Snowflake Magic: A Sweet Science Experiment in Crystal Growth!

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We’ve heard that all snowflakes are different, but in today’s experiment, we are growing a very unique snowflake.

The Snowflake Magic experiment explores crystal growth by watching sugar crystals grow on a snowflake over several days. As the snowflake sits in the supersaturated sugar and water liquid mixture, it becomes a nucleation point for the sugar. Over time, more and more sugar molecules start to join the growing crystal lattice structure, making it grow in size.

Ready to grow the sweetest snowflake in history? Let’s get growing!



How to make the Snowflake Magic crystal growth experiment

Supplies you will need

For this experiment, you’ll need:

Supplies needed for the Snowflake Magic crystal growth

Before you start

This experiment will take several days to create, so warn your child ahead of time that the results will not be immediate!

Since we are using a stovetop to boil water, please take over and/or watch your child during those steps.

Instructions

Here is how to do this experiment with your child:

Step 1: Cut one pipe cleaner into four equal parts

Take one of your pipe cleaners and fold it in half, then make the cut at the halfway point. Repeat this with the two pieces you just cut to make four equal pieces.

Cut one pipe cleaner into four equal pieces

Step 2: Twist three small pieces of pipe cleaner

Hold three of the small, cut pipe cleaners in your hand at the halfway point. Twist the three pipe cleaners around one another to create a 6-point snowflake.

If one of the snowflake arms looks longer than the others, simply use your scissors to cut off a piece of the end to even things up.

Twist three of the small pieces of pipe cleaner around one another
Twist three of the small pieces of pipe cleaner around one another
Cutting off ends of pipe cleaner to create the look I want
End result of step 2

Step 3: Twist small snowflake around long pipe cleaner

Next, twist the two vertical arms around your long, uncut pipe cleaner.

Small pipe cleaner twisted around the longer pipe cleaner

Step 4: Twist last small piece around to complete snowflake

Take the remaining small, cut pipe cleaner and hold it perpendicular to the long, uncut pipe cleaner.

Twist each arm around the body of the snowflake once.

Place the last small piece perpendicular to long pipe cleaner and twist each arm around once
Complete snowflake

Step 5: Prepare liquid mixture

Pour your water into a small saucepan and bring it to a boil. Once it’s boiling, turn the heat down to a simmer and start adding one cup of sugar at a time, mixing thoroughly before adding the next cup of sugar.

Once you’ve added the last cup of sugar, you should notice that the mixture is slightly thicker and not all of the sugar is dissolving (I had some sugar crystals swirling around the middle as I was mixing that wouldn’t dissolve).

Let the mixture cool and pour it into your glass cup/bowl.

Simmer the water (don’t keep it boiling when mixing sugar in)
Pour one cup of sugar in at a time, dissolve, then add another cup
Mixing sugar mixture

Step 6: Place snowflake into liquid mixture and wait

Place your snowflake into the liquid mixture so it’s not quite touching the bottom of the cup.

Place the dowel to rest on top of the cup, then use a clothespin to connect the snowflake and the dowel so the snowflake stays suspended in the cup.

Next is waiting! It will take several days for the sugar crystals to form. I would recommend taking a picture twice a day to watch the progression.

Here’s what we observed:

  • Before we saw any sugar crystals on the pipe cleaner, we noticed there was a layer of solid, crusted sugar at the top of the glass. This is okay! It’s because our supersaturated sugar mixture is touching the air at the top of the glass and it solidifies faster. The inside of the glass is still filled with the mixture in liquid form.
  • We started seeing sugar crystals form on the pipe cleaner around 48 hours later. It wasn’t much.
Snowflake suspended in glass of sugar/water mixture, hanging from a dowel and clip
Day 1
Day 2 – a small amount of crystallization on that top left dendrite
Day 3
Day 4
Day 5
Day 6
Day 7
Close-up of the crystals. Take a look at their shape!

The science behind the Snowflake Magic crystal growth experiment

This experiment teaches:

  • The process of crystallization
  • Observation over time
  • Patience

How it works

It all starts with creating a supersaturated solution. This means dissolving more sugar in water than it would normally hold at a given temperature. How do we achieve this? By heating the water – hot water can hold more dissolved sugar than cold water. Once the solution cools down, it becomes supersaturated, with extra sugar molecules floating around, looking for a place to go.

That undissolved sugar can act as nucleation sites. A nucleation site is a point where the dissolved sugar molecules begin to come together and form a solid structure. It could be a pipe cleaner hair or an already existing sugar crystal.

Once that occurs, more and more sugar molecules start to join the growing crystal lattice structure, making it grow in size.

The process of nucleation and crystal growth can repeat as long as the sugar/water solution is saturated enough and the conditions (temperature, concentration, etc.) are suitable for crystallization.

The process of crystallization

The process of crystallization starts with a supersaturated solution. In our case, that’s how sugar dissolves easily and quickly at first but eventually reaches a point where no more can be dissolved, leaving some undissolved sugar for crystal growth.

That supersaturation point is important because it can only be reached under specific conditions, like heating the water to allow more sugar to dissolve. Once the solution is supersaturated, it contributes to a much faster crystal growth!

Once the crystals start to grow, we can observe firsthand the process of crystallization, watching the sugar molecules arrange themselves in a specific repeating pattern (typically a flat prism with slanted edges). It helps if you take a picture every few hours, or at least twice a day, to see the progress, since it can happen slowly.

Observing the gradual shrinking of the solution can also introduce the concept of water evaporation, which plays a role in crystal growth as well.

Observation over time

Kids can practice observing changes in the experiment over time, documenting their findings, and drawing conclusions.

It could help to take pictures of the progress since it’s a slow process of forming crystals. That way, they can see new crystal growth, how the lattice is forming, and any new progress that happens along the way.

Patience

Growing crystals takes time, teaching kids patience and the importance of waiting for results.

I think it’s important to talk to your child about how slow-going this experiment will be, since it could help with expectations.

This experiment will take at least a few days but could take up to a week to see the growth (depending on conditions).



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