My husband is a scientist, and I have a deep appreciation for the topic, especially nature studies. Science is a priority in our home. Part of our vision statement for children between ages 18 months and 5 years old includes science: “Science: observations, experiments, nature studies, exposure to laws of nature and general science”.
Many curriculum for this age group would list getting to know the animals around us as important for this year of life, such as classifying or naming farm animals, zoo animals, jungle animals, and things in the ocean… you get the picture. You probably did this in their 1st, 2nd, and 3rd year of life. But as kids are becoming 4 years old, as they are ready, also develop the skill of scientific thinking and smart observations. I mean, really, how interesting is it to moo like a cow for 3 years? Kids get bored. Feed their hungry and curious brains more. Let me take you beyond naming and classifying animals.
In school, you may have felt punished by the miscalculation of equations in your chemistry lab, which is really a math struggle not a science struggle, and missed the point – not praising you for ‘scientific thinking’ would be the failure of the teacher. While part of science is absolutely the correct calculation of figures for accurate observations and conclusions, what matters is your understanding of the logical flow of thought:
- I notice something
- I have a question about it that stems from my curiosity
- I imagine what answers may apply, whether from deductive or inductive reasoning
- I test my answers one by one to see what’s the most accurate
- I look at the outcomes and draw conclusions about what I saw
- I form an opinion, and tell someone about what I discovered
- I start over again with a new observation and question
You can hone your math skills as you go along. That is the simple version of the scientific method.
We aim for 1 experiment a week, and we practice observing nature almost as often as we are outside. There is a Science Experiment template I created for my kids – you can download them here:
There are a few tools we enjoy, though none of them are perfect or whole. I recommend you pick up a simple ‘experiments book’ if you have trouble thinking of experiments on your own. Here’s one we got for free: Gizmos & Gadgets: Creating Science Contraptions That Work (& Knowing Why) (Williamson Kids Can!). It’s actually way too advanced for a 4 year old. We just explain the concepts in a way he can understand them, and we help him with the experiments.
There’s also a class on Coursera, a website and app with free online learning, called Tinkering, where “activities provide a powerful way to inspire students’ interest, engagement, and understanding in science”. This class is where science meets engineering. Micah’s father is going to help him go through this class. It will take several months to half a year to complete, versus the allotted 6 weeks the course instructor recommended. This is fine. We remember more by doing a deep dive, versus just skimming the surface. This kind of mastery is a great habit to get into… the fact that when we learn, we learn for comprehension, memory and application, not only memory alone.
We do nature studies. You can download a free nature journal curriculum here. Of course, this too, is too advanced for a 4 year old. I simplify it by using the curriculum as a prompting tool for myself, to find questions to ask Micah while we are out together. Today, we went to Tinker Park, and I helped him notice things along the way. We allowed plenty of time to stop and ‘smell the roses’, if you will. We looked at the clouds and thought about what shapes reminded us of, such as an upside down dog, a sheep, and a bear. We found a swallow’s nest and watched the mother feed the babies. We found lily pads and flowers, frogs and bumble bees. There’s so much to take in, really. We talked about how God made seeds in different ways to be transported by air, in animal fur, or to be eaten and ‘deposited’ (haha) somewhere else. There are times we will look up more about what we find when we get home. For example, when we went to Corbett Glen Park, we found some critters, so I printed up some information which we read about during nap/ quiet time:
- Dragonfly “Damselfly” – https://eyeonnature.wordpress.com/2012/06/14/winged-jewels/
- Also, it was a millipede, not a centipede: http://lancaster.unl.edu/pest/resources/CentipedeMillipede012.shtml
When you’re studying animals, it’s fun to classify them into their kingdoms, learn where they live, try to make a model with clay or other media, listen to them, act like them, learn how they communicate, watch them, see what they eat, care for them, feel them if you can, learn about their life cycle and how they care for their young, compare and contrast with animals you already know about, measure out how far they can jump and try to jump the same distance, or make a life-size paper animal and paste it on your wall to see how your own body size compares. One great way to learn about animals is to get a pet, but seriously consider if you have the time, space, money and love to really give them a good life. If you’re not sure, maybe you have a friend who will ‘lend’ you their pet for a day or a week. We always discuss the animal’s purpose in the grand scheme of life, and that God created each one.
I have this journal composition book I love, with space for pictures at the top, and writing at the bottom. Every couple months I go back and see what Micah’s ready to draw and say, and we add to the book. I always date the pages and make notes around his drawings, pointing to things he said he drew so when we look later, we know what he was drawing.
We discuss the laws of nature, like gravity and inertia, friction and tension, kinetic and potential energy, plus magnetism and hydrophobic or hydrophilic principles. Some of these words are too big, but by repeated exposure, he understands what they mean.
We love our local planetarium, and science museums. We go often and spend time in just a few areas, really learning more versus less, before moving on. Of course, I only do any one thing to his capacity for attention.
We also find things to put under a microscope. We found a dead fly in our house this week. Ewe. But we put it under the scope, and it was fascinating. Then we compared the fly’s compound eye to our regular eye, and looked at some videos of how flies see, versus how we see. We learned they perceive things at a much faster rate than we do. This is also why older adults think time flies faster as you age. Pardon the pun.
We have a telescope, so we look at the night sky when it’s clear outside. We make constellations out of food and toothpicks, and love the ‘Skymap’ app. We read about the planets, and look at pictures about galaxies, discussing why and how God worked to create all of this around us. We made a constellation model using a drill, an old coffee can, and a flashlight.
We discuss the water cycle when it rains, and how storms form. We watch things fall, and see what sinks and floats. We have an anatomy app, called VisAnatomy, so he’s learning the names of muscles, organs, and bones, as well as parts of the brain, and more. He has a chemistry rug, so he is becoming familiar with names of elements too. My philosophy on this, is to be familiar with the sounds of the words, and when and where they apply, so later, it doesn’t feel like a foreign language, which was part of my own challenge with learning chemistry.
We enjoy these sites:
- The Plant Encyclopedia
- National Geographic’s Animal Site
- Cornell’s Ornithology Lab
- A science experiment website, called Science Kids
- Random searches online, that lead to things like this, about volcanoes – the same week we erupted volcanoes in our kitchen and got a reference guide book all about volcanoes. We did a deep dive.
“Science” can overwhelm you and feel stuffy. Don’t let it. What I’m trying to do by explaining how we do science in our home, is just to show you how simple it can be. Let your child’s eyes lead the way as much as you can. Be curious beside them, and help them research and learn about what they find. Use your library’s World Book Encyclopedias, and just explore a little each week with as much outdoors time as you can handle. Talk your child through scientific thinking. “What do you observe?” “Why do you think that happens?” “Let’s read a little about it.” “Has your opinion changed at all, do you still think…?” “How can we test that thought?” “What happens if we do this…?” “What did you notice?”
So there you have it. That’s how science happens in our house, as experientially as possible. This free-flowing approach is probably considered a mix between ‘unschooling’ and unit studies.