Earth Day 2018: Super-Cool, Backyard Experiment Teaches Kids About Stormwater Pollutants

Earth Day 2018: Super-Cool, Backyard Experiment Teaches Kids About Stormwater Pollutants

  • This article, contributed by Anne Wilford, water resources engineer for the Kane County Division of Environmental and Water Resources, is part of a 15-part series of tips on how to make a positive environmental impact in Kane County  in preparation for Earth Day on April 22. 

Tip #7: Teach Your Kids About Stormwater Pollutants!

We talked about stormwater runoff in a previous Earth Day Count Down article.

The article mentioned things that we can do in our everyday lives to reduce pollution associated with stormwater runoff — and it’s an invaluable tool for homeowners.

But we can take our stormwater lessons to the next level and the next generation by teaching our kids about things like physics and responsibility.

Here’s a home experiment guaranteed to get the kids’ attention and get the whole family thinking!

Our Super-Cool Stormwater Experiment

What is happening as the runoff picks up pollutants like bacteria, chemicals, pesticides, animal waste, oils, sediment or even garbage on its way to our lakes, rivers and streams?

As the runoff flows over land it follows the drainage patterns, flowing from higher elevations to lower elevations. It enters the stormwater conveyance systems and eventually flows in streams, rivers, lakes and then the ocean.

This simple experiment demonstrates that before the runoff reaches a body of water it can pick up pollutants.


  • Piece of white paper (paper represents the land)
  • Water-soluble color markers (choose a few different colors, the markers will represent different types of pollutants such as pet waste, fertilizers, chemicals and oils)
  • Spray bottle of water (this represents the rainfall)
  • A pan or towel (to catch the water)


  1. Draw and color on the piece of paper color with different colors of marker.
  2. Crumple the paper in a ball and then smooth it out leaving some ridges (these ridges represent the topography of the land)
  3. Place the paper in the pan or on the towel. Try to angle the paper so one end is higher than the other. (The lower end represents where the water would be leaving the community to enter a body of water.)
  4. Spray the paper with water and watch the water flow across the paper.


  • How was the water’s color different at higher elevations versus the lower elevations?
  • Did the colors blend together in the flowing water?
  • Think about your back yard. When it rains, are there different pollutants that the water could pick up? Where does the stormwater runoff flow to?
  • Think about what you want to do clean up the runoff from your back yard. Is it time to scoop the poop? Could you pull those weeds in the garden instead of spraying?

Looking For More Teaching Opportunities?

Try these websites:

More stormwater education materials available from Kane County’s Clean Water For Kane program.

For educators who would like to learn more about Kane County environmental education outreach programs, please contact Jessica Mino, resource management coordinator for the Kane County Division of Environmental & Water Resources, at or (630) 208-8665.

Read the ‘Countdown to Earth Day’ Series!