“In the Beginning, There Was Nothing … Which Exploded.”

            Terry Pratchett, Lords and Ladies

I remember my first chemistry set.  (It may have been my last chemistry set as well; it was quite large and I do remember messing

Children Using Chemistry Set

This is not me. (I wouldn’t have been wearing the safety glasses.)

around with it for a while.  I don’t remember my parents offering to buy another.)

There were real glass test tubes with black rubber stoppers, and a rack to set them in.  There was some sort of alcohol lamp included, to heat solutions, and little spring-loaded tongs to hold the test tube over the flame without burning your fingers.  Much.

And there were chemicals … mysterious substances with exotic names:  copper sulfate, cobalt chloride, calcium oxide.  There were also ingredients scrounged from the kitchen (“Required but Not Included” on the instruction sheet):  white vinegar, table salt, baking soda.

The experiments were usually smelly (my bedroom reeked of sulphur more than once) and often created interesting and indelible stains on the already-scarred surface of my rock-maple desk.  I don’t recall the sets including anything like safety glasses or protective latex gloves, and the closest thing to a fume hood was a suggestion in the instructions that the would-be chemist be sure to work in a “well-ventilated area” (which I took to mean opening the window a crack).

Chemistry sets have changed over the decades.  Various pieces of legislation both in the United States and in Canada have curtailed the chemicals that may be included in sets, which are defined, after all, as toys.  The traditional chemistry set of the 1960s and 1970s has been a casualty of tougher consumer protection laws.

Big bag of science

Be Amazing’s Big Bag of Science

Still, when one door closes, another opens.  The current crop of science kit providers have managed to produce chemistry kits that are safe, entertaining, and educational.  One of our favorites is Be Amazing, whose Big Bag of Science contains more than 70 different experiments guaranteed not to blow a hole in your child’s bedroom ceiling.  It covers physical, earth, and life sciences, as well as exploring magnetism and light.  Make some fake snow (that looks strangely real)!  How about whipping up a glob of gravity goo?  Or making some wriggly worms?  The best part, as far as parents are concerned (aside from the “not blowing a hole in the ceiling” part) is that each experiment is well-designed, with clear step-by-step  instructions, and then explained in the “How Does It Work?” section.

Recommended for ages 8 and up.  Available at www.scalliwagtoys.ca and in-store.

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