Blogger Abby Johnson

The Science Explorer Table

A couple of years ago, we introduced a make-and-take craft table in our Children’s Room. The table sits right by our Reference Desk so that it’s easy for staff to keep an eye on it and refill supplies as needed. We found, however, that our craft table did not work so well during the summer months. To accommodate the increased traffic at our Reference Desk, we moved the table a few feet away and we found we were refilling supplies constantly, which was a big pain.

So this year, we debuted our Science Explorers Table. Instead of a craft, we’ve put out various science-related activities for children to explore while they visit the Children’s Room. It’s been a hit! The table is very frequently used and provides a learning experience as well as entertainment for kids.

Science Explorer Table at the NAFC Library. Photo by Abby Johnson.
Science Explorer Table at the NAFC Library. Photo by Abby Johnson.

The table is self-directed, and signage lets parents know that materials stay on the table for the next child to use. We may include some questions or guidance as to how to use the materials, but kids also have fun picking things up and exploring on their own. We switch out the activities every couple of weeks to keep things fresh. The table also provides some space to set out leftover program handouts (all relevant since we’re doing so much science programming this summer!).

We purchased several of the Can Do! science sets from Lakeshore Learning, which are super easy since they come with everything you need. We’ve also used some of our own activity ideas like these magnet wands with pipe cleaner hair (SO simple and popular!) and the mystery boxes my colleage Miss T made.

I’ve been asked by colleagues about keeping statistics and to be honest that’s a part that I hadn’t thought of and we didn’t figure out for this summer. Some possibilities for keeping stats on an activity like this might be:

  • selecting a week or a few typical days during the summer to keep a tally and extrapolating statistic
  • including some kind of take-home element or something kids can contribute to and then counting up how many were taken or how contributions were made (adding notes or pictures to a notebook, etc.)
  • Angie Manfredi at the Los Alamos County Library System posts challenge questions and asks kids to come to the Reference Desk to answer the questions and earn a small prize (I think they use candy, but it could be a sticker or a hand stamp)

I’ve blogged about the Science Explorers Table on my personal blog; see Fizz, Boom, Read: Self-Directed Science Activities for more ideas!

Are you doing any self-directed science in your library this summer? Please share what you’re doing in the comments! We may decide to keep the Science Explorer Table year-round (in lieu of take-home crafts), so I need all the ideas I can get!

— Abby Johnson, Children’s Services Manager
New Albany-Floyd County Public Library
New Albany, IN


  1. Ann

    I have something similar in my library. Our biggest problem is that the layout of the library is such that the Exploration Station is out of my line of sight and I have a problem with the materials leaving the table to be used as impromptu toys in the kitchen area or block play section.

    I’ve written about my Exploration Stations on my blog:

  2. Jessica

    I’m doing something very similar at my library, as well! I set up a science table and a math table and rotate the activities every week. Each activity has a worksheet with a few on it to help with more guided exploration. Kids who complete those and show them to the librarian at the desk get “extra credit” in their summer reading logs and earn more slips for the grand prize drawings. Some kids (especially little ones) just explore and play with the objects without following any of the signage or worksheet questions, which is fine, too.

    Like Ann mentioned, some of the materials tend to walk off in little hands. Even when I’m not on the desk, I try to pop out a couple times a day to tidy up and track down any materials that have gone missing. This isn’t the biggest problem though– that would be parents who let their kids scribble on all of the worksheets or even the activity materials.

  3. Nancee

    We did something similar at our smaller county branches, where youth services staff have limited hours at the branch. We call them Passive Science Activities. We created four of them, package them in tubs, and they rotate to a different branch each month. Each contains a large sign that discusses the basic concept of the tub’s theme, as well as four to six activities that support the concepts discussed on the sign. The themes we created are magnets, the five senses (several of the same activities Abby used), animal science and colors. We want to create more, since we’ve gotten lots of positive feedback. Like others, we do tend to lose some items associated with the Passive Science tubs!

  4. Minetta Lippert

    We have a “Tabletop Science” station in our children’s area this summer in honor of “Fizz, Boom, Read!” We change out the activity each week, and this is what we’ve tried so far: optical illusions (plus a thaumatrope handout for them to make at home), animal x-rays (made by Roylco), magnetic match rings (made by Popular Playthings), a fingerprint activity, and a color & light station (including flashlights, colored cellophane, and a lens and prism set from Lakeshore).

    All of our activities have worked well so far. The magnetic match rings were a huge hit. I was a little worried beforehand that the fingerprinting activity would be a huge mess, but we used a washable stamp pad and had hand wipes available on the table. No one really understands what to do with the lens and prism set, but I’ve seen a lot of creative uses and explorations. It’s actually quite fun to watch a kid stack the lenses on top of each other and then shine a flashlight through it to see what happens.

    Regarding statistics, the “Tabletop Science” station is within sight of the youth desk (which is almost always staffed during the summer reading program). Youth services staff keep a tally count of the number of individuals they see using the station. I’m sure our count is always a little bit short, but at least we have a general idea.

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