Crystal Planets

I’ve been on a bit of a planetary kick recently, with the theme of Little Man’s birthday party and with us redecorating his bedroom.  But since I’ve started on this path, let’s continue.  🙂  This Crystal Planets craft is something that Little Man and I did last Autumn, but I haven’t had a chance to share here until now.

I was initially inspired for this craft by a post about making sparkly crystal Easter eggs to hang in the window.  The pipe cleaner eggs,however, were crystallized using Borax to form the crystals.  While they were beautiful, I didn’t feel comfortable using a substance that I wouldn’t want Little Man to handle.  As I thought about the craft more, even if Little Man didn’t touch the Borax crystals themselves, I was concerned about what would happen if the crystals flaked off and he (or our cats) found little sparkling bits on the floor.  In one of the comments on that post another parent expressed concern for the toxicity of the Borax and wondered if sugar crystals could be used to do the same thing. That was my “ah ha!” moment, and I started working on ways to use sugar to create sparkly, crystal planets.

"Uranus"

“Uranus”

Before I go further, I want to be clear that while kiddos can help with the beginning of this craft, the making and pouring of the sugar solution should only be done by adults.  Hot sugar solutions are quite dangerous if spilled or splashed, so little hands should not be involved in those parts.  Little Man loved helping me shape and initially sugar the planets, as well as checking on the planets daily to look at their growth.  He also loved hanging the planets in the window, and even took one (Mars) to day care for show and tell.  So while little hands cannot be a part of every step of this craft, the process and the final product are totally worth it.

Yes, Little Man enjoyed this craft quite a lot, especially the part where he got to play in sugar.

Yes, Little Man enjoyed this craft quite a lot, especially the part where he got to play in sugar. Notice the little water hand print on the table as well.

While I shaped the pipe cleaners to make planet shapes, like I mentioned above the original post I saw used the cleaners to make Easter egg shapes.  I’ve since seen posts for the Borax crystals to make heart shapes, shamrocks, and the list goes on. It could be fun to shape the pipe cleaners into letters to form a child’s name, or to make butterflies.  The possibilities are as endless as your imagination… and the size/depth of your mason jars.

This same “craft” can also be used by suspending food safe chopsticks (I recommend bamboo since its more environmentally friendly) in the sugar solution to create rock candy sticks.  Some day if I feel like completely wiring up Little Man’s birthday guests, we’ll make these as part of the goodie bag.

Enjoy!

Making Crystal Planets
Equipment and Ingredients
:
Assorted colorful pipe cleaners
2 bowls and 1 plate
Stock pot
4 large (1 liter) canning jars
4 wooden chopsticks or other sticks
Kitchen string
Assorted food coloring
18-20 cups white sugar

Directions:

  1. Coil 1-2 pipe cleaners to make your planet shape. Don’t make it too fussy since you need to have room for the sugar crystals to grow. My favorite shape was a circle with a small curlicue across the equator to give it depth. Make sure that the “planet” can easily fit into and out of the mouth of your jar with extra room. It will be wider than it is now once the crystals have formed.

    Pipe cleaners coiled and shaped into "planets."

    Pipe cleaners coiled and shaped into “planets.”

  2. Measure a length of string so that once it is tied to the top of one of your “planets” and  suspended from your chopstick, the planet does not touch the bottom of the jar. If it touches, crystals will form and adhere your planet to the bottom of the jar, and you’ll have to destroy your planet to get it out.  Make sure that your chopstick (or other stick) is long enough to rest both edges on top of your jar. The chopstick will suspend your planet in the sugar mixture, so it’s good to have a bit of overhang to ensure that your “planet” doesn’t fall inside.
  3. Tie one end of the string to the top of your planet and the other end to your chopstick. Suspend the planet in your empty jar and make sure that it fits well, adjusting as necessary. Remove the planet from the jar and repeat this for the number of planets that you want to create. Set them all aside.

    A planet with string ready to be sugared.

    A planet with string ready to be sugared.

  4. Pour about ½ cup of sugar into a bowl and place a bowl of cool water next too it.  Working one at a time, briefly dip the pipe cleaner planet into the cool water, and then press the planet into the sugar on the plate. Flip it over and press it in again. Gently take the sugared planet and place it on a plate to dry completely. Repeat this with all of the planets and then set them aside until you are ready to proceed.
    Planets ready for sugaring.

    Planets ready for sugaring.

    This is definitely a kid-friendly part of the process.  Just be warned that sugar will be flying, often towards the mouth. Little Man had a blast feeling the sugar... and then jamming his little fist into his mouth before I could wipe it off.

    This is definitely a kid-friendly part of the process. Just be warned that sugar will be flying, often towards the mouth. Little Man had a blast feeling the sugar… and then jamming his little fist into his mouth before I could wipe it off.

    A planet made it into the sugar and not Little Man's mouth.

    A planet made it into the sugar and not Little Man’s mouth.

    Sugared planets set aside, out of Little Man's reach, to dry.

    Sugared planets set aside, out of Little Man’s reach, to dry.

  5. In a stock pot add 8 cups of water and begin to heat it. Do not bring it to a boil, since you want to create a sugar solution not sugar taffy. Be careful since hot sugar can be dangerous. No boil overs or burns, please!
  6. Once the water is hot, but not boiling, slowly add the sugar. You want a 2:1 or 3:1 ratio of sugar to water. If you need a refresher on your high school ratios, feel free to look them up on the internet. 🙂  In short, you want 2-3xs more sugar than water. Start adding your sugar a few cups at a time, stirring carefully until the sugar dissolves and the water becomes clear again. Go carefully and slowly here. After you add a good amount of sugar (aka an obscene amount), it should start taking longer for the sugar to completely dissolve. This means you are reaching saturation and that’s what you want. You want the sugar solution to be so full of sugar that it can’t hold any more (aka saturation). This may look like you have a few grains of undissolved sugar at the bottom of your pot, or some cloudiness.
    At first I used my lovely Dutch Oven, but soon found that it wasn't quite big enough for me to feel comfortable with all the heating sugar solution.

    At first I used my lovely Dutch Oven, but soon found that it wasn’t quite big enough for me to feel comfortable with all the heating sugar solution.

    So I upgraded to this one.  Little Man loved using the LONG handled wooden spoon to stir our "cauldron."

    So I upgraded to this one. Little Man loved using the LONG handled wooden spoon to stir our “cauldron.”

  7. Line up your four (or more) one-liter canning jars on a heat resistant surface (I used my cutting board) and carefully ladle in enough sugar solution to fill the jars to just below their shoulders. Leave some room at the top for the planets to be added without causing an overflow.

    One jar ready to go.  Filling the jars is definitely an adults only task.  I used a canning funnel to make sure I didn't make too much of a mess while ladling in the hot sugar solution.

    One jar ready to go. Filling the jars is definitely an adults only task. I used a canning funnel to make sure I didn’t make too much of a mess while ladling in the hot sugar solution.

  8. Carefully add a few of drops of good quality food coloring to each jar to create the color that you would like. If you add too much color the solution may become so opaque that you cannot see the crystals form. However, if you don’t add enough color the crystals will not take the color. My planets do not have much color to them beyond the color from the pipe cleaners, but they looked pretty in the window while they were forming.Once the sugar solution is dyed to your liking in the jars, carefully insert the planets using another chopstick to submerge the planets in the liquid. Let the jars cool until safe enough to handle.
    Adding a few drops of yellow food coloring.

    Adding a few drops of yellow food coloring.

    With me right beside him, I let Little Man use another chopstick to stir the food coloring into the solution and then to help submerge the planets.

    With me right beside him, I let Little Man use another chopstick to stir the food coloring into the solution and then to help submerge the planets.

    One down...

    One down…

    20140821_105400

    Three more to go.  I ended up having a good amount of extra solution, so made an impromptu fourth "planet."  I did a quick coil of yellow pipe cleaner to make a "comet."  Interestingly this one did not have the same amount of drying time as the others, but still formed crystals just fine.

    Three more to go. I ended up having a good amount of extra solution, so made an impromptu fourth “planet.” I did a quick coil of yellow pipe cleaner to make a “comet.” Interestingly this one did not have the same amount of drying time as the others, but still formed crystals just fine.

  9. Once the jars have cooled until safe to handle, place them in a sunny window or tall shelf where they can sit and slowly, slowly, slowly grow crystals. If after a few weeks you do not see crystal growth, then you may need to individually pour the solution back into a pot, heat it again, add more sugar and repeat the process. It took my planets awhile to form the crystals, but they did.
  10. Hang your planets in a window for a sparkly decoration.
"Jupiter"

“Jupiter”

"Uranus"

“Uranus”

"Mars"

“Mars”

This is the full view of Mars, showing the sugar crystals moving up the string where it was submerged.  The other planets look similar, and the crystals really catch the light on a sunny day.  Alas this photo day was a bit dreary, but even with a rainy day you can still see their sparkle.

This is the full view of Mars, showing the sugar crystals moving up the string where it was submerged. The other planets look similar, and the crystals really catch the light on a sunny day. Alas this photo day was a bit dreary, but even with a rainy day you can still see their sparkle.

Click here for a printable version of the Crystal Planets craft.

Our little solar system of sugar crystal planets and the comet hung above Jupiter.

Our little solar system of sugar crystal planets and the comet hung above Jupiter.

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