Fostering curiosity in kids (and their parents) since 2011

“What else pops balloons?”

bunch of colorful balloons smashed together. Hint of a car seat below them.

Where’s The Four-Year-Old? (Photo: Shala Howell)

My daughter’s latest balloon trauma happened just this weekend, when her brand new purple balloon popped on impact with a silver car parked in the hot sun. After it happened, my daughter just stood there for a moment, clutching the blue glittering ribbon from which trailed the few bits of purple rag that were all that remained of her balloon.

Her experience to date had taught her that the only thing she needs to do to take care of a balloon out in the wild is never let go. No one had said anything about keeping balloons away from cars. As I watched her face, it was impossible to tell which would win out: the trauma of the experience or my daughter’s curiosity about why this unexpected tragedy had happened at all.

Fortunately, my daughter has had quite a bit of experience by now dealing with balloon loss, so while the disappointment was still keen, her recovery was admirably quick. She was asking eager questions about why balloons pop while my Mommy-commiseration mode was still booting up.

My daughter’s favorite question after “Why?” is “What else?” As in, “What else pops balloons, Mommyo?”

This question sounded like too much fun to waste on the iPhone. So after stocking up on helium balloons at our local party store and gathering a few other supplies from around the house, we decided to find out.

Balloon-Popping Force #1: Overinflation

Technically, this happened at the store while we were watching the saleswoman inflate the balloons. She was very skilled though, and of the 24 balloons she inflated for us, she only popped one.

There is an extremely technical explanation of the forces involved in popping overinflated balloons at Balloon HQ (see “Why Do Balloons Go Bang“), but, as you might expect, it mostly boils down to balloons pop when they are overinflated because at some point the latex simply runs out of stretch. (Bet you knew that already.)

Balloon-Popping Force #2: Hot Cars

We lost three balloons when they came in contact with the hot metal around our car door. As far as I can tell, this is a direct result of filling a balloon made of rubber with helium gas. According to Balloon HQ, rubber contracts if you heat it while it’s stretched out (this is called the Gow-Joule effect for those of you who like to put names to things).  And according to my high school chemistry teacher, helium gas expands when heated. Put those two things together and you’ve got a balloon that acts as if it’s overinflated. In other words, BOOM.

When we got home, I used my husband’s Black and Decker Thermal Leak Detector to measure the temperature of the metal to see how much heat it had taken to pop the balloons. My readings ranged from 112.8F to 117.5F.  Granted, pointing a laser thermometer at the spot on the door where I think the balloons might have touched some 15 minutes after the fact is at best science-y, but we’re just a bunch of preschoolers and English majors here. It was good enough for us.

And while I had hoped to get all 24 balloons into the car without incident, losing three to heat turned out to be for the best, as the balloon capacity of the back seat of a Toyota Camry is a bit less than two dozen balloons, which leads me to ….

Balloon-Popping Force #3: A Tight Squeeze

Forcing too many balloons and preschoolers into too tight a space is also an excellent way to pop balloons. Fortunately, we only lost one this way, which left us with some 20 balloons to experiment on when we arrived at the house.

Balloon-Popping Force #4: Pins and Single Object Variations on Pins

As a control object, we reached first for the classic pin. We had predictably satisfying results. My daughter then tried a number of variations on the pin theme, some of which worked well. The best results from my daughter’s perspective were achieved by cutting the balloons with scissors and poking them with pens. Poking with sharp fingernails required more force than my four-year-old could generate. (Balloons are surprisingly tough.)

Balloon-Popping Force #5: Pins + Tape

Balloon HQ claims that if you put a bit of scotch tape over a balloon and then poke the pin through the tape, you can let the air out of the balloon without popping it (at least at first. There is a delayed pop when the rip caused by the pin become larger than the tape can hold together.)

We thought that sounded pretty neat, so we tried it. It worked a bit differently for us. The air from the balloon created a bubble in the tape, eventually pushing it off completely at which point the balloon popped.

Balloon-Popping Force #6: Pins + Vaseline

Have you ever seen a magician put a pin through a balloon without popping it? According to Balloon HQ, the trick to doing that is to put Vaseline on the needle before inserting it into a relatively underinflated section of the balloon (either near its neck or the dark spot directly opposite the neck).

This really is magical. I was able to push the pin in twice without popping the balloon. We did this experiment at least an hour ago and the balloon still hasn’t popped.

Balloon-Popping Force #7: Static Electricity

All fired up from the success of our Pin + Vaseline experiment, we then tried to pop balloons with static electricity. We figured this would be easy as Balloon HQ’s FAQ talks in great detail about how to counter the devastating effect static electricity has on balloons.

Sadly, it is the wrong time of year for this. Try as we might we couldn’t scuff up enough static electricity from the carpet or from our TV or by rubbing balloons against one another to pop them. We will have to try this again in winter.

Balloon-Popping Force #8: Doing the Twist

Our final Balloon HQ-inspired experiment involved popping the balloon by creating a weak spot on its surface. Balloon-HQ presents several options for doing this, but we decided to go with simply twisting a small piece of the balloon until it popped. Although it did eventually work, it was surprisingly hard, claiming the lives of two fingernails in the process.

Balloon-Popping Force #9: Pulling the Neck

My daughter then tried stretching the neck of the balloon. At first, the balloon simply squealed as the air leaked out. She had to pull quite a bit harder to make the balloon pop.

Balloon-Popping Force #10: Smashing It With Things 

My daughter then went rogue and began smashing balloons with various objects. The package from our front porch just bounced off the balloon without harming it, as did the soccer ball.

She then tried sitting on a balloon herself. When that didn’t work, she bounced up and down on it as if it were a Hippity Hop. This is a reliable, if unpredictable, method. Each balloon popped sometime between the fourth and sixth bounce, sending my preschooler sprawling on the floor.

Perhaps I should mention at this point that no children were hurt in this experiment. So much fun was had, in fact, that it was only with difficulty that I convinced my daughter that jumping on balloons was a bad idea.

And when all the balloon popping was done…

My daughter used the rags and ribbons to make a collage.

12 Responses to ““What else pops balloons?””

  1. Phillip Howell

    Y’know, I’m *still* freaked out by popping balloons. I can’t imagine that I would have had the nerve to pop two dozen balloons at 4.

    For some reason, that makes this my favorite caterpickle yet, even though it had me vicariously jumping in my chair.


    • shalahowell

      The award for posting the first comment on Caterpickles duly changed from a dozen helium balloons + popping paraphernalia to, um, something else. I’ll get back to you.


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  3. sean

    My wife didnt like the chairs at a restaurant so she grabbed the balloon from another table and sat on that on her chair. I forgot it was there, we were at the Table for an hour and a half. When she got up, up floats a balloon and we both laughed. She stepped on it and put both feet but she just bounced. She jumped off and we walked away and the balloon went back to the ceiling.


  4. What happens now? | CATERPICKLES

    […] In other news, I’ve been doing some thinking lately about how to continue Caterpickles during this pandemic. Looking at the stats on how y’all use the site, you still seem very interested in learning things like how do I reset my storm glass, how many colors of corn there are, and (heaven help us) what else pops balloons. […]



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