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Teaching a Toddler to Hypothesize

I’m technically not a homeschool mom, but I never turn down an opportunity to learn and have fun at the same time. A couple months ago, I decided to make a colored rice bin for my toddler son to play in because one of his favorite activities is putting anything into anything else. He’ll spend large parts of his play time filling containers, baskets, nooks and crannies with his toys, and hiding every object he can find behind the couch cushions or in the dog kennels. He even has a large bin of random bottles we’ve collected from the recycle bin just for him to experiment with. He’s quite the up-cycler at two and a half years old.

Making a rice bin is cheap and easy and has already provided us with hours of enjoyment. We use many different sized cups and containers in the bin. Plastic bugs to dig for, scoops, ping pong balls, etc. You could also use the rice bin as a cool digging quarry for small diggers and dump trucks. The whole project cost me around $10 to make with the plastic bin being the most expensive part. Here are the things you need to make one:

  • A decently sized plastic bin with a locking lid. I went for one that was about 9” x 12” and 7” tall.
  • One or two 5 lb bag(s) of white rice.
  • Liquid food coloring.
  • White vinegar (helps seal color into rice grains to prevent color bleeding).
  • Gallon ziplock bags for coloring rice. 1 for each color you want to make.

Easy Directions for Making Colored Rice

  1. Separate white rice into ziplock bags. One bag per color.
  2. Add several drops of food coloring to a bag of rice (do one bag at a time to ensure most even color absorption).
  3. Add one teaspoon of white vinegar to bag of rice.
  4. Zip bag closed.
  5. Massage rice bag to thoroughly mix color and vinegar into rice. (You can add more food coloring and repeat this step for brighter colored rice.)
  6. Repeat with each color/bag.
  7. Open bag zippers and leave bags open, sitting in a place where it won’t be disturbed for 24 hrs or longer. This allows the rice to dry and keep the color from transferring to hands or other surfaces. You can also spread the rice out in a cookie sheet or tray to help it dry faster. The rice will smell a little vinegary at first but this will air out over time.
  8. Once the rice is dry you can dump it all into your bin and enjoy!
Our original colored rice. It turned out great! Time to mix it up.

*A word of CAUTION: we learned the hard way that if you have dogs or other small animals who roam freely in your home, DO NOT leave the rice bin open and unattended. Our dog got into our rice bin and ate some of it. He was not hurt, but he did end up with an upset stomach and potty problems for a few days. Not fun for any of us. Plus, we had to throw away some of our rice that he got wet with drool. Now we’re diligent to not leave a single grain unattended.

Learning to Experiment and Hypothesize

The rice bin (or sand bin, or whatever medium you choose) is a great segue into learning the scientific method and fueling curiosity about the way things work. Free play with the rice bin will usually yield all sorts of creative experiments on its own. But if you have the time and want to introduce some new ideas to your kids, here are some ways you can do that. Of course, this is just a very small list of prompts to get you started but there really is no limit to the ways you can use this rice bin to learn. And don’t worry about your kid’s age. If they’re old enough to know not to eat the rice, then they’re old enough to begin to question the world around them.

Here are some examples of tools we used to enhance our rice bin learning experience (these items can be found around your home or purchased for cheap from the dollar store). These items are not necessary but can be fun additions. Get creative with what you have available:

My son, using a watering can, container lids, a tambourine, and a scoop to experiment with his rice bin.
Imaginations are the best tool!
  • Toilet paper tube
  • Scoops from baby formula containers
  • Ping pong ball
  • Small plastic cups and dishes
  • Plastic bugs
  • Plastic Easter eggs
  • Empty pill bottles, caps, and lids

Helping a child learn to hypothesize is simply about asking the right questions. Hypothesizing is guessing an outcome to an action based on what information you have at that time. All of my son’s hypotheses were based on what experience he already had with the rice medium and how it works with other objects.

I started by standing a toilet paper tube up on end on top of the rice and then filling it to the top with more rice. I then asked,

“What do you think will happen to the rice if we lift the toilet paper tube straight up?”

My son looked at the current situation, considered the information he already had, and then guessed that the rice would spill out the bottom of the tube. He was right! We celebrated that. And I could tell he was curious to try something else. So I took the TP tube and placed it up on end inside a plastic cup. I then filled it back up with rice but took care to fill only the TP tube. Then I asked,

“When I lift this paper tube up, where do you think the rice will go?”

Again, my son studied the situation and made an educated guess. He guessed that the rice would spill out into the bin. He was wrong, but that was good! He was surprised to learn that when I lifted the paper tube, the rice only filled up the plastic cup. And I learned that the cup we chose held exactly the same amount of rice as the filled paper tube. We both learned something!

After we tried a few more experiments learning about volume, I decided to try some experiments with movement and resistance. I used my hand to shape the rice in the bin into a tall slope. Using the ping pong ball, I then asked my son,

“What do you think will happen to this ball if I place it at the top of this slope?”

I was wondering if he would remember seeing an episode of Sesame Street where they experimented with whether or not different materials would slide down a slope. That might have been part of the information he pulled from when he formed his hypothesis. He guessed that the ball would roll down the slope. He was right again! Smart little guy.

We tried one last experiment. With this one, I gave him very little information to start with to see what he might come up with. Placing the ping pong ball on top the rice surface, I asked,

“What do you think will happen to the ball if I use my finger to push it down in the rice?”

This was the first time he looked genuinely confused, like he had no idea what would happen. More likely, he had no words to communicate what he thought would happen. So he just waited to see what happened next. I then used my finger to push the ball all the way under the rice until it was completely submerged. I loved his surprised face! Even though he didn’t have a hypothesis for this experiment, he learned the meaning of the word “bury.”

After we concluded our experiments, I left him to his free play. I could see him trying to replicate some of our experiments. This told me that not only did he enjoy what we had done, he also knew that he wanted to try to gather more information. Even if his brain wasn’t using those terms, specifically, he knew that he wanted to learn more. I’m so excited to find more ways to help him learn to hypothesize and test the world around him. It’s one thing to tell someone else the way things work, but if you ask them to make an educated guess and try the experiment out for themselves, they build many more mental connections and synaptic pathways in their brain than they would have otherwise.

The rice bin has been a great tool for learning already, and I know we’ve only scratched the surface with its teaching potential. I love when the cheapest toys are the most valuable!