Making for Kids

How to Make a Tornado (or Cyclone) in a Jar [Science Project When You’re Stuck at Home]

The first project in our “what do when you’re stuck at home with your kiddos” is a tornado in a jar. Our oldest son has been completing a project for school about The Wizard of Oz. He is supposed to put at least eight objects in his box that relate to the book.

He wanted to create a cyclone out of paper, but the construction was difficult. That’s when I went to Pinterest to learn how to make a tornado. I was excited when I came across the “tornado in a jar” idea. I knew my son would be excited by it too, so today when we have time off from school, it was the right time to make it.

It only takes a few minutes to make, but your kids will have fun twirling the jar and making a cyclone appear.

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What You Need to Make a Tornado in a Jar

  • A jar that has a lid such as a mason jar. You can also use jars with lids from your recycling bin.
  • Clear liquid soap
  • Vinegar (if vinegar is hard to come by right now you can omit)
  • Food coloring (we used green)
  • Water
  • Measuring Spoons


Step 1: Fill the Jar With Water

Your first step is to fill the jar with water until it’s just over 3/4th full.

This needed a wee bit more water.

Step #2: Add the Food Coloring

This step is kind of fun and my son enjoyed doing it. We only have gel food coloring at our house but I’d recommend the regular liquid ones for this project. We had to do a good bit more shaking to get it to incorporate into the water.

Really I think you could use any color to do this, but we chose green because we had some and because it reminded us of the green witch and the Emerald City in the Wizard of Oz. 

Step #3: Add the Liquid Soap

The next step to making a tornado in a jar is adding a teaspoon (or a bit more) of clear liquid soap. Go ahead and pour it right in. If you have colored soap it really won’t mess anything up, just may color the water a bit.

Step #4: Add the Vinegar

Continuing with our project, the next step is to put a teaspoon of vinegar into the jar. The vinegar is supposed to discourage bubbles from forming in your jar. We still had lots of bubbles in ours, so maybe you could experiment with the ratio of vinegar-to-liquid soap when you make yours.

Step #5: Hot Glue It All Together (Optional)

The last step is to hot glue your lid on to the jar. You don’t have to do this if you feel your lid is secure, but since my son was going to put it into a box (and the lid was already leaking) we went ahead and glued it all in place.

How to Get Your Tornado in a Jar to Work

This may seem like a simple step, but it was kind of a frustrating one for the kids. The kids wanted to just shake the jar but that does not result in a tornado. It just made the water mixed up and soapy. In order to create the tornado look, you must swirl the liquid around and around to create a centrifugal force.

How Does a Tornado Form?

If you want to teach your kids a little about the science of tornados, you can begin by teaching them why they form.

Tornadoes typically form during a severe thunderstorm called supercells. Rising air from the storm is one of the first ingredients in a tornado recipe. Condensation from like rain or hail releases a great deal of heat — the bigger the storm, the more heat is released. The heat created from the condensation drives upward drafts of air.

The climbing air changes directions and begins moving at a faster pace. At the base of the storm, a cloud base may form which is something a tornado can feed off of later.

If you have all these components a vortex may begin to form. Outside the vortex, cold air is often sucked into it. When warm moist air meets cold dry air it creates instability in the atmosphere. This instability in the atmosphere is what makes a tornado thrive.

At this point, the lower part of the vortex begins tightening and increases the speed of the wind. If the funnel of air moves down and meets the cloud base we mentioned earlier, it sucks it in and turns it into a rotating cloud wall.

The cloud base may then allow the funnel to touch the ground — and that is when it actually becomes a tornado.

All of these factors are actually quite rare and don’t often come together perfectly to form a tornado. Even if they do, the tornado is often short-lived.

The Difference Between a Cyclone and a Tornado

As my son reads The Wizard of Oz I am surprised by many differences between the book he’s reading and the movie I grew up with. For one, Dorothy wears silver shoes in the book as opposed to the ruby red ones from the movie.

Another difference is she’s carried off by a cyclone and not a tornado.

So what exactly is the difference between a tornado and a cyclone? I thought I should investigate.

Turns out that author of The Wizard of Oz L. Frank Baum wasn’t totally accurate in the name. While there are similarities between cyclones and tornadoes, mainly that they’re both “stormy atmospheric systems” — in Kansas where Dorothy was from, it most certainly would be called a tornado. Cyclones form in tropical areas like the Pacific Islands and are also called typhoons and hurricanes.

So best I can tell, poor Mr. Baum just used the wrong word.

For more information about tornadoes, check out these helpful videos. You can incorporate them into a fly-by-the-night lesson plan for your kids while they’re home from school. It beats watching reruns of Peppa pig.



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