The Lava Lamp

The Lava Lamp
by Sarah Ranney, St. Louis 2006
January 13, 2015

When kids at Lafayette Preparatory Academy need a break, they will frequently find themselves in my office, playing with Play-Doh, bouncing on a ball or staring at my lava lamp. The lava lamp has become infamous here. Students ask if they can come to my office just to see it.

Originally, I brought the lamp in as a calming tool. Kids can hang out on my bean bag and watch the lamp while they compose themselves. It definitely does that, but it has become so much more than that; it is a tool for learning and one of the best science discussions I’ve ever led. The questions usually go something like this:

1)      Mrs. Ranney, what is that?
2)      Is there really lava in it?
3)      How does it make those bubbles?
4)      Can I touch it?

I have had this conversation with so many of our children at this point, it feels like the lesson of the year. The answers I give the kids, while not always exactly the same, remind me of why I became an educator in the first place, to awaken the natural curiosity that all children possess. They’ve never seen a lava lamp before and they want to understand what it is.

The conversation might go something like this:
Student: “Mrs. Ranney, what is that?”
Mrs. Ranney: “It’s a Lava Lamp.”
S: “Is there really lava in it?”
Mrs. R: “Interesting question, what do you know about lava?”
S: “It’s from volcanoes. It’s really hot.”
Mrs. R: “So, if this was really lava, what would happen?”
S: “I don’t know. It would melt maybe and there would be lava pouring out of your office and covering the entire school.” (We have creative kids here.)
Mrs. R: “So, is it really lava?”
S: “I guess not- but then what is it?”

We will continue like this until they have learned it is wax (like candles are made of) and the light bulb combined with the metal inside the base heat the wax so it melts and when it interacts with the water solution in the lamp, it bubbles. The kids are mesmerized by it. I am always amazed by their ability to fully investigate their question and their excitement at the discovery. It’s happened at least a couple of dozen times since I brought the lamp in October. It is my favorite office accessory and one I know I’ll keep around for a long time. Now when I look at my lava lamp I am reminded of the power of a child’s mind and their great capacity to explore the world around them- even in the confines of a tiny office within their school.

SR and JC

Sarah Ranney began her journey as an educator in St. Louis as a 2006 Teach for America Corps Member teaching 5th grade in the St. Louis Public Schools. She currently serves as Director of Curriculum and Instruction at Lafayette Preparatory Academy, a charter elementary school in downtown St. Louis. The views expressed are solely Sarah’s and do not represent Lafayette Preparatory Academy or any other persons associated with the school.

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