As you might have seen me discuss a few times before, we're undertaking a health unit this year. It's a curriculum that I'm compiling on my own, which, by the way, I also encourage YOU to do, as well, with any subject that you want, as it's awesome and totally do-able and creating it yourself means that you can make it exactly what you want it to be.
Anyway, the health unit is really a human biology study, but with an emphasis on healthy habits and personal safety and self-care. Although now the kids are taking turns telling me which body system they want to study next (I'm currently researching Will's choice: the lymphatic system/immune system), I insisted that we begin with the reproductive system. The kids learned its anatomy, coloring diagrams and creating and labeling salt dough models. We discussed sex and pregnancy, but mostly I wanted to focus on puberty and menstruation.
And I wanted to science it!
This following science experiment, in which the kids measured the absorbency of various commercial pads and tampons, had three goals, none of which really had anything to do with measuring the absorbency of pads and tampons:
- I wanted the kids to become familiar with them, handling several kinds and increasing their comfort level with what is a pretty basic hygiene item. I do NOT want to raise kids who see menstruation as taboo!
- I wanted the kids to understand how both pads and tampons work, what the absorbency rating means, what that looks like, and practical usage information.
- I wanted the kids to ask me lots of questions about puberty and menstruation, whatever questions they had. If you've got a question about menstruation, and you're not sure how to ask it, well, if you're not going to ask it while you are in the process of dipping a tampon into blue water and then weighing it, then you're just going to have to wait until you're grown up and take the SafeSearch setting off of your computer to Google it, I guess.
So while you're secretly working towards those three goals, here's how to actually do the experiment that you're supposed to be doing:
1. Gather your supplies.
You will need a scale that measures in grams, a large jar of water that the kids can dye in any color of their choice (I did ban red, pretending that it would be more "fun" to dye the water a "silly" color. I guess the menstruation taboo is hard at work in me!), a small ladle or measuring cup to dip the water, the kids' science notebooks, and several different types of pads and tampons.
You might notice with disapproval that I have no homemade or eco-friendly solutions on offer here: I lost my Diva Cup in the move (could it possibly be in the same box as my wedding album? I've never found that, either!), and the boyshort underwear that I now wear doesn't work with the style of pads that I used to make. I actually do own a pair of Thinx underpants that I'm trying to figure out how much I like, but I didn't pull that out, either. In our first-world country, disposable store-bought pads and tampons are a universally available supply, so that's what we're learning about. As we talked while doing this experiment, I did mention Diva Cups, homemade pads, AND the bleaches and dioxins that make some people unwilling to use conventional products, if that makes you feel better.
2. Make a chart. I had the kids write down the name of each exact brand that we were going to test, and its stated absorbency level. This was a good exercise in label reading, and noticing that different pads and tampons have different absorbency ratings:
2. Set up the scale for the first test. We decided that the pad or tampon would fail if it did not meet its maximum absorbency as stated on the box, so the kids put a container on the scale, tared it, then measured out the correct amount of liquid. This was also good practice in accurate measurement:
3. Test the pad or tampon. This step required some good trial-and-error problem-solving for the kids. On the face of it, all you have to do is introduce the pad or tampon to the liquid, see if it absorbs it, and if it does, add more liquid in measured amounts. However, the process definitely required some troubleshooting. Firstly, I'd just randomly gotten out our Erlenmeyer flask to hold the liquid on the scale, as it's lightweight and "scientific." However, the Tampax Pearl tampons, when wet, began to unfurl and they ended up quite wide, so much so that pulling them out through the narrow neck of the Erlenmeyer flask caused them to squeeze out some of their liquid:
This was actually an interesting phenomenon, because the non-Pearl Tampax tampon did not get wider when wet--it got longer. The kids and I had an interesting discussion about the elastic walls of the vagina, and expressed many theories about which model of tampon would possibly work better to stop any menstrual fluid from leaking past them. I also modeled how one uses a tampon, and here is how you do that:
Remind the students that they should have clean hands, and make a loose fist with your non-dominant hand to imitate the vaginal channel. Model the correct way to hold the tampon for insertion in your dominant hand. Remind the students that in between their labia they'll find the bump of the clitoris toward the front, then, inside the folds of the labia minora, there are both the opening to the urethra, again, more towards the front, and then the vagina behind that. Suggest that the first few times one wants to insert a tampon, one might want to gently put a finger into the vagina first, to help visualize the path. Model how to insert a tampon into your fist, then make note of the tampon string, and model how to use that to remove the tampon. Tell the students VERY firmly that used tampons must be wrapped in toilet paper and put in the trash--we don't flush tampons, because we appreciate having working sewer systems!
Anyway, after the failure of the Erlenmeyer flask, I brought out a Petri dish, and the kids used that, instead:
Measuring the absorbency of the pad was also problematic, as introducing liquid too quickly would cause it to just roll off of it--a good opportunity to discuss what an actual menstrual flow would resemble (not that!), but less helpful in accurate measurement.
Interestingly, each item absorbed nearly double what was listed as its maximum absorbency on its box, and a couple of items absorbed more than that! The kids then had to figure out how to accurately measure how much more the item would absorb, and Will is the one who figured it out--you weigh it! She measured out a known number of grams, absorbed away all that she could, weighed the liquid again, then subtracted to find how much liquid was absorbed.
The only real problem that we had was determining the appropriate saturation level of each pad and tampon. The kids introduced liquid until not only could each item absorb no more, but it also would drip when picked up--this, obviously, is beyond the item's maximum absorption, but for this particular activity I didn't get too fussed about it.
This activity leaves plenty of time for kids to familiarize themselves with the pads and tampons--
Other excellent discussion topics included the usage of pads as back-ups, if you can feel a tampon after it's inserted, predicting one's period using a calendar (or app--I am told that all the cool kids use apps these days), why one would choose to use a pad vs. a tampon, swimming while menstruating, and many other practical subjects that it would surely have not occurred to the children to ask about if we were discussing menstruation without manipulatives.
A final note: making the focus on science made it MUCH easier to have all the discussions that you need to have with a kid about menstruation and puberty and sex and self-esteem and all that stuff that you have to discuss. The kids loathed just about every book that I offered them on the subject of puberty, because they were all too touchy-feely and focused on Big Questions about Feelings. My kids don't operate like that, and neither do I--there's a running joke between me and some of my friends that basically consists of the not-too-farfetched image of me desperately texting Matt to come save me from various social situations because "people are having emotions, and I can't escape!"
Anyway, putting the focus on Science, not feelings, let the kids actually find a way to think about things, including feelings, in a way that felt dispassionate and safe to them. And if Mommy had an extra glass of wine with dinner that night after all of these discussions, well... Mommy needs a safe way to deal with feelings, too!
Here are the books that we used for this study; you can find the videos that we used in my Homeschool: Science: Human Biology pinboard. I have a ton of old-school "hygiene" videos in there, too, that I'd thought would be funny (and sneakily instructional) to show the kids, but I didn't end up using them this time. I also didn't do as much with menstrual hygiene issues around the world--it's important to ME, but the kids weren't super into it, so we'll go into it another time.
Again, I didn't end up loving most of these books (notable exceptions: I LOVE Julie Metzger, and I LOVE the It's Perfectly Normal series, and *I* think The Care and Keeping of You is good, although both kids hated it), but I did successfully get the kids to read them by inviting them to snark on them as hard as they could. We all sat there, reading these books and making fun of them--"Ugh, Mom, they're talking about self-esteem again!"--but at least we read them. Mwa-ha-ha!