Helping Your Child Learn Science
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By Nancy Paulu and Margery Martin
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.
|| Observing what's
|| Predicting what
|| 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 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
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
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
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
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,
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
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.
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.
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
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
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:
|| What's hidden
in soil or under leaves;
|| What's on both
sides of leaves;
|| How mosquitos
|| Different patterns
of snowflakes; and
|| 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
|| A small soup
or cereal bowl
|| Several layers
of aluminum foil
|| A pie pan
|| Cooking oil
to grease the "cake pans"
|| Measuring spoons
|| A cup or small
bowl for the egg
|| A small mixing
|| Your science
(for one cake)
|| 6 tablespoons
|| 3 tablespoons
|| Pinch of salt
|| 2 or 3 pinches
|| 2 tablespoons
|| 2 tablespoons
|| 1/4 teaspoon
|| 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
- Wrap several layers of aluminum foil around the outside
of a cereal or soup bowl to form a mold.
- Remove your foil "pan" and put it in a pie pan
- Oil the "inside" of your foil pan with cooking
oil so the cake doesn't stick.
- Turn the oven on to 350 degrees. <>Grown-up alert!
- 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
- Pour batter into the "pan."
- Bake for 15 minutes.
- Bake 3 more cakes:
- Leave the oil out of one.
- Leave the egg out of another.
- Leave the baking powder out of the third.
- 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
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
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
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
Copyright © 1991 Eclectic Homeschool Association