Earlier this spring I was driving home from my parents house through the country side with the kids. They live about 45 minutes away and the drive is mostly past corn fields and farms. My husband had stayed home that day, so I had the three kids in the van alone with me. There are very few things in this world that terrify me, but tornadoes are one of them. I still have nightmares about the movie Twister. (I’m pretty sure that movie has scarred me for life.)
It was one of those days where the sky was dark, and you knew it was going to storm, but you didn’t know when. I was driving past one particular field about 10 minutes from home and the sky turned orange. I looked into the fields and they were foggy with dust in the air and you could feel the van being pushed by the wind. I’ve never gripped the stearing wheel so hard in my life! Of course there was a traffic light in the middle of the freaking country side and it turned red at that particular moment. I turned to look into the field beside me and you could see debris spinning around.
I’m a rule follower. I don’t go through red lights. But never before in my life have I been so close to doing it. Of course, since I’m a rule follower, I sat in my van and waited for the light to turn green while my hands were shaking on the steering wheel. Even if a tornado turned up, I really had no idea what to do. Keep driving? Stop? I have no idea.
The moment the light turned green I flew out of there. Right past two people gunning it on their bicycles. I can’t even imagine what those guys were thinking, but they were definitely peddling fast! I was suddenly feeling lucky to be in my minivan.
Now, as far as I know, there was no tornado that day. But it was a whopper of a storm and wow, was I ever scared. Debris was swirling around in the fields beside me, and I’ve just never seen that before. The kids were very curious about the weather and I was trying to stay positive. So in a chipper and shaky voice I was like, “Wow, look at those dark clouds kids. Nope, Mommy’s not scared at all!” Ha!
This tornado in a jar experiment is a MUCH better way to learn about tornadoes. Safe. Controlled. Much better. And it only takes a couple of minutes to put the experiment together. I was inspired by the posts over at Hip Homeschooling and In Lieu of Preschool.
How to Make a Tornado in a Jar
The full printable recipe is at the end of this post, but here’s what you’ll need:
- A Jar
- Dish Soap
- Food Colouring
- Vinegar (optional)
I used a pickle jar, but any round jar should work. Olive jars, clear plastic vitamin containers, relish jars, spaghetti sauce jars, etc. Check your fridge and recycling bin and see what you have. The kids had pickles as their snack yesterday so I could empty out this particular pickle jar.
I tried using a mason jar as well, but mason jars are slightly squared off. It still worked, but I found it was a little bit harder to swirl. But if that’s all you can find, give it a try!
Fill your jar with water leaving about 1″ space at the top. Squeeze in a generous squirt of dish soap, then add one or two drops of food colouring. Don’t add more food colouring than that or the water will turn too dark and you won’t be able to see the tornado forming.
If you find your mixture is too bubbly, try adding a teaspoon of vinegar. I have no idea if there is any scientific reason for this, but I found that the tornados were much better with the vinegar added. Maybe I’m crazy. You’ll have to try it for yourself to see if it makes a difference for you.
Then grip the jar with two hands and start swirling it around. It helps to turn it upside down and to swirl it by the lid. I have no idea why.
It gets really bubbly fairly quickly, especially if you’re shaking it vigorously. If you have too many bubbles, just open up the jar, and use a spoon to scoop some of the bubbles out. It makes it a lot easier to see the tornado if there aren’t a gazillion bubbles blocking your view. You also might have to let it sit for 30 seconds to a minute to settle if it’s full of bubbles.
You can also try to add some debris in there to swirl around. I tried to add some glitter, but it was swirling so fast that you couldn’t really see the glitter. I found that small beads actually worked way better. I added about 15 small beads and it was super fun to watch them get sucked up into the vortex!
- Round Jar
- Dish Soap
- Food Colouring
- Vinegar (Optional)
- Fill the jar with water, leaving about 1" space at the top.
- Add a generous squirt of dish soap (approx. 1 teaspoon) and one or two drops of food colouring.
- Screw the lid back on securely and swirl it around to mix it.
- Swirl the jar in a circular motion as fast as you can until tornadoes form.
- If you're having trouble with too many bubbles, try adding 1 teaspoon of vinegar and using a spoon to scoop out the bubbles on the top.
This tornado in a jar experiment is crazy simple to put together, but it’s so fun to watch! It only takes a few minutes to put it together, and when your done, all you have to do is pour it down the drain and recycle your jar. (Unless you added glitter or beads. In that case, place a paper towel into a strainer, and pour out the contents into the paper towel and strainer to catch all your debris. Super easy.).
This is a super fun and easy way to teach kids about tornadoes without actually needing to witness one – Or to scar your kids for life by showing them the movie Twister. Don’t let them watch that movie. Ever.
If you’re looking for more fun weather activities, be sure to check out our Shaving Cream Rain Clouds experiment. This one is super simple to put together too, and it’s beautiful to see the results!