Science ideas for young children: Making candy

Making candy can be a fun way to learn about science.

Mmmmm, candy. This not-too-good-for-us treat can often tempt us, staring at us from supermarket shelves. But how is it made? Why can different candies with the same ingredients have different flavors and textures? Let’s use science to find out how. You might be able to find a recipe book to create candy confections, but if you understand the science, you have a better idea of why things go wrong and how to make them better the next time.

Here are some quick things to try when making candy:

  • What do you think sugar looks like up close? Is it tiny spheres or cubes or something else? Look at sugar under a magnifying glass or a microscope. Look at salt as well. Did they look like you expected? Why does it look that way?
  • Heat equal parts sugar and water to different temperatures on the stove and see what happens. WARNING:Use very close adult supervision at all times when working with hot sugar solutions. The molten sugar syrup is extremely hot and does not wash off easily, so a small splash will stick to your skin “like napalm” and continue to burn. Always use oven mitts, preferably ones that go up to the elbow (welding gloves are a great and often cheaper alternative). Young children should NOT be handling the solution and should observe from a distance.
  • A candy thermometer, which attaches securely to the side of your pan, is important. As the sugar solution reaches different temperatures, take a spoonful and drop some into room temperature water. Have the children predict what will happen. Also, take a large spoonful – or several if you have lots of kids – and pour it onto a piece of foil, parchment paper or silicone mat and let it cool. Make sure you label which stage is which. When you have all stages done and they have cooled completely, test the different stages. Make sure you clean the spoon or use a new one with each temperature stage

Uses of sugar solution at different temperatures and stages




230-235 F



235-240 F

Soft ball

Fudge, fondant

245-250 F

Firm ball


250-265 F

Hard ball


270-290 F

Soft crack


300-310 F

Hard crack

Brittles, hard candy

320-355 F



  • Try the following tests on each of the seven stages. Make sure you ask the kids to guess what will happen before you do the actual testing. If working with several children, use multiple spoons to prevent cross contamination. NOTE: Before doing any cooking or tasting, make sure all hands, surfaces and utensils have been thoroughly cleaned. Setting up several stations can reduce the chance of cross contamination. Also make sure the hot liquid has cooled sufficiently so no one gets burned.
    • Taste test. Do they taste any different or do they all just taste like sugar?
    • Texture test. How does it feel in your mouth?
    • Dissolve test. How long does it take to dissolve in your mouth or in water? Does it dissolve differently in something acidic, like soda pop or vinegar?
    • Bending and shaping test. Can you bend or shape it? Can you roll it out with a rolling pin?
    • Smash test. How hard is it to break?
    • Stickiness test. Stick the candy to objects of different weights. Pick up the candy and see how heavy of an object it can hold.
    • Would any of the stages be good for building stuff? Why or why not? If you were using the material to engineer some cool-looking deserts, what would work best? Try creating a scene from your favorite book or movie out of the different candy stages and discuss why some stages are better at engineering different things.

More information on candy making is available in the “Candy Making Manual” from the University of Idaho Extension and “Candymaking: A White County 4-H Project” from the University of Illinois Extension.

Michigan State University Extension encourages families, daycares, school activities, 4-H clubs or any group working with young children to conduct these experiments. The focus of these lessons aren’t to simply impart knowledge, but to facilitate the joy of discovery and the exploration of the world around us. This is not designed to “give youth the answers,” but to empower them to ask questions and figure things out on their own. When a young person asks a question, resist the urge to answer it, and instead ask, “What do you think?”

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