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Candy Experiments: Doing Fun Science at Home during School Closures (Activity #23)

Follow along with a Science Buddies parent who is using family STEM activities to keep her kids learning at home during the COVID-19 school shutdown. New posts every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Today's adventure... experimenting with how candy coatings dissolve and the colors mix.

Candies places around the rim of a plate and water added created these colorful patters as the candy coatings dissolved and the colors diffused

An Experiment Full of Candy Makes the Whining Go Down

Have you experienced a day during this quarantine when the whole family just seems to hit a wall? Everyone is whiny, on edge, and there's a chain reaction of complaints? We've definitely had more than one, and today was another. This time I was prepared. My last grocery store run included a secret weapon: candy!

Candy is a magic ingredient which can make an ordinary science experiment instantaneously fun. It breaks through the barriers, grabs kids' attention, and turns them into eager participants. So if you're having a no-good, whiny day, break out the candy, try one of these experiments, and I guarantee the whining will diminish (at least temporarily):

My Pick of the Day: Candy Diffusion Rainbow

All of the candy activities are on my short list because they really do bust through bad moods and engage my children. In fact, we already did candy geometry as a way to get my second grader out of her math funk, and that worked like a charm. So when today's whiny, black mood descended on my household, I was prepared with materials to do the Candy Rainbow activity.

As you can see from the video, the materials are simple: plates, colorful hard-shelled candies, warm water, and table sugar (optional, not shown in the video).

Breaking with our pattern, I did not show my kids the video first. Because you can set up and carry out this experiment in less than ten minutes, I thought it would be more fun for them to see the effect in person the first time.

We jumped right in with both kids outlining the rims of a plate with M&Ms. Almost as soon as we poured in the water, you could see the dyes from the candy shells diffusing through the water. Both kids were enamored by how the colors crept towards the center of the plate in streaks and mixed over time.

Three images showing candies being placed around the rim of a plate and then the colors spreading and mixing after water is added

After the first round, we paused to talk about the science. I explained that the sugar in the candy shell was dissolving and moving from an area of high sugar concentration to an area of low sugar concentration, and it was taking the colored dyes with it, thus making it easier for us to see the movement of the sugar. With that explanation in mind, we tried the experiment again — this time with a teaspoon of granulated white sugar in the middle of the plate.

Three images showing candies being placed around the rim of a plate, sugar being added in the middle, and then the colors spreading and mixing after water is added

It was easy to see the migration of the dyes from the candy shells slow down as the sugar concentration from the candy met the sugar concentration from the granulated sugar. Both kids were able to grasp the concept fairly quickly.

What I love about this activity, besides the fact that it stopped everyone's whining, was how engrossed the kids became. Our initial candy diffusion experiments took less than twenty minutes, including the time I took to go over the science explanation from the "What Happened" section of the activity. But, it was such a successful exploration that we then spent another forty minutes trying different patterns and experiments. We tried it with Nerds instead of M&Ms. We tried it with different patterns of colors, including only primary colors (red, yellow, blue), for example, with the goal of arranging the colors in a way that they would mix to form all the colors of the rainbow. We tried making different shapes and designs like a heart, a flower, and the American flag by taking advantage of the diffusion of table sugar to try to protect white space.

Not every experiment came out exactly as we envisioned, and some we repeated in several ways to try to figure out the best way of achieving the results we wanted, but both kids were 100% invested the whole time — and they didn't whine. They did eat a lot of candy though!

Candies placed in a heart shape and color diffusion happening after water is added

Other Colorful Options

If you want to try similar colorful experiments without the candy, both of these create fun color patterns and mixing: Make a Milk Rainbow and Make Tie-Dye T-shirts with Permanent Markers. (Note: The science used in these activities is not the same as in the colorful candy diffusion we explored today. You'll find explanations under the "What Happened" heading on the Instructions tab for each activity.)

If watching the candy coatings dissolve piques more curiosity about the colors used in candy coatings, older kids may be interested in the Candy Chromatography: What Makes Those Colors? project. The Science Buddies Candy Chromatography Kit contains the specialty items needed to do this science investigation. For added inspiration, see these examples of the kit being used to explore orange and green candy coatings. (You can also explore the colors in leaves or markers!)

If your child enjoys colorful science (with or without candy), be sure and bookmark Colorful STEM Projects for Summer Science Fun. These project ideas may provide good inspiration some day for school or science fair projects!

This activity works well with even the youngest of hands-on learners. For other great ideas for early science exploration, see 15 Science Activities for Preschool Fun.

Mother's Day Science

I didn't focus on a Mother's Day activity today, although the hour of peace in our house that our candy diffusion activity brought was definitely a special gift of sorts. Mother's Day is this weekend, and there are lots of fun ways you can do simple science with kids at home and create something cool and memorable to give. Many of the activities we've done during the pandemic could be turned into an "I made this for you" moment, including marbled card, art mobiles, kites, and definitely ice cream. If you want to get super creative, try the secret ink activity to make mom a really special card or note that she'll have to use science to reveal!

See the 19 Science Activities for Mother's Day post for a dozen fun and easy ideas.

If your kids make candy diffusion rainbows, or try any of the other candy activities, we'd love to see. Post a picture of what they make on social media and tag us. You can find us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

If this blog post was useful to you, please share it with other parents. Follow the links below to see what other science adventures we've been having at home.

View All Posts in this Series

A science activity log is available as a Word document or as a Google doc for online convenience. (Just choose "File/Make a copy" to save it to your Google Drive.)

About the Author

Sandra, Science Buddies' Vice President of STEM education, holds a PhD in Genetics from Stanford University and has spent the last twelve years working on science education and STEM outreach. Right now, she's stuck working from her home in the Pacific Northwest with her husband, second grader, middle schooler, and two oddly noisy gerbils. She hypothesizes her sanity will hold as long as she gets a daily dose of sunshine.

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