Break out the Borax, some mixing bowls, and white glue, gather the kids, and tell them you're going to whip up a batch of ExploraGoo. Let 'em roll it into balls and bounce it, shape it with cookie-cutters, freeze it, squeeze it into containers to see if it makes rude noises.
If they ask you how it works, you - who perhaps have no more science training than high school biology or a semester of college astronomy - can dazzle them with a clear, child-friendly explanation of polymers and elastomers.
What? Your professor never covered those? Not to worry. The staff of San Francisco's Exploratorium does so in an engaging "cookbook" of science-based activities for families called "The Science Explorer" (Henry Holt, 127 pp., $12.95).
Note the word "activities," not "experiments." The book contains 52 family-tested projects that can be fun even if you never care to ask why or how they work.
From building "bubble bombs" to setting up a neighborhood band (John on the straw oboe, Jessica on the water gong, and Seth on the CANdemonium), the activities can stand alone. But each is based on scientific principles that the easy-to-understand text explains. And once you get the basic "ear guitar" built or you've witnessed an attack of the "monster mallows," experimentation is strongly encouraged!
Ellen Klages, Pat Murphy, and Linda Shore, who wrote the book, share ideas on which projects are appropriate for children to do alone or with minimum supervision. They indicate which are the best indoor activities, and how long a project might take. Supplies for many of the projects are virtually at a parent's elbow. Those that aren't are inexpensive and readily available from the supermarket or drugstore.
The writers warn that the projects can lead to odd behavior among youths. After an activity involving static electricity, one mother found her children much more eager to wash their hair. They had discovered that clean hair generates static electricity more readily than dirty hair does.
By the way, physicists (who are as prone to putting ketchup on their French fries as anyone) have another name for the red condiment: a non-Newtonian fluid. (Really! See Page 113.) Their recommendation for getting it out of a bottle? Don't thwack the upturned bottom. Just put on a Carly Simon tape and be patient.