Making Science Easy To Learn
What Is Science?
Science is not just a collection of facts. Of course, facts are an important part of science: Water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit (or 0 degrees Celsius), and the earth moves around the sun. But science is much, much more. Science involves:
• Observing what’s happening;
• Classifying or organizing information;
• Predicting what will happen;
• Testing predictions under controlled conditions to see if they are correct; and
• Drawing conclusions.
Science involves trial and error—trying, failing and trying again. Science doesn’t 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 “Scientific Concepts”
Very young children can come up with many interesting explanations to make sense of the world around them. When asked about the shape of the earth, for example, some will explain that the earth has to be flat because, if it were round like a ball, people and things would fall off it. Presented with a globe and told that this is the true shape of the earth, these children may adapt their explanation by saying that the earth is hollow and that people live on flat ground inside it.
Even older children can come up with unique “scientific” explanations, as in the following examples provided by middle-school students:
“Fossils are bones that animals are through wearing.”
“Some people can tell what time it is by looking at the sun, but I’ve 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.”
As mentioned earlier, it’s important to encourage your child to ask questions. It’s also important to ask your child questions that will get him talking about his ideas and to listen carefully to his answers. Keep in mind that children’s experiences help them form their ideas—ideas that may, or may not, match current scientific interpretations. Help your child to look at things in new ways. For instance, in regard to the blizzard, you could ask, “Have you ever seen it snow sideways?” or “What do you think causes it to snow sideways sometimes?”
Such conversation can be an important form of inquiry or learning. Encourage your child by letting him know that it’s OK to make mistakes or admit he doesn’t know something. Rather than saying, “No, that’s wrong,” when he gives an incorrect explanation, give him accurate information or help him to find it. Going back to the blizzard, you could ask your child, “How could you check your definition?” “How does the dictionary’s definition of “blizzard” fit with what you said about snow moving sideways?”
Knowing that you are willing to listen will help your child to gain confidence in his own thinking and encourage his interest in science. And listening to what he says will help him to figure out what he knows and how he knows it.
Hands-On Works Well
Investigating and experimenting are great ways for children to learn science and increase their understanding of scientific ideas. Hands-on science can also help children think critically and gain confidence in their own ability to solve problems. Young children especially are engaged by things they can touch, manipulate and change; and by situations that allow them to figure out what happens—in short, events and puzzles that they can investigate, which is at the very heart of scientific study. While hands-on science works well, it can also 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 children just a little about many different subjects. Although children can’t possibly learn everything about science, they do need and will want to learn many facts. 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 will respond differently to science activities. 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, children whose interests vary greatly can find plenty of science activities that are fun. If your son loves to cook, let him observe how tea changes color when lemon is added or how vinegar curdles milk.
Knowing your child is the best way to find suitable activities for him. Here are some tips:
• Encourage activities that are neither too hard nor too easy for your child. If in doubt, err on the easy side, because something too difficult may give him the idea that science itself is too hard. Adults often assume that children need spectacular demonstrations to learn science, but this isn’t true.
• Consider your child’s personality and social habits. Some projects are best done alone, others in a group; some require help, others require little or no adult supervision. Solitary activities may bore some children, while group projects may not appeal to others.
• Select activities that are appropriate for where you live. Clearly, a brightly lighted city isn’t the best place for stargazing.
• Allow your child to help select the activities. If you don’t know whether she 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.
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