Playing With Polymers

About This Lesson Adapted by John Nees and LeAnn Fu

Recommended Age Level: Later Elementary, Middle School

Time Required: 1 hour

Guiding Question

What is a polymer?



A polymer is a chemical compound formed from long chains of the same molecule group, repeating over and over.





  1. Gallon of water
  2. Gallon of borax-water Solution (Mix borax with water until saturated)
  3. Original Elmer’s White Glue, or similar latex glue
  4. Talcum powder
  5. Food coloring
  6. For Each Student:
  7. [optional] two batches of cooked spaghetti, one cooked without stirring so that it is a tangled mat of cooked noodles and one with a bit of oil stirred in after cooking to keep the noodles from sticking together.
  8. Teaspoon
  9. Metric measuring cup
  10. Optional: Protective eye goggles

Room Preparation

Need ample desk or table space for each student to mix ingredients; blackboard and sink are handy.

Safety Precautions

Borax is moderately toxic. Wash hands if handling borax and after holding polymer material. Warn participants not to rub eyes without washing hands first, as borax can irritate the eye. It may stain or mar. Clean up spills with soap and water. Label borax solution “Borax - Do Not Drink.”

Procedures and Activity


  1. Share the definition of polymers, and how they are long chains of molecules, just like spaghetti noodles.
  2. Share that plastics are polymers and ask for examples of them in daily life. What are some characteristics of polymers? Use their polymer examples to see that they are usually strong, flexible, durable, sometimes strechable and bendable.
  3. Ask for examples of things that are NOT polymers (such as bricks, glass, metals) to see whether they have the idea.
  4. Why use polymers in things like car bumpers, garbage bags, plastic dishes and utensils, countertops, etc.? Reinforce their characteristics.
  5. Show the two different batches of cooked spaghetti and ask for input on how they are different and yet the same. When stuck together, a mass of noodles is springier and stretchier than the individual noodles of the oiled spaghetti.
  6. Let them do pulling experiments with individual noodles, pulling slowly and watching how the noodles stretch, then quickly to see them break abruptly. Polymers behave like this.
  7. The mass of noodles can be pulled and stretched quite a bit before breaking apart, because it has a lot more bonds holding it together. In this experiment, we are going to take a natural polymer (the latex in Elmer’s Glue) and add borax to make it form cross-links.

mixing up a polymerActivity

Today, we are going to make polymers.

Closing - Original Question


You may do an informal evaluation during the closing discussion. Or come back to these kinds of questions another day:

  1. What is a polymer?

  2. What are some examples of polymers we use and see all the time?

  3. What are some principles or characteristics of polymers?

  4. Why are polymers used today? What makes them such neat and useful materials?

  5. What jobs and careers are related to using polymers?

Extension Ideas

  1. Do experiments to measure the elasticity of your polymer ball. You could try dropping it from different heights and measuring how high it bounces. Will it bounce farther from a short height or a long one? Such results could be charted to make interpretation of data easier.

  2. See how elasticity changes with temperature. When warmed by handling, your polymer will stretch a certain amount before breaking apart. What happens if it is chilled in the refrigerator first? What happens if it is frozen? (Hint: the shattering of a frozen ball when thrown at the floor will prove that this is a thermoplastic polymer.)

  3. Demonstrate dehydration. Leave some of the material we made outside of the plastic bag for a period of time. Observe and feel how it gets harder and less flexible. Why? Dehydration is happening—water molecules are evaporating. See if you can rehydrate the material by adding some water to it in the plastic bag.

  4. Observe the strength of polymers by filling a plastic sandwich bag 2/3 full with water. Twist tie top. Take a freshly sharpened pencil and stick it through the bag. See how polymer flexibility allows the material of the baggie to mold around the pencil and keep water from pouring out. Is this process reversible? See that it is NOT by holding the bag of water with pencil through it over a sink or bucket. Pull pencil out; water flows out. Polymer is not capable of sealing back together, re-joining molecules that were severed and torn apart. Students love to do this experiment themselves: keep bags over a sink or bucket!

  5. Can polymers shrink? Try shrinking globs of the material. Do experiments to promote evaporation of water. Have students recall from original recipe that it is more than 1/2 water. Ideas are to just play and handle the material. See water on hands and its reduction in size/mass. Place a glob on a piece of material which absorbs water, like a paper towel. See decrease in size over time and water/moisture on material. Leave glob out on a sunny shelf. Observe and record what happens to it over time.

  6. Observe saturation by looking at how the borax and water mixture was made. Try putting borax into gallon container of water to the point that no more will dissolve and particles can be seen at the bottom of the jug. See that, after a point, the water simply can’t take in more borax. Try making the polymer material with a solution that is past saturation: that has more borax in it than will dissolve. Students will feel the difference: material is not soft but has lumps and a gritty feel. Try stirring other powders into water to the point of saturation. Students may chart experiments to see how many cups of sugar, salt, and borax a gallon of water can hold before it becomes saturated. Or try mixing coffee, instant tea, and cocoa mixes with water and/or milk.

Careers Related to Lesson Topic

Prerequisite Vocabulary

A substance made of more than one element

Capable of resuming former size and shape after being stretched

The smallest bit of a substance that still has all the properties of the substance. Molecules have one or more atoms.

To Lessons by Subject or Age Group

To Michigan Reach Out! Home

Let us know what you think! E-mail our webmaster

This lesson was last revised in May 2003