Engaging children in learning the sciences need not be a tedious task or challenging chore. One doesn’t have to hold a special degree or own a large laboratory. It can be as easy as a walk in the park, and the ‘laboratory’ can be just about anywhere, from the kitchen table to the classroom, and dozens of places in between. There are several ways to introduce children to the various sciences that are fun and exciting, both for the teacher and the student. Not only can the right project or activity engage children who are new to science, they are suitable for the students that shy away from the sciences, as well. By making activities interesting and entertaining children may be thoroughly enthralled, and they have so much fun they hardly realize they’re learning!
Scientific disciplines, commonly referred to as ‘the sciences’, can be grouped into the two main categories of natural and social sciences. Natural sciences focus on phenomena of nature and include biology, physics, chemistry, and earth science. The other branch of scientific discipline, or social sciences, primarily studies societies and human behavior. Children, particularly those aged three to nine, are kinetic learners. They learn most effectively by using their senses and participating. For this reason, engaging children of this age group in the natural sciences is typically the most ideal introduction to science and is the easiest place to begin. As interest in natural science builds, gateways are opened to lead children into study of the social sciences.
Grow a ‘magic’ beanstalk. With a Styrofoam cup, potting soil, and bean seeds, the classic tale of “Jack and the Beanstalk” can come to life for small children. They can plant the seeds in a cup filled with soil and nurture them as the plants sprout and grow. The fairytale element can spark a child’s interest and imagination, encouraging them to pay close attention to every step in the growing process while they wait for that sky-high beanstalk. The beans won’t grow as tall as Jack’s, but children will learn the rewards of gardening, as well as some biology basics, such as what plants need to survive. It’s a perfect introduction to botany for young children. It opens the door to a whole set of lessons in biology that can include changes in nature each season, the growing cycle of flowers, and the life cycle of plant pollinators, such as butterflies.
Some other engaging ways for children to study living things and biology is through studying animals in their natural environment or a constructed habitat. Ant farms or terrariums give children an up-close look at the social structures and behaviors of certain creatures. A local pond or stream might offer a first-hand study of a frog’s life cycle, from egg to tadpole to the adult frog that lays eggs and restarts the cycle. Setting up a habitat for birds can give children the chance to study their life cycles and habits. For those with access to a microscope, a small amount of water from a pond or stream can be a fascinating demonstration of how organisms multiply. A sliver of onion skin gives children a good look at cells, introducing them to the building blocks of all living things.
Become a mad scientist. Introducing chemistry with an exciting demonstration can catch and hold a child’s attention, and often makes them want to learn more so they can do it themselves. The baking soda and vinegar volcano project is a classic example. Children find the simulated ‘eruption’ so entertaining it’s easy to slip in the scientific details of acids and bases, and how one reacts to the other. Coca Cola and Mentos breath mints are another dynamic combination that provides a similar result. For a tasty demonstration of transforming a liquid to a solid, have students make their own Popsicles from juice using ice-cube trays and Popsicle sticks. Looking for another edible chemical reaction experiment? Make Jello! Be aware of the high probability of messes with these activities, and always use safety equipment and caution when mixing ingredients or working with heat and kitchen utensils.
Who knew that the playground could teach children some of the basic laws of physics? Using common playground games and equipment is a fun and engaging way to help children learn science concepts. Isaac Newton’s scientific laws of motion and gravity are something most children are already familiar with, and they don’t even know it. A game of kickball is an example of Newton’s first law of motion. An object at rest stays at rest, and an object in motion will continue its motion in a straight line, at the same speed, unless an outside force acts on it. The ball remains still until it is kicked, and only stops or changes direction when another player, terrain, or the eventual force of gravity interferes. The merry-go-round is one way to demonstrate Newton’s second law of motion, showing children that the mass of an object determines how much force is needed to affect it. The teeter-totter, swing set, and tug-of-war games can be used to demonstrate Newton’s action/reaction third law of motion.
Getting children engaged and interested in science is easy. Chances are, the activities they are already involved in can be built upon and incorporated into lessons that teach some basic scientific principles. Children are naturally inquisitive and playful. Base science lessons on those characteristics. By coming up with fun activities that involve their senses and are hands-on, children will not only be engaged in learning the sciences, they will be eager to learn more and dig deeper into the subject!