Children are natural born scientists. To nurture this type of learning in children, allow them to explore their environment safely and freely and with plenty of time to investigate new discoveries. Children have an innate sense of wonder and curiosity about the world. They naturally build theories, test them, evaluate what worked and what didn’t, then figure out why.
Asking questions is the first step to understanding. Why does water and dirt combine to make mud? Why do some things float in the tub while others sink to the bottom? How do shadows work? Why do caterpillars make cocoons?
When are children ready to learn science?
Almost all young children “do science” naturally. Most of the time they actively search for new knowledge and experiences in the world around them. They develop theories about what they see and how it works. They are eager to figure out why turning the light on makes everything so bright, or want plug things into electrical sockets. In an effort to keep them safe (and to keep the house a little cleaner), we as parents often stop them from discovering the world around them. Slowly, over the years, many children sadly lose that inquisitive spark they were born with. As a result, creative thinking is compromised. But it is those same creative thinking skills that will help them succeed in the future by enabling them to contribute new ideas or challenge the status quo.
How can I teach science at home?
For children, science just happens. You have to ensure, as a parent, that your child’s questions are valued and appreciated. Take the time to listen, and don’t be too quick to give the answer away. Instead, ask questions like “I wonder how we could find out the answer to your question?” By doing this, you are modeling for your child how to learn, and where to look for knowledge. Some days you will look in a book, other times you will look on the computer, ask a friend, or visit a museum, a science center, or a library. It all depends on the question.
Working together with your child to discover the answer will get them excited about the process. As your child gets in the habit of looking for the answers with you, he will eventually do it on his own. Once that is established, he will be a lifelong learner. To get started, here are a few activities you could try:
Cooking is a live experiment in action. Involve your child in the kitchen when you prepare meals. It may take you a little longer, but you are providing the ideal science lab, teaching your child about food and nutrition, helping them feel appreciated at home and teaching a valuable skill. Start with something easy, like smoothies (with yogurt and fruit), or salad. Increase the complexity as they grow. Teach them to follow a recipe (measure, mix, etc.) and also let them experiment with different ingredients, without the guidance of a recipe. In the kitchen, your child will learn science principles like mixing, measuring, and changing matter.
Children love to observe animals to see the differences in how they communicate and behave. If you’re not ready for a pet, consider an aquarium, and if that is too much of a commitment, visit your garden or a pet store. Snails, butterflies, grasshoppers, worms, stick bugs, crickets, or any kind of insect make for great temporary pets, provided you supply leaves sprayed with a little water, dirt, sand, or pebbles. Figuring out what these insects need to eat and rest is a discovery in itself.
Water – Provide buckets, spoons and other digging utensils so they can mix in sand and dirt, and don’t forget pouring utensils. No need to buy anything fancy. You will find everything you need in your kitchen cupboards. In a pond or in the tub, you can explore with empty bottles, add bubbles, add gears, turkey basters, or anything else they can explore the water with.
Invite your child to plant seeds and have an indoor or outdoor garden. You can plant flowers or, better yet, fruits and vegetables. Explore all kinds of seeds and roots: let a potato grow roots, or garlic, or an onion, encourage your child to draw his observations. Put beans in a CD case with wet cotton balls, to see the tiny plant begin to grow before you plant it. Explore what happens to fruits or vegetables as they decay. See what happens when a plant or flower receives water, good soil and sunshine, as opposed to growing in the shade.
Light and Shadows
Provide flashlights, translucent materials and a grey wall. You can collect different types of materials to see which ones let the light pass through (translucent) and which don’t (opaque). You can also play with window prisms, and see how the different colors of light are reflected on the floor when the sun hits them.
Tadpoles and Butterflies
This is a favorite of early learning schools, but it can also be done at home. Observing a caterpillar building a cocoon, or a tadpole metamorphosing into a frog, is an incredible experience for a child. Provide a camera for your child to take lots of photos he or she can observe later.
As your child becomes an avid scientist, he or she will satisfy their curiosity and discover learning is a fun adventure. This will give you plenty of new topics to talk about. Once you see your child blossom through science and develop their ability to think, you will be glad you put up with a few messes here and there.
Natacha V. Beim is an early years and parenting expert, a writer, a speaker, a teacher, and the founder of the renowned CEFA Early Learning Schools (www.cefa.ca). You can reach her at www.natachabeim.com