First grade is full of academic challenges. There is a big push for 1st graders to master reading basics, as well as addition and subtraction. As a result, rather than spend daily time on science, most first grade teachers take less frequent, but more in-depth looks at topics that especially appeal to 6 year olds. They strive to capture 1st graders' natural curiosity about topics such as weather, animals, and insects. They fit science into their packed curriculums by integrating it with language arts and mathematics, and by using fun-filled science units as a way of rewarding and motivating kids.
 
Focus on the Senses
Integrated Learning
Putting It Together
 
Focus on the Senses
As in kindergarten, your child still learns best through hands-on activities, and science is a natural for sensory exploration. The best 1st grade science programs are those that involve several of your child's senses. Allowing children to touch, smell, and see an abstract concept brings it home in a way that just hearing about it cannot. Hands-on experimentation also makes science lessons easier to grasp, more lasting, and, equally important, more fun.
 
Kay Langstaff, a 1st grade teacher at Sirrine Elementary School in Mesa, Arizona, begins her science curriculum with an exploration of the five senses. "I think it's an important place to start," she says. "The five senses are how kids find out about their environment. They help kids understand the world and develop concepts." She starts with sight, and lets her students mix materials like paint and play dough to create colors. "There's a lot of excitement," she says. "The children think they're the first to discover that mixing yellow and blue makes green." In a unit on taste, kids explore that sense with a tasting party where each child brings a different item - dill pickle, lemon, cheese, salty crackers, spicy candy - cut into 20 pieces for sharing.
 
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Integrated Learning
Your child will probably learn about science while she's also studying language arts, social studies and reading. "Good science teachers have figured out how to use science as a springboard to other disciplines," says Gerald Wheeler, Ph.D., executive director of the National Science Teachers' Association in Arlington, Virginia. "There is a lot more integrating going on today, especially for elementary teachers who have so much to cover during the year."
 
For example, 1st graders at Sirrine Elementary read nonfiction books to complement their science units. In the spring, they watch the metamorphoses of frogs and butterflies in the classroom while reading nonfiction books about the life cycles of these creatures. "When kids read a book it just goes in and comes out; it's just flat pictures," says Langstaff. "But if they see it too, they can tie it into what they're reading. Experiencing the science also helps with reading comprehension. It works both ways."
 
Sometime during first grade, your child may also begin writing in a science notebook. Though at the beginning of the year he may not be capable of much more than copying information supplied by the teacher, eventually he will be able to formulate his own thoughts and observations and put them on paper. This is great for training young minds to think scientifically — and it gives kids another opportunity to practice writing.
 
Students at Sirrine integrate math into their scientific exploration of the weather. They create graphs — an area where math and science go hand-in-hand — delineating the number of sunny, cloudy, and rainy days in a month. They learn to read thermometers, which reinforces skip-counting, since degree markers are usually by every two degrees. Once the children are adept at reading temperatures, they measure the temperature of ice water, and then very warm water. They experiment with mixing the two together after predicting what the approximate temperature will be. Another fun way they use thermometers is to wrap some in black paper and others in white paper and leave them outside on a sunny day. The kids discover that the temperature is much higher for the thermometers wrapped in black, since dark colors absorb heat while light colors reflect it. Later in the year, the children at the Arizona-based school make real-world use of that knowledge by dressing in white for their field trip into the desert.
 
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Putting It Together
By year's end, your first grader may have made so many academic strides that she can complete assignments that incorporate science, math, and writing skills. At Sirrine, after a trip to observe desert life, 1st graders make up their own math word problems. One child wrote, "There were eight kangaroo rats under a Palo Verde tree. A coyote ate five of them. How many were left?" Your child's brain is firing on all cylinders when she can create the words for a problem in her mind and write them down, using scientific and math facts, all in one exercise.
 
Despite all the academic goals in first grade, children this age still need to play. Science, taught in a fun, hands-on way, provides a perfect opportunity to reward children for completing pencil and paper tasks and to break up the less exciting, but necessary work of other subject areas. You can tap into your child's passion for science by showing an interest in what he's learning and allowing him to pursue some of his scientific interests at home. Sharing his enthusiasm will encourage and promote the learning of your budding scientist.

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