Full of Ballooney

“Ballooney, Daddy. I wanna play ballooney,” Michael said. He was three, freshly bathed, and so cute in his blue footie pj’s. Who could resist such a plea even though ballooney games are wild and hardly a calming pre-bedtime activity? I went to the top shelf of his closet and got a fresh balloon. Most people don’t know that balloons get stale but as I science teacher I was well aware. We had several ballooney games but Michael’s favorite was for him to get on his top bunk while I rested on my knees on the floor. Then he’d try and bat the balloon to the floor while I tried to bat it onto the bunk. We didn’t keep score but there was great celebration whenever one of us was successful. The game was especially fun when we used a helium balloon that no longer floated but rather spun lazily in the air hovering for what seemed like forever.

People, especially little people, love balloons, helium filled or not. Exhibit A is how the Clintons and Kaines played with balloons at the end of the Democratic Convention. The Trumps and Pences on the other hand basically ignored them at the Republican Convention. I’m convinced that was the beginning of the end of the Trump campaign. What kind of uptight prig can stand around while being pelted with thousands of colorful balloons and not play with them? The near universal appeal of balloons makes them perfect for some serious science as well.

The ballooney game was not our exclusive invention. Kids and even adults have played the “keep the balloon in the air” game probably since the invention of balloons. For young children batting a balloon is a great way to develop gross motor skills and hand eye coordination. But science is my main love and the ballooney game demonstrates Newton’s first two laws of motion as well as the law of gravity. As the boys got older, we experimented with helium balloons by figuring how much string had to be removed in order for the balloon to float. But my favorite game in the winter was to get a Mylar balloon that had lost just enough helium to hover. Careful trimming of the string or excess nozzle meant that I could release it in the living room and it floated, almost but not quite, to the ceiling.

Our house had electric baseboard heaters which work partially by convection currents. The balloon followed the air currents and eventually floated down the hallway to Michael’s room which he loved. The balloon made the invisible, hot air rising and cool air sinking, visible. The boys could also see the balloon expand and contract as the molecules heated up and cooled off. I am convinced that, more than the scientific principles that they observed was the lesson that natural world phenomena, even invisible ones, are best explained by science rather than appeals to the supernatural. That early lesson created the rational thinking young men my sons are today.

I still use balloons in my daily teaching. When my college students come into class on the first day, I blow up a balloon about ¾ full and have the largest man in the room sit on it. I never use a woman because she inevitably gets embarrassed. Almost everybody expects the balloon to pop. But if it’s a fresh balloon and the person sits on it rather than bounces, Pascal’s Principle causes the balloon to change shape rather than burst. I also use the same demonstration when I teach cultural diversity classes at work.

Expectations, prejudices, and personal narratives have a great impact on what we see and hear as well as how we treat others. College students need to recognize their prejudices, both hidden and blatant, in order to gain new knowledge. People who go to work in a culturally diverse environment need to know their filters in order to overcome them and treat all clients with respect. The non-exploding balloon exposes our expectations and thus opens our minds to new information. I have a book with scores of science lessons using balloons, but even the author’s admit the best thing about balloons is they are fun.

It’s hard to be depressed while holding a helium balloon. A French film, The Red Balloon, is the only short film to ever win an Oscar for screen play. Created by Albert Lamorisse, it has almost no dialogue but is a delight and we had to check it out of the library, along with The Snowman on a regular basis when the boys were growing up. When the balloon of the title starts following the little boy around, kids fall in love with the idea of the same thing happening to them.

There is an argument being made today that helium is too valuable to waste in children’s toys. And from a science, technology, and military standpoint it’s a valid concern. But from a science teacher’s or parent’s viewpoint, preserving our limited helium supply by banning party balloons would negatively impact the learning and growth of children. Besides the science principles I mentioned earlier, there is the simple question every kid asks, “Why two balloons, one filled with air and one filled with helium, look the same but act differently?” And what parent hasn’t had to help a child deal with the loss of an escaped helium balloon? Whenever it happened to our boys, Kim helped them wave and say “Bye bye balloon.” From an early age, our sons learned about letting go of something they really liked. Accepting loss is something we all have to deal with on a regular basis. What better way to learn than watching a balloon float away and using your imagination to wonder about its journey?

And if all of these wonderful attributes of balloons weren’t enough, water ballooneyness is a great way to cool off in the summer heat. Water balloon toss is a staple of outdoor summer games for example. Kids toy indeed! Balloons are one of the best parts of a life well-lived. Now if you’ll excuse me I have a water balloon launcher to build.