! Game: A board game that incorporates a fundamental force of physics! Players take turns placing strong magnets on a mat. If you attract any other magnets while placing your own, you have to pick them all up. First person to get rid of their magnets wins! Easy to learn, hard to find, unfortunately. Sightings in retail locations have been limited, lately.
Ferro-Magnetic Fluid: Nano-sized magnetic particles suspended in organic oil substance. Maps out magnetic waves similar to iron filings, but their liquid state gives them more interesting, 3D shapes. You can purchase sealed bottles that also contain water to move the samples around. Avoid buying vials of plain fluid, as this stuff can be very messy to work with, and possibly toxic. Pre-sealed bottles can be found as low as $30 or so, in some places.
Ferrofluid Magician: Like the pre-bottled fluid above, but with the addition of white sand, which can be used to create a variety of different tricks and effects, including palm tree-like magnetic spikes. It’s hard to find now, though.
Spinning and Kinetic Systems
Rattleback: These precision-molded pieces only spin properly in one direction. Spin one in the opposite direction, and it will rattle and wobble for a bit before reversing direction to the one it prefers! Small, plastic ones are cheap: If you buy in bulk, it comes out to a dollar or so each. Large wooden ones are expensive, hovering near $100 each. But the larger ones will sometimes pause in the middle of wobbling and reversing, which is real spooky to watch. Demonstrates kinetic vs. potential energy transfer.
Hurricane Balls: These are two, precision-welded, metal ball bearings that will keep spinning at thousands of RPM, for a ridiculous amount of time! Under most circumstances, you can keep them going for over a minute. The record is about four minutes.
“Top Secret” Perpetual Spinning Top: This spinning top appears to be a perpetual motion machine, but of course it’s not! What is its secret?! How does that top seem to spin indefinitely?!
Kikkerland Wind-Up Toys: Many of these kinetic toys demonstrate some interesting principles of physics. For example, the “Zecar” ($18) demonstrates the efficiency of fly-wheel mechanisms; and “Katita” ($14) has no wheels, yet it moves through the rotation of its own weighted cam.
Beginner Fossil Collections: Get started with a variety of genuine tiny fossils, for a relatively low price! Contents may vary, but they usually contain a diagram of what is what.
Trilobites: I am listing this one separately, because they are so cool looking, and they are also really, really old! Often older than any other fossils the general public can get their hands on! The circumstances of their burial also allowed a lot of soft tissue to be imprinted into many of them.
Ammonites: Ancient coiled animal fossils are extra-great, if you can buy a matching pair of halves! The cheaper sets often only come with one half of a single fossil.
Rocks and Minerals
Beginner Rock Collection: These are available with a variety of different rocks and minerals, at a relatively low price. Contents may vary, but they usually contain a diagram of what is what.
Pyrite Cubes: Often dismissed as “fool’s gold,” but this mineral can sometimes naturally form into cubic shapes! And they make great, if delicate, display pieces when they do!
Ulexite: Also known as “TV Rock,” it’s a mineral with natural fiber-optic qualities. Place them on a surface of printed text, and that text will pop up to the top of the rock!
Meteorites: Small mineral compounds from space! Most of the cheapest samples come from Campo Del Cieleo, Argentina, which is one of the most abundant sources of small meteorite pieces, which hit Earth between 4,000 to 6,000 years ago.
Illusions and Mind Tricks
Quirkology Mind Games Boxed Set: A great set for beginner mentalist magicians! Richard Wiseman is a great personality to host this set. Its components might feel too cheap for its $30 price tag, but it still functions as an excellent starter set. Pairs well with his book, 101 Bets You Will Always Win.
Pernicka Sphere: Illusion that the sphere is deeper than it really is. Very expensive, though: prices start at $80. Produced by Scott Pernicka of Albany, N.Y.
Smartphone Hologram Projector: A sheet of plastic than reflects images from the phone, and projects them (seemingly “in 3D”), above the screen. And it is quite possible for kids to make their own!