At Home Science Challenges


As an aged, Nancy Drew wanna-be, I understood all too well when my 10-year-old son walked into the kitchen and announced, “If I don’t find a mystery to solve, I’m going to burst!” The Hardy Boys had sucked him in! I sympathized. At around the same age, I was haunting old barns and wishing for a three-story house with an attic full of abandoned stuff to search through. While that never happened, my days of reading those yellow-bound mystery books left me with a complete understanding of my son’s yearning.  

What could I possibly offer in the way of a mystery? The last suspicious-looking item in our household was something fuzzy and green that I found in the back of the refrigerator. After much thought, I realized that I could never provide my son with the kind of mystery he’s been reading about; for him, nothing short of a missing person or a stolen artifact would do.

What I could offer him was a chance to practice some detective skills and to learn a bit more about the job of solving crimes. The creation of some detective challenges and a spy kit resulted in hours of intent concentration, as my son worked at uncovering clues. I knew it was a success when, after completing a challenge, he said, “This is so cool. Can we do it again tomorrow?” And I have to admit, the 10-year-old in me was enjoying this as much as he was!

These challenges are not only fun, but will help stave off the summer brain-drain; that educational slippage that many children experience in the months between the last day of school in June and the first day of school in August. This forensic adventure will entertain your kids while keeping their minds sharp and focused during the summer break.




Footprints can offer clues as to the path a suspect used, the shoes he was wearing and how fast he was moving.

Challenge #1

Materials: tin foil pieces (12-inches square); several shoes, similar in size and style; a soft surface, such as carpeting or a folded towel

Preparation: Setting the tin foil on a soft surface, use the shoes to make imprints. Press down hard or soft, depending on the difficulty level you wish to achieve. You might even try partial prints for an older child.

The Challenge: After replacing the shoes in their closet of origin, explain to your detective that several suspects left evidence in the form of footprints. Show her the foil prints and challenge her to find the shoes that left the footprints.

Challenge #2

Materials: an accomplice; old shoes, paint; shallow cardboard box lined with tin foil; six lengths of paper, approximately 2 feet wide by 10 feet long (have more handy, just in case)

Preparation: Place three of the long sheets of paper on the ground (outside is best) side by side. Pour a thin coat of paint into the foil-lined box and have your accomplice step with both feet in the paint. Have him walk down one sheet of paper, run down the next and hobble down the third, using a cane or walking stick (also dipped in paint). Allow paint to dry and keep that accomplice handy — you will need his help again.

The Challenge: Show your sleuth the paint tracks. Ask him to notice anything unusual about the tracks and to make a guess as to how each set of tracks was made. Ask questions to prompt his curiosity. Was the suspect moving fast or slow? Was the suspect carrying anything? Once your detective has formulated his theory for each set of tracks, bring in your accomplice. On fresh paper, have your helper once again step in paint, and move down the paper, following the detective’s direction. Your detective can then compare the new prints with the old. Does the distance between tracks match up? Is the shape of the footprint the same? With this exercise, your detective can see that even the simple act of walking can leave a trail of clues.



Every person has a unique set of fingerprints; no two are exactly alike. Even identical twins have different fingerprint patterns.

Challenge #1

Materials: white paper, black stamp pad, pen or pencil, clear plastic drinking cup, towel, several suspects

Preparation: Completely wipe down the plastic cup, making sure to remove any marks or smears. As you continue to work with the cup, hold it carefully with a towel to avoid adding confusing marks. Choose one of your suspects to place a fingerprint on the cup. A nice, clear print can be made with natural oils by rubbing a finger over your forehead or scalp. Have your suspect place his oily finger onto the cup, leaving a clear print.

The Challenge: Explain the differences in fingerprints to your in-house detective. Ask her to take fingerprints of all available suspects, using her stamp pad and one sheet of paper for each suspect. On the paper, have her write the suspect’s name, and identify each finger; for instance, “right thumb.”

Once she has her “fingerprint registry” complete, hand her the cup (still using the towel) and ask her to identify the suspect.

Challenge #2

Materials: fingerprint registry from previous challenge; smooth, dark surface, such as a coffee mug; clear tape, 1-inch wide; talcum powder; dark paper; clean, soft make-up brush; latex or non-latex gloves

Preparation: Using the technique described in Challenge #1, place a fingerprint on the mug.

The Challenge: Have your sleuth use the brush and talcum powder to carefully dust the dark object, using latex gloves (your detective will love this part!) to prevent contaminating the evidence. When he is able to see a fingerprint in the white powder, have him use a piece of clear tape to “lift” the print, and place it onto the dark paper. He can then compare this print with those on his registry of suspects, to determine who is the guilty party.

Microscopic Evidence

Real-life detectives can determine who was at a crime scene by examining microscopic evidence. Even the smallest piece of fiber, hair or skin can provide an abundance of information, if you just know how to look.

Challenge #1

Materials: microscope; several pieces of fabric, all of similar color and texture; scissors

Preparation: Cut a 4-inch square out of each piece of fabric, and lay side by side. Cut a very small, irregularly shaped piece of fabric from each of the original pieces of material (not from the four-inch squares — that would leave a clue!). These become the “evidence.” Place the small clues in a container near the microscope.

The Challenge: Explain to your private investigator that his job is to identify which large piece of material matches the tiny bits in his sample container. Using the microscope, your detective should be able to see an amazing difference between each piece of fabric. An up-close view of the weave shows that, what appears to be the same to the naked eye, is often not.

Challenge #2

Materials: microscope; small, snack-sized plastic bags; hair samples from suspicious household residents and pets; permanent marker; pen or pencil; paper for recording facts; white tablecloth or big white sheet of paper

Preparation: On a sheet of paper, assign each suspect a letter (keep this master list for later verification), and label sample bags with corresponding letters. Obtain hair samples from suspects either by pulling a strand of hair from each person’s head, or using the hair found in a hairbrush. Place one hair in each labeled bag. Cover “lab” area with white cloth or paper, to help visibility.

The Challenge: Using the microscope, have your detective try to determine which suspect each hair came from. This will require your sleuth to obtain hair samples from all of the suspects in the house, and compare them to the samples provided. Have your P.I. write down the letter found on the bag next to each suspect’s name. Compare her accusations to the master list.


Testing Substances

Given a clear liquid, can your sleuth tell you what it is? Perhaps by smelling or tasting the liquid, he could. Not a good idea though, at a crime scene. Better to be able to test a substance in the safety of a lab.

Challenge #1

Materials: 1 head red cabbage; water; coffee filter; saucepan and stove; several small, clear containers, such as plastic cups; teaspoons for measuring; several clear substances for testing (such as vinegar, baking soda dissolved in water, a sports drink, lemon-lime soda, lemon juice); self-stick labels

Preparation: Shred 4 cups cabbage into saucepan. Add 1 cup of water and boil for 5-10 minutes. Pour cabbage leaves and water through coffee filter into a bowl or other container. Discard leaves; allow colored water to cool. This juice will be the “indicator.” (Be sure to set some aside for Challenge #2). In one of the clear containers, place 2 teaspoons of one of the clear substances. Mark the container with an “X” in order to avoid confusion during the testing process.

The Challenge: Tell your investigator that a suspect left a container at the crime scene, and present the “X” marked container. Explain that his job is to determine the type of fluid that was left behind. Provide several of the clear substances, and instruct him to measure 2 teaspoons of each into the empty containers and label as to their contents. With that step complete, explain that each of these substances will react to your indicator by changing color. By adding 1/2 teaspoon of the indicator to each liquid, as well as to the suspicious fluid, he should be able to determine what fluid was left at the “scene” by comparing the resulting color.

Challenge #2

Materials: plain white paper; red cabbage indicator (made in Challenge #1); several clear substances for testing (see above); several clear plastic containers; waxed paper

Preparation: Cut paper into 1/2-inch strips and dip into indicator. Lay out on waxed paper to dry. The paper will look only slightly purple, but will darken as it dries. (You may wish to have your sleuth help with this part of the set-up so that she understands what is happening). Once the paper strips have dried, cut the strips to create 1/2-inch by 2-inch pieces of test paper. You now have your own homemade version of litmus paper. Fill the containers with several types of clear liquid substances for testing. Secretly dip one of these strips halfway into one of the clear substances and allow to dry.

The Challenge: Show the dipped paper to your detective and explain that the test was taken at the scene of the crime. Ask her to test the substances in the containers with her test strips, and see if she can find a matching color.

A little math, a little science, a little logical thinking and problem-solving … and lots of fun! You could even add costumes to the experiments: a Sherlock Holmes deerstalker hat for the young investigator in the house, or a white lab coat for the budding forensic scientist. As the summer of science rolls on it’s possible that you’ll enjoy these projects as much (if not more) than your kids.


Types of Fingerprints

Fingerprints can be classified into three main patterns. See if you can figure out your shape!

  1. The Whorl resembles a target, with a center bulls-eye.
  2. The Loop is U-shaped, and has lines that start on one side of the print, rise to the center and then exit on the same side from which they started.
  3. The Arch is shaped like a rolling hill, and has lines that start on one side of the print and leave on the opposite side of the print.

Mysterious Words

Encourage your child’s curiosity with these great books for mystery lovers:

  • The Boxcar Children series by Gertrude Chandler Warner
  • Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh
  • The Eleventh Hour by Graeme Base
  • From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg
  • The Encyclopedia Brown series by Donald J. Sobol
  • The Cam Jensen Mystery series by David A. Adler
  • The Nancy Drew series by Carolyn Keene

On the Case!

Create a spy kit for your super sleuth! Start off with a carrying case — the more zippers and secret compartments, the better. Fill it with these simple supplies to make clue finding easier:

  • magnifying glass
  • photographer’s loupe
  • binoculars
  • small notebook and pencil
  • latex or non-latex gloves
  • snack-sized plastic bags
  • tweezers
  • chalk
  • pen light
  • camera
  • clear tape
  • self-stick labels


KRIS BORDESSA is the author of “Team Challenges: Group Activities to Build Cooperation, Communication, and Creativity.” Take a peek at

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