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Mystery Bags to Develop Observation and Inference Skills

By Alycia Zimmerman on January 8, 2014
  • Grades: PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5, 6–8

Here’s an easy-to-teach science activity that builds science process skills in a playful context. Science Mystery Bags teaches students to use observations to develop inferences. (You can also easily connect it to literary inferencing as well, for a cross-curricular approach.) The lesson can be adapted to work for the youngest kindergarten scientists through middle school — my adaptation is geared towards upper elementary. And because the lesson focuses on science process skills rather than science content, you can use this activity regardless of your science curriculum or standards. Read and watch on for some ready-to-go science fun!

Students love sleuthing out what might be in these sealed “mystery bags.” They are allowed to use touch, sound, and even smell to help them develop reasonable inferences about what’s in those befuddling bags. When I reveal the hidden objects, the accompanying cheers and groans are worthy of a Roman coliseum.



Preparing Science Mystery Bags

You don’t need fancy science materials or a lot of time to prep for this lesson. Paper lunch sacks and all of the random thingamabobs around your classroom will suffice. Here’s a quick video in which I introduce and talk about prepping this lesson (mobile users can access the video here). Or you can just jump to the materials list below.

Materials Needed:

  • Opaque bags (such as paper lunch bags)

  • Stapler to seal the bags

  • Student recording data page

  • Small objects to hide in the bags such as:

    • Paperclips

    • Modeling clay or dough ball

    • Raisins

    • Coins

    • Paintbrushes

    • Beads

    • Birthday candles

    • Marshmallows

    • Chewing gum

    • Dice

    • Safety scissors


Introducing Science Mystery Bags

I make sure to lead a discussion about the differences between observing, inferring, and guessing, and how scientists continually revise their inferences as they get more observational data. I shake one sealed mystery bag in front of the students (filled with a cup of popped popcorn), and ask for inferences based on the noise. The quiet puffs don’t make a distinctive sound, so next I invite a few students to feel the bag. They notice that it’s lightweight and has multiple small lumps inside. It’s not until I invite the students to smell the bag (with it’s distinctive popcorn scent) that they begin hollering that it’s “totally, definitely popcorn!”


Science Mystery Bags in Action

We use interactive science notebooks in my classroom, so my students glue their data-recording page into their notebooks. I put two bags on each of the five tables in my classroom, and I allow the students to investigate the bags for two minutes before I flash the lights and have the students move in a clockwise direction to the next table. (I have the students move rather than passing the bags, because movement is healthy, keeps the kids on their toes, and keeps the bags from getting mixed up.)

Here’s a video of what it looks like in action and of some of my students explaining their work. Mobile users can access the video here.

Download the Mystery Bag Recording Page


Wait! Who has Time to Teach Science?!

So, I’m biased. Science is my favorite subject to teach, (umm, along with math . . . and reading — oh, and writing!). Seriously, science is naturally adventurous and students somehow wake up during science explorations in a way that they rarely do during other subjects. If you teach science in your classroom, you know that focused liveliness I’m talking about. If you don’t yet teach science, I implore you to give it a try, even though you have a thousand other things you’re supposed to fit into your school day. Not only does it pay huge dividends in student engagement, it gets kids thinking rigorously, creatively, and constructively with relatively little effort on our parts. No, it’s not the ELA or math our kids get tested on in the spring. But I’ll argue that hands-on/minds-on science is a mental alarm clock that will get your students thinking more across the board — even when answering ELA and math multiple choice questions.


The Next Step: Investigating Ice Balloons

After we work on observations and inferences, I next teach a lesson about scientific curiosity and questions. My students develop investigable questions about ice balloons. You can read more about that science activity in my blog post Asking Questions Like a Scientist: An Ice Balloon Exploration. Here is a new printable I created this year for the Ice Balloon Exploration. The first page is for the students to sort their own questions, and the second page has the students cut, sort, and glue scientific questions.

Investigating Ice Balloons Sorting My Questions

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Comments (2)

This is a fun interactive activity that I plan to implement with my students. By taking the cross-curricular approach, students will have the opportunity to build ELA skills. Thanks for sharing, Alycia!

Hi Jill, thanks for the feedback! I'm thrilled to hear that you're going to give this a try with your students. It really does help cement the ELA concept of "inferencing" with a memorable application.

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