We can slather all the sunscreen we want on our kids, but it’s important that they understand why we do it, what ultraviolet light (or UV light) is and how it can cause sunburns.
This experiment from The Kitchen Pantry Scientist: Chemistry for Kids helps children see the immediate effects of UV light. With only a few materials, and a little bit of patience, your kids can be outdoor scientists this summer — and maybe even better appreciate you a little more for protecting them.
Organic Compounds and Ultraviolet Light
- Brightly colored construction paper
- Plastic wrap
- Stencil (optional)
- Rocks (on a windy day)
Note: This project works best in direct sunlight when the sun is almost directly overhead.
- Cut shapes out of colored construction paper or card stock. Have fun tracing your hands to cut out, making block letters of your initials or drawing your favorite animal first. (Note: A stencil also works well for this project for families with kids not ready to use scissors.)
- Put the shapes on top of a second piece of colorful paper.
- Find a sunny spot to make your sun print.
- Cover the paper with plastic wrap and weigh it down with rocks if it’s a windy day.
- After several hours in direct sunlight, remove the top paper to reveal your sun print.
- The ultraviolet rays from the sunlight will fade the organic dyes in the paper, leaving a darker image where it was protected by paper.
What you’re learning
The sun emits an enormous amount of energy. Some of it travels to earth as light waves. These waves are different distances apart, like waves moving across a lake. Some light waves are very far apart. For example, red light waves are spaced much further apart than violet ones. Ultraviolet light waves are even closer together — too close together to be detected by human eyes.
Not only are ultraviolet light waves tightly spaced, but they carry enough energy to permanently destroy some chemical bonds. When colorful paper is partially covered and put in sunlight, UV light destroys chemicals in the exposed paper and bleaches it. The covered-up parts of the paper are protected and don’t change color. Molecules in skin can be damaged by UV light as well, which is why wearing sunscreen is a good idea on a sunny day.
Note: Repeat the experiment by comparing how ultraviolet rays fade paper in the shade versus direct sunlight on a bright, summer day.
This experimented was reprinted with permission from The Quarto Group and Kitchen Pantry Scientist Liz Heinecke, author of Chemistry for Kids.
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