It's a little more complicated the older they get, of course, and sometimes the distraction is a hit, other times, a futile failure, making you wonder why you didn't save yourself the frustration and time and just let them thrash it out while you poured yourself another drink. I kid! (... Kinda?)
Today: success! Conor was having a pretty good day, but the twilight hours (the evening hours preceding bedtime) can be tough even on great days, so to keep his attention for a while, we set up a cool experiment relatively quickly.
Following the instructions from a great book we found at the library, "Backyard Biology" from the "Build it yourself" series, we blew up a balloon by waking up yeast. We took some active dry baker's yeast, poured it into an empty soda bottle, stirred in some water, added 2 tablespoons of sugar, and filled the rest of the bottle up with warm water, then covered the top of the bottle with the balloon.
When I told Conor that the yeast was alive (I think I called them little beasties, but they are not animals, or for that matter plants — they are their own classification of organism, fungi), he asked me to do it. I explained that they wouldn't bite and you couldn't really tell they were alive just by handling them. In fact, dry yeast is "dormant" — so we woke the colony up with the water and fed it with the sugar. Once Conor realized that the yeast didn't have the capacity to bite him (note to self for future projects, be precise with terminology and not call non-animals "beasties") he helped me pour it in and then helped to scoop in the sugar.
It took about 10 minutes for the balloon to get fully upright but little by little, the wrinkles in the balloon ironed out and got filled by the gas. The yeast releases CO2 — carbon dioxide — as it eats the sugar, and since the bottle has the balloon covering its top, it inflates the balloon. Eventually, it inflated (not fully expanded, of course, and it started to leak) and Conor was pretty impressed with the results. We alleviated the boredom of the twilight hour and got to do a science!