Great Explorations

Easy ways to encourage science learning at home.
By Mary Rivkin, PhD



Great Explorations

One evening as Craig's mother dried him off after a leisurely warm bath, the 4 year old began to draw with his finger on the steamed-up bathroom mirror. "Look, Mom, I made a picture!" he exclaimed, and then he paused for a minute. "How did the mirror get so foggy anyway, Mom?" Sensing a "teachable moment," Craig's mother explained how the steam came from the hot bath water. "The steam is really tiny droplets of water that hit the cold mirror. It's called condensation," she said. "Oh," said Craig. "Condensation is fun!"
Even if you're not a science whiz, in your child's eyes you have a lot of credibility in this area. By seeing your everyday surroundings — both indoors and outdoors — as a place of learning, you can introduce science concepts and an important way of thinking. When you encourage your child to observe what's around him, connect new information with what he already knows, evaluate what he has learned, and communicate his newfound knowledge, you're fostering the critical-thinking skills essential to success in school — and life.
You can keep your child's interest in science active by being curious about everything yourself. If you're walking along a stream, for instance, pick up a rock and talk about it. "Wow, look how shiny this rock is. Why do you think it's so shiny?" You can then collect a bunch of rocks to take home for sorting, arranging, and counting. The wonderful truth about science is that everything can be looked at, talked about, studied, and made into pleasurable learning experiences for children and adults alike.
Let's Go Outside
Young children are natural explorers, and one of the best laboratories can be found right outside your door — in your backyard or neighborhood. With even the youngest child, you can either point out things that you want her to focus on or simply follow her gaze to share her interest and provide information. A parent who can see the world through her child's eyes makes a great companion and a first-rate guide. And when your child finds something that fascinates her, even if it's a patch of pebbles, a blossom, or a twig, share her enthusiasm.
Try these science-conversation starters for outdoor experiences:

  • Put a name to it. Science experiences are a prime source for learning new vocabulary words. Dandelion, ivy, chickweed, and clover may be new words to children, as are petals, stamens, and pollen. Name aspects of the insect and animal life children find around them. Pigeons, doves, starlings, sparrows, and robins are nearly everywhere. Ants have heads, legs, abdomens, and thoraxes.
  • Observe animal life. Look at and talk about the symmetry of insects' bodies. If you place a piece of paper over one half of an insect, you know the covered half will look the same as the uncovered half; that's one way children can discover symmetry. Observe antennas on insects and feelers on animals. Examine where the eyes are positioned on fish, rabbits, cats, and dogs. Question why some eyes are at the front of an animal's head, while others, such as the eyes of fish and rabbits, are on the sides.
  • Notice the weather. Talking about the weather sensitizes your child to the fact that indoors and outdoors have different temperatures. You can contrast the seasons by joking on a hot day, "Get your snowsuit and boots!" When your child protests that it's summer, it gives you an opportunity to talk about the cycle of the seasons. Encourage your child to appreciate the rain for keeping the world washed off and for helping the plants grow. Check out the clouds. Do they look like rain or puffed elephants or wisps of cotton candy?
  • Ask questions to strengthen thinking skills. Ask, "Should we go to the little park or to the park with the big slide?" This stimulates complex thinking about size and making comparisons. You're implicitly comparing the physical size of both parks and slides, though you're explicitly mentioning the size of only one park and one slide. You can also ask, “Do you want to take your tricycle? If you do, we should go to the little park because there's a steep hill on the way to the big slide.” This type of questioning stimulates a conversation about the rudiments of geography, physics, and technology.
  • Notice cause and effect. When your child has trouble pedaling up an incline, introduce the idea of gravity as a force that makes going uphill hard and going downhill easy. You can also talk about simple machines, like wheels and gears, and explain how these inventions help us extend what our bodies do naturally. For example, wheels enable us to go faster than we can run. On your way to the park, count the number of wheels on cars and buses.
  • Share discoveries and make connections. Take cues from your child and follow her interest. Talk with her about the natural world and what she can learn from it. If your 2-year-old loves to be pushed in the swing, you can say, "high and low, fast then slow." This helps her learn new words and link their meaning to her experiences. If you have a 3 year old who likes to scramble to the top of the slide, suggest that she wait up there a second and take a look around. Ask, “What can you see from up so high?” This will help sharpen her observational skills.

Learning through observation is the first step in scientific discovery. The next step is teaching your child to connect what she has learned with what she already knows. If, for example, she finds a stone that's very rough, ask her what it reminds her of. You might mention the sandpaper in your toolbox, and this will lead naturally to a discussion about how we can change the surface of things. If she feels warm in the summer sun, help her remember other “hot” experiences she has had. Ask her to feel the sidewalk, the slide, and the swings-the sun heats everything. Maybe she'll even think of the oatmeal you heat in the microwave in the morning for her breakfast.
Making connections in this way and talking about what she has "discovered" are essential parts of critical thinking. You're helping your child to take what she knows and use it as a building block to acquire more knowledge. When children observe and make connections, evaluate their theories and ideas, and communicate their discoveries to one another and to you, they are thinking critically. This is a source of great pleasure to them, and also the key to the academic work they'll encounter in years to come. And one of the best ways to deepen your child's passion for science is to hype the excitement factor.
Don't Leave Home Without It
Bring these materials along on your outings to encourage exploration:

  • a measuring kit with ribbons of various lengths, a metal tape measure, and a cloth tape measure pads of paper on clipboards and colored pencils so your child can write or draw his observations
  • a magnifying glass on a cord
  • plastic bags and egg cartons for collections
  • paint chips for matching colors
  • a camera for photographing fascinating finds and your child's reactions

See More: Teachable Moments Videos

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