Bring Out the Scientist In Your Child

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As parents, we must prepare our children for a world vastly different from the one in which we grew up. In the next century, this country will need citizens with more training in science and technology than most of us had in school.

Even children who don’t want to be scientists, engineers or computer technicians will need science to cope with their rapidly changing environment. But without our help, our children will not be prepared for these changes.

Science starts at home

We play a crucial role in determining how much science our children learn. Our enthusiasm and encouragement can spark their interest. Fortunately, youngsters of all ages are curious and love to investigate. And the earlier we encourage this curiosity, the better.

Scientific knowledge is cumulative, so children need to start learning early – at home. Many of us assume that children will learn all the science they need at school. The fact is that most children, particularly in elementary school, are taught very little science.

Parents don’t have to have a strong background in science to help children learn science. What’s far more important than knowing what sound is or how a telescope works, is having a positive attitude about science.

Every day is filled with opportunities to learn science – without expensive chemistry sets or books. Children can easily be introduced to the natural world and encouraged to observe what goes on around them.

Together, parents and children can –

  • See how long it takes for a dandelion or a rose to burst into full bloom.

  • Watch the moon as it appears to change shape over the course of a month, and record the changes.

  • Watch a kitten grow into a cat.

  • Bake a cake.

  • Guess why one of your plants is drooping.

  • Figure out how the spin cycle of the washing machine gets the water out of the clothes.

Learning to observe objects carefully is an important step leading to scientific explanations. Experiencing the world together and exchanging information about what we see are important, too.

A nasty head cold can even be turned into a chance to learn science. We can point out that there is no known cure for a cold, but that we do know how diseases are passed from person to person. Or we can teach some ways to stay healthy – such as washing our hands, not sharing forks, spoons or glasses and covering our nose and mouth when we sneeze or cough.

Questioning and listening

We should encourage our children to ask questions. If we can’t answer all of our children’s questions, that’s all right no one has all the answers, even scientists. And children don’t need lengthy, detailed answers to all of their questions. We can propose answers, test them out and check them with someone else. The library, or even the dictionary, can help answer questions.

We can also encourage our children to tell us their ideas and listen to their explanations. Being listened to will help them to gain confidence in their thinking and to develop their skills and interest in science. Listening helps us to determine just what children know and don’t know. (It also helps the child figure out what he or she knows.)

Simple activities can help to demystify science. But children also need to learn some basic information about science and about how to think scientifically. Following is some information for parents that can point our children toward this goal.

Science is not just a collection of facts. Facts are a part of science. We all need to know some basic scientific information: water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit (or 0 degrees Celsius), and the earth moves around the sun. But science is much more. It includes:

  • Observing what’s happening.

  • Predicting what might happen.

  • Testing predictions under controlled conditions to see if they are correct.

  • Trying to make sense of our observations.

Science fiction writer Isaac Asimov describes science as “a way of thinking,” a way to look at the world.

Science also involves trial and error – trying, failing and trying again. Science does not provide all answers. It requires us to be skeptical so that our scientific “conclusions” can be modified or changed altogether as we make new discoveries.

Children develop their own ideas about the physical world, ideas that reflect their special perspectives. Here are some perceptions from some sixth-grade students:

“Fossils are bones that animals are through wearing.”

“Gravity is stronger on the Earth than on the moon because here on Earth we have a bigger mess.”

“A blizzard is when it snows sideways.”

Children’s experiences help them form their ideas, and these often don’t match current scientific interpretations. We need to allow our children to ask questions and make mistakes without feeling “stupid.”

We can help our children look at things in new ways. For instance, in regard to the blizzard, we could ask, “Have you ever seen it snow sideways? What do you think causes it to move sideways sometimes?”

Hands-on works best

Children, especially younger ones, learn science best and understand scientific ideas better if they are able to investigate and experiment. Hands-on science can also help children think critically and gain confidence in their own ability to solve problems. Some science teachers have explained it this way:

What engages very young children? Things they can see, touch, manipulate, modify; situations that allow them to figure out what happens – in short, events and puzzles that they can investigate, which is the very stuff of science.

But hands-on science can be messy and time consuming. So, before you get started, see what is involved in an activity – including how long it will take.

It’s tempting to try to teach our children just a little about many different subjects.

While youngsters can’t possibly learn everything about science, they do need and will want to learn many facts. But the best way to help them learn to think scientifically is to introduce them to just a few topics in depth.

Different children have different interests and need different science projects. A sand and rock collection that was a big hit with an 8-year old daughter may not be a big hit with a 6-year old son.

Fortunately, all types of children can find plenty of projects that are fun. If your child loves to cook, let him or her observe how sugar melts into caramel syrup or how vinegar curdles milk.

Knowing our children is the best way to find suitable activities. Here are some tips:

  • Encourage activities that are neither too hard not too easy. If in doubt, err on the easy side since something too difficult may give the idea that science itself is too hard.

  • Age suggestions on book jackets or toy containers are just that – suggestions. They may not reflect the interest or ability of your child. A child who is interested in a subject can often handle material for a higher age group, while a child who isn’t interested in or hasn’t been exposed to the subject may need to start with something for a younger age group.

  • Consider a child’s personality and social habits. Some projects are best done alone, another in a group; some require help, others require little or no supervision. Solitary activities may bore some, while group activities may frighten others.

  • Select activities appropriate for the child’s environment. A brightly lit city isn’t the best place for stargazing, for example.

  • Allow your children to help select the activities. If you don’t know whether Sarah would rather collect shells or plant daffodils, ask her. When she picks something she wants to do, she’ll learn more and have a better time doing it.

Basic Concepts

Elementary school children can be introduced gradually to basic scientific concepts – ones that all scientists learn. The concepts provide a framework into which scientific facts can be placed. Three such concepts follow. You can easily introduce them to your children at home or in the community.

  1. Organization – Scientists like to find patterns and classify natural occurrences. We can encourage our children to think about objects according to their size or color – for instance, rocks, hills, mountains and planets. Or they can observe leaves or insects and group the ones that are similar.

  2. Change – The natural world changes continually. Some objects change rapidly, some at a rate too slow to observe. We can encourage our children look for changes in things:
    * What happens to breakfast cereal when we pour milk on it?
    * What happens over time when a plant isn’t watered or exposed to proper   
    * What changes can be reversed? Once water is turned into ice cubes, can it
       be turned back into water? Yes. But if an apple is cut into slices, can the
       slices be changed back into the whole apple?

  3. Diversity – Even very young children know that there are many kinds of objects. One thing to do is help your child explore and investigate a pond. Within and around a single pond (depending on the size and location of the pond), there may be tremendous diversity: insects, birds, fish, frogs, turtles, other water creatures and maybe some mammals. Looking at a pond is a great way to learn about the habits, life cycles and feeding patters of different organisms.

Science can be learned in many places and environments and just as easily from everyday experiences as from formal projects and experiments. We can get our children interested in science with simple toys, books and objects around the house and have fun while we’re doing it.

Excerpted and reprinted with permission from Helping Your Child Learn Science by Nancy Paulu with Margery Martin, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education, 1991.

Ask Dr. Susan