Static Electricity with Balloons: Using a balloon to attract paper

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As we head into the colder months, it’s the best time to talk about static electricity with your little one!

Static electricity is the result of a build-up of electric charge in an object. When a balloon is rubbed on a piece of wool or your hair, it picks up electrons and becomes negatively charged. In this experiment, we make the paper move by attracting it to the charged balloon.

This is a fun experiment because kids LOVE to see how much of their hair they can stand up using the balloon!

How to make the Static Electricity with Balloons science experiment

Supplies you will need

For this experiment, you’ll need the following:

Supplies needed for the static electricity experiment

Before you start

Since we are playing with static electricity, there is a chance that someone could get a small shock during this experiment. That shock is not harmful but could surprise you!

Also, since we are using scissors, keep a close eye on your child during this experiment so they do not cut themselves.

Instructions

Here is how to do the Static Electricity with Balloons science experiment with your toddler:

Step 1: Cut your paper into small pieces

Cutting up the paper into small squares

I chose to cut up the paper into small 1″ pieces, but any size will be fine for this experiment. You get a bigger reaction by having smaller pieces since those will actually stick to the balloon when you lift it. But even a corner of a whole sheet of paper will lift off of the table with enough charge!

If you are using styrofoam plates, now is the time to cut them into pieces as well.

Get your preschooler involved: If you choose to cut up your paper, have your child do the cutting for you. We tried toddler scissors, but they didn’t work great on tissue paper. We ended up just using our hands (a good fine motor skills activity!).

Step 2: Blow up the balloon and tie it off

Blow up your balloon and tie it off

My child had a blast trying to blow up a balloon herself. It’s certainly not easy, especially for toddlers, to blow up a balloon, so you may need to step in and do it yourself.

Step 3: Rub the balloon on your head for at least one minute

This is where the fun really begins! Rubbing the balloon on your hair transfers electrons over to the balloon, which temporarily gives it a negative charge.

Get your preschooler involved: My child loved having the balloon rubbed on her head, and even better, enjoyed her hair sticking straight up as a result.

Step 4: Hover the charged balloon over the paper

Hovering charged balloon over styrofoam plate pieces

The negatively-charged balloon attracts the neutrally-charged paper by first repelling the negative charges away, which leaves the positive charges closer to the balloon. Since opposites attract, the paper is attracted to the balloon and is picked up.

Get your preschooler involved: See if your child is able to charge the balloon enough to pick up some of the paper.

The science behind the Static Electricity with Balloons science experiment

This experiment teaches:

  • What static electricity is
  • How do we transfer electrons
  • How you can build up and discharge static electricity

How it works

By rubbing a balloon on our head, we transfer electrons from our hair to the balloon.

Once we transfer enough electrons over to the balloon, the balloon has a negative charge to it. Then, when we bring the balloon closer to the neutral paper, the paper is attracted to the negatively-charged balloon.

What is static electricity?

In simple words, static electricity is the result of an imbalance between negative charges and positive charges in an object.

Those charges build up until they can be discharged, which is why you get shocked when you touch something (or someone) with a build-up of static electricity.

How we transfer electrons

The transfer of electrons can occur through conduction, polarization, and friction.

Conduction is the transfer of energy from one atom to another by direct contact. In this case, it is the movement of electrically charged particles through a medium. A van de Graaff generator is an example of transferring electrons using conduction.

Polarization happens without direct contact between two objects. If a negatively-charged object comes near a neutral object, the electrons in that neutral object move away from the charged object that is approaching it.

Friction occurs when two objects rub together and transfer electrons in the process. A great example is rubbing a balloon on your hair to make your hair stand up. Because the balloon attracts electrons more strongly than hair does, electrons are transferred from your hair to the balloon.

How you build up and discharge static electricity

We build up static electricity by building an electric charge. There are lots of variables that contribute to building static electricity.

You may notice that you get shocked a lot more often in the wintertime than in the summertime. That is because water is a great conductor, so when the air is humid, the negative charges that build up on your body can dispel in the air. In the winter, the air is less humid, so we get no help from the air to dispel those negative charges.

Another variable is how a material gains or loses electrons, and a good list is called the Triboelectric seriesOpens in a new tab. to know how electrons are gained or lost in a transfer between materials.

As electrons build up in an object, that object becomes more and more likely to attract an electric current.

Questions to ask while experimenting

  • Before watching the paper react: What do you think will happen between this balloon and the paper?
  • What will happen if we rub the balloon on our hands instead of our hair? Will the paper stick to the balloon?

More physics experiments to try out with your child

FAQ about the Static Electricity with Balloons science experiment

Why do we get shocked more by static electricity in the winter?

Winter typically brings cooler, drier air, which allows electrons to travel more easily. When the air is more humid, that water vapor works to pull charge from building up on you. And when the air is drier (like in the wintertime), your body can hold onto the charge. Once you discharge that buildup on say, a door knob, it results in a shock.

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