Teaching About Oil Spills

This morning, we had a little lesson about oil spills.  We’ve been studying environmental issues for science over the last month, mostly by decaying various things by letting worms crawl through.  However, we’ve also had a pile of books out from the library, including Oil Spill by Melvin Berger, which turned out to be unexpectedly timely.  This book is part of the elementary science picture books series Let’s Read and Find Out, most of which are excellent.

After we read the book, we turned to the internet.  Both National Geographic and The Huffington Post had slideshows of images about the oil spill in the Gulf, which we watched.  The kids and I talked about booms and the various ways they’re trying to get the oil out of the water.  We also talked about the fishermen and other people who are devastated by this disaster.  The Huffington Post also has a slideshow that’s specifically about the animals affected by the oil spill.  I thought it was a little too much, but we talked about the animals and the marshlands as well.

BalletBoy tries to skim the kitchen oil off his oil spill.

Finally, we headed to the kitchen.  Each kid filled a little bowl with water.  To make the water more visible, we added a drop of blue food coloring.  Then each kid added a heaping tablespoon of cooking oil to the water.  I reminded them that this was a completely different kind of oil, but that it would share a few of the same properties as the crude oil we’d been learning about.  We watched as the oil broke apart when stirred up but always tried to glom back together and floated atop the blue water.  Next, I invited them to try and extract the oil.  It was easy to move the oil around the bowl or contain it like the booms do, but much harder to take it out.  The kids spent some time trying to skim it off the top without getting too much water, mostly unsuccessfully.

I have no idea how scientific this experiment really was.  It wasn’t suggested anywhere I read, but it seemed like an obvious way to illustrate the problems everyone is having trying to stop such a massive oil spill.

3 thoughts on “Teaching About Oil Spills

  1. Great idea. I wonder how much time kids in school have spent studying oil spills? (My guess: zero.)

    I wish you were my mom. Unfortunately, I’m older than you are, which is just one of the many ways that would be impossible.


  2. I like it! Sounds like an excellent lesson to help kids understand what’s happening.

    PS So exciting that you’re blogging now!

  3. Hey farrarwilliams, I saw how much you and your child got into understanding oil spills. I wanted to introduce you to a book I wrote that educates your child on the effects of oil spills. It’s called “Harriet’s Home at Sea”. It’s a super powerful tale of a young girl who saves the day after an oil spill devastates the shores of her home! Check out the website to take a look at the illustrations in the book at:


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