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Helping Your Child Learn Science

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By Nancy Paulu and Margery Martin

The Basics

What Is Science?

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:

bullit Observing what's happening;
bullit Predicting what might happen;
bullit Testing predictions under controlled conditions to see if they are correct; and
bullit 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 the answers. It requires us to be skeptical so that our scientific "conclusions" can be modified or changed altogether as we make new discoveries.

Children Have Their Own Ideas

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

"Fossils are bones that animals are through wearing."

"Some people can tell what time it is by looking at the sun, but I have never been able to make out the numbers."

"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.

Less Is More

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.

Finding the Right Activity for Your Child

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 nor 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, others in a group; some require help, others require little or no supervision. Solitary activities may bore some, while group projects may frighten others.

Select activities appropriate for the child's environment. A brightly lighted city isn't the best place for star-gazing, 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.

Important Things to Learn

Basic Concepts

Elementary school children can be introduced gradually to nine basic scientific concepts--ones that all scientists learn. These concepts are listed at the end of this article. The concepts provide a framework into which scientific facts can be placed.

We will introduce three of these concepts that you can easily introduce to your children at home or in the community. The activities described in this article are based on these concepts, as are many other simple science-related projects.

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 to 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 sunlight?

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 patterns of different organisms.


The early years of elementary school are a good time to start teaching children scientific ethics. We should tell them how important it is to be accurate about their observations. They need to know it's all right to make mistakes--we all make mistakes, and we can learn from them. But explain that important discoveries are made only if we are willing and able to correct our mistakes.

Help your children understand that we can't always take someone else's word for something. That's why it's important to find out for ourselves.


The Big Picture

Looking at objects closely is an important part of science, and a magnifying glass lets us see things we don't even know are there. It also helps us see how objects are similar or different from each other.

What you'll need:

  • A magnifying glass
  • Your science journal

What to do:

Use your magnifying glass to see:

bullit What's hidden in soil or under leaves;
bullit What's on both sides of leaves;
bullit How mosquitos bite;
bullit Different patterns of snowflakes; and
bullit Butterfly wings.

How many different objects can you find in the soil?

Draw pictures, or describe what you see, in your notebook.

If you were able to examine a mosquito, you probably saw how it bites something--with its proboscis, a long hollow tube that sticks out of its head. Snowflakes are fascinating because no two are alike. Powdery scales give butterfly wings their color.


Learn about chemical reactions by baking 4 small cakes, leaving an important ingredient out of 3 of them. The ingredients are only for 1 cake, so you'll need to measure and mix 4 times.

What you'll need

bullit A small soup or cereal bowl
bullit Several layers of aluminum foil
bullit A pie pan
bullit Cooking oil to grease the "cake pans"
bullit Measuring spoons
bullit A cup or small bowl for the egg
bullit A small mixing bowl
bullit Your science journal
bullit Ingredients (for one cake)
bullit 6 tablespoons flour
bullit 3 tablespoons sugar
bullit Pinch of salt
bullit 2 or 3 pinches baking powder
bullit 2 tablespoons milk
bullit 2 tablespoons cooking oil
bullit 1/4 teaspoon vanilla
bullit Part of an egg (Break egg into a cup, beat until mixed. Use 1/3 of it. Save the rest for 2 of the other cakes.)

What to do

  1. Wrap several layers of aluminum foil around the outside of a cereal or soup bowl to form a mold.
  2. Remove your foil "pan" and put it in a pie pan for support.
  3. Oil the "inside" of your foil pan with cooking oil so the cake doesn't stick.
  4. Turn the oven on to 350 degrees. <>Grown-up alert!
  5. Mix all of the dry ingredients together. Add the wet ones (only use 1/3 of the egg). Stir until smooth and all the same color.
  6. Pour batter into the "pan."
  7. Bake for 15 minutes.
  8. Bake 3 more cakes:
  • Leave the oil out of one.
  • Leave the egg out of another.
  • Leave the baking powder out of the third.
  1. Cut each cake in half and look at the insides.

Do they look different?

Do they taste different?

Write about, or draw pictures of, what you see and taste.

Heat helps some chemical reactions to occur as the cake bakes:

It helps baking powder produce tiny bubbles of gas making the cake light and fluffy (this is called leavening).

It causes protein from the egg to change and make the cake firm.

Oil keeps the heat from drying out the cake.


The National Center for Improving Science Education recommends that elementary schools design curricula that introduce nine scientific concepts. Many of the activities described in this article teach these concepts, which are drawn from the center's recent report, Getting Started in Science: A Blueprint for Elementary School Science Education. The nine concepts are:

Organization. Scientists have made the study of science manageable by organizing and classifying natural phenomena. For example, natural objects can be assembled in hierarchies (atoms, molecules, mineral grains, rocks, strata, hills, mountains, and planets). Or objects can be arranged according to their complexity (single-celled amoeba, sponges, and so on to mammals).

Primary grade children can be introduced to this concept by sorting objects like leaves, shells, or rocks according to their characteristics. Intermediate grade children can classify vegetables or fruits according to properties they observe in them, and then compare their own classification schemes to those used by scientists.

Cause and effect. Nature behaves in predictable ways. Searching for explanations is the major activity of science; effects cannot occur without causes. Primary children can learn about cause and effect by observing the effect that light, water, and warmth have on seeds and plants. Intermediate grade children can discover that good lubrication and streamlining the body of a pinewood derby car can make it run faster.

Systems. A system is a whole that is composed of parts arranged in an orderly manner according to some scheme or plan. In science, systems involve matter, energy, and information that move through defined pathways. The amount of matter, energy, and information, and the rate at which they are transferred through the pathways, varies over time. Children begin to understand systems by tracking changes among the individual parts.

Primary children can learn about systems by studying the notion of balance--for example, by observing the movements and interactions in an aquarium. Older children might gain an understanding of systems by studying the plumbing or heating systems in their homes.

Scale refers to quantity, both relative and absolute. Thermometers, rulers, and weighing devices help children see that objects and energy vary in quantity. It's hard for children to understand that certain phenomena can exist only within fixed limits of size. Yet primary grade children can begin to understand scale if they are asked, for instance, to imagine a mouse the size of an elephant. Would the mouse still have the same proportions if it were that large? What changes would have to occur in the elephant-sized mouse for it to function? Intermediate grade children can be asked to describe the magnification of a microscope.

Models. We can create or design objects that represent other things. This is a hard concept for very young children. But primary grade children can gain experience with it by drawing a picture of a cell as they observe it through a microscope. Intermediate grade children can use a model of the earth's crust to demonstrate the cause of earthquakes.

Change. The natural world continually changes, although some changes may be too slow to observe. Rates of change vary. Children can be asked to observe changes in the position and apparent shape of the moon. Parents and children can track the position of the moon at the same time each night and draw pictures of the moon's changing shape to learn that change takes place during the lunar cycle. Children can also observe and describe changes in the properties of water when it boils, melts, evaporates, freezes, or condenses.

Structure and function. A relationship exists between the way organisms and objects look (feel, smell, sound, and taste) and the things they do. Children can learn that skunks let off a bad odor to protect themselves. Children also can learn to infer what a mammal eats by studying its teeth, or what a bird eats by studying the structure of its beak.

Variation. To understand the concept of organic evolution and the statistical nature of the world, students first need to understand that all organisms and objects have distinctive properties. Some of these properties are so distinctive that no continuum connects them--for example, living and nonliving things, or sugar and salt. In most of the natural world, however, the properties of organisms and objects vary continuously.

Young children can learn about this concept by observing and arranging color tones. Older children can investigate the properties of a butterfly during its life cycle to discover qualities that stay the same as well as those that change.

Diversity. This is the most obvious characteristic of the natural world. Even preschoolers know that there are many types of objects and organisms. In elementary school, youngsters need to begin understanding that diversity in nature is essential for natural systems to survive. Children can explore and investigate a pond, for instance, to learn that different organisms feed on different things.

This article was excerpted from Helping Your Child Learn Science, a US Department of Education publication. The entire publication with many more activities is available to read online.

Copyright ©  1991 Eclectic Homeschool Association

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