One of the great things about winter is snowflakes! You can catch them on your tongue as they fall from the sky, pack them together to make a snowman, snowball, snow fort or quinzee (snow cave) and even go skiing or sledding on them. Snow also gives us clues as to which animals have been sneaking around leaving tracks (their ‘signature’) along their journey. Maybe you have also discovered… snow can be cold, wet, sparkly, fluffy, crunchy, quiet, fun, dangerous… why is that?
Thanks to a man named Wilson Bentley, often called “Snowflake Bentley,” who spent countless hours taking pictures of snowflakes through a microscope in the 1880’s, we know that no two snow crystals are alike. Actually, the chances of two snowflakes being exactly alike are about one million trillion (that is a 10 followed by 17 zeros!). See www.snowflakebentley.com for some amazing pictures of his work and related books.
Snowflakes (scientifically referred to as snow crystals) are made of water vapor, ice crystals and a dust particle. The particle acts as a nucleus for the water vapor to adhere (stick) to. Over and over this spec is bombarded by water vapor, eventually forming a crystal way up high in the clouds. The shape and size of the crystal is primarily determined by temperature and atmospheric conditions as it is created and falls to the ground or onto your tongue! Most snow crystals are hexagons (six-sided), due to how the water molecules bond to each other (H2O has two hydrogen’s for each oxygen molecule). If you want to learn more about the fascinating technical side of crystal formation, check out www.snowcrystals.com.
Now here’s your challenge: next time it is snowing, head on out and research different snow crystal shapes. Wear a dark colored coat or bring out a dark colored piece of paper and see if you can ‘capture’ and study some flakes. Be sure the surface you’re using is as cold as the air temperature, otherwise your crystals may quickly melt upon landing. Now (with some parental assistance) you are ready to make your own crystal indoors!
Making your own ‘snow’ crystal
What You Need:
- String (6”)
- wide mouth jar (pint)
- pipe cleaner (1 per crystal, the color will show through the crystal)
- borax (20 Mule Team Borax Laundry Booster)
- boiling water
- food coloring (optional)
- The first step of making borax crystal snowflakes is to make the snowflake shape. Cut a pipe cleaner into three equal sections. Twist the sections together at their centers to form a six-sided snowflake shape. Your snowflake should fit inside the jar.
- Tie the string to the end of one of the snowflake arms. Tie the other end of the string to the pencil. With the pencil lying across the mouth of the jar, the snowflake should hang freely (not touching the bottom of the jar). Remove, and replace again after you have added the water and stirred in the borax. (see step 5)
- Fill the wide mouth pint jar with boiling water.
- Add borax one tablespoon at a time to the boiling water, stirring to dissolve after each addition. Use 3 tablespoons borax per cup of water. It is okay if some undissolved borax settles to the bottom of the jar. If desired, tint the mixture with food coloring.
- Hang the pipe cleaner snowflake into the jar so it is completely covered with liquid and hangs freely (not touching the bottom of the jar).
- Allow the jar to sit in an undisturbed location overnight.
- Enjoy the amazing crystals!! You can hang your snowflake as a decoration or in a window to catch the sunlight. (Keep in a dry location)
- Borax is available at grocery stores in the laundry soap section, such as 20 Mule Team Borax Laundry Booster. (not Boraxo soap)
- Because boiling water is used and because borax isn’t intended for eating, adult supervision is recommended for this project.
- The final crystal may look just like rock candy- but remember- do not eat!
This article by Learning By Nature was first published in Kidsville Magazine (December 2010) GET OUT! column.