How to do "science" with children

(this is a rather long post, be warned!)

I am a teacher, both by training and by nature, and I’m always on the look out for good teaching materials and methods.  The past two years, I was a science teacher at a small private school; it was classical with Charlotte Mason influences. Mason was an educator in the early 1900s who offered some counter-cultural ideas about how to educate children. I don’t agree with all that she advocated, but a great deal of it is very good.  I was prompted to write a post after reading Auntie Leila’s post about teaching science at Like Mother, Like Daughter.  I’m not disagreeing, but adding to.

Science is about observation. That’s where science begins, as Auntie Leila stated. The ancients began by noticing what was around them: this shiny yellow stuff is soft, but beautiful and shiny and doesn’t rust like this other stuff here, lets call it gold. We can call the stuff that rusts iron.  But then, they are much alike in their feel and quite different from the cloth I wear.

Science begins with noticing what is the same and what is different, and continues with classifying the things you see. The ancients classified different things by what they were made of… earth, fire, water or air. Aristotle refined these ideas with simple bodies and the elements and created  a system of how they interacted. Other ancient philosophers had some different ideas. As time progressed and future scientists built from the bits that older scientists figured out, science progressed. Mistakes were made, wrong ideas decided on and then challenged and truth sought out (notice that this truth has a lower case “t”).

The vast majority of science is about classification and identification, whether physics** (what is this that causes everything to fall to the ground) or chemistry (what is this that makes the vinegar bubble) or biology (what animal is this). After classification and identification comes questions of “why” and “how”. These are questions you and a child can answer together. As you look at things, come up with a list of questions you can ask.

For example, you (generic you) know that everyone puts up Purple Martin houses in early spring and take them down in late fall. Why not leave them up all year? Why do they need a “house” and not just a single nesting box? What do Purple Martins eat? How big are their babies when they are born?

These questions will hopefully lead you in your quest to discover about Purple Martins, perhaps taking you to some place that raises birds, or cares for birds before releasing or some such.  But, by learning to create these questions, you have become a scientist. Answering the questions makes you a bona fide scientist.

You can embellish on this process as much or as little as you like. You can write a paragraph, draw a picture, create a bulletin board, build a paper mache bird, build a Martin house, build a website dedicated to Purple Martin information or any number of projects that reflect what you’ve learned (kids seem to love showing off what they know anyways).

This is only the beginning, but this beginning will take you, easily, through 6th grade science. The embellishment gets more complicated and involved as the child gets older, but its still the same basic thing.

I love books, and so have some to suggest to help you on this endeavor:

Noeo Science Curriculum — If you are feeling lost and want something concrete that tells you what to do, this site does it. I like the curriculum and made use of it teaching 4th grade (Physics II), 5th grade (Chemistry II) and 6th grade (Biology II) at the school I taught at the past two years. They have it nicely laid out, with curriculum guides, science kits and the books. You can get everything individually, too, which is nice.  The following books are all from this set of curriculum, and these are the books I’m familiar with and taught with.

Usborne Science Encyclopedia — I LOVE this book. Its full of colorful pictures and tons of information. Its overwhelming, so I hear, if you don’t ‘speak science’, but I believe that can be overcome by patiently reading each page with a tiny bit of interest.  Feeling lost? Learn along side your kids, and if you don’t know an answer, say so, and look it up together. This book has sections for biology, chemistry, and physics.
 (Its come to my attention that this book can be very expensive, depending on the version you are looking at. I’ve updated the link above to an older version that is far more reasonable in price. Yes, I love this book, but it’s not worth that much $$.)

Usborne Mysteries and Marvels of Science — This book is focused on the details and side quests of chemistry and physics. Again, colorful pictures (I love books with pictures) and tons of information. My 5th graders learning about quarks and gluons from this book (the bits inside the bits that make up an atom).

Adventures with Atoms and Molecules — A practical chemistry book this is. Its basic experiments and demonstrations to show chemical reactions and physical properties of the basic bits of chemistry, such as air, water, gases, liquids and solids.

Fizz, Bubble, Flash — The most cool book you could want, all about the periodic table. This book walks you through the periodic table, and presents tons of information (I love it when a book has solid info), and fun experiments that any kid in any house could do.

The Mystery of the Periodic Table — This books walks you through the history of chemistry (and science in general, to some extend). It presents the stories of key men (yes, only men) who had an impact in the progression of the discovery of how the periodic table is organized. Its accessible to even a casual reader, but presents questions and experiments that could be replicated (especially the early discoveries). As the book talks about water, you could do experiments with water (see the Adventures book above). When the book is talking about acids and bases, you can do acid and base experiments.

Geology Rocks — All chemicals are from some combination of elements, which all originate in nature some where. By and large, that some where is in the rocks and soil around us. Thus, we turn to geology. This book has very fun experiments (yes, the key to a good science book) and good info (the key to a good book).

Gizmos and Gadgets — Physics is phun! So many a physicists would say. I, on the other hand, never understood physics till I was teaching it to 4th graders. Between the Science Encyclopedia (see above), the Mysteries and Marvels book (see above) and this book, I actually understand the concepts of force, work, energy, friction, inertia and a slew of other basic physics ideas. If you give your child the chance to learn these ideas (with out any math, please!), you have given them a HUGE step into the physics of high school and beyond. Just learn the ideas, do the experiments in this book, and have fun. You might end up with a budding physicist!

I hope this helps some one figure out what to do for science, because science is the most awesome of possible subjects.

**A famous physicist (whose name I don’t know) said “There’s physics. All the rest is stamp collecting.” He points quite directly the overwhelming aspect of identification and classification in much of “science”.


  1. So, this doesn't really have anything to do with your subject, but have you put up a house for Purple Martins? I wanted to do so a couple years ago, but was discouraged by the price of the houses and the unsuitability of our property for a house.

  2. AWESOME POST!!!!! THANK YOU! 🙂 We love Usborne books as well, and have a number of them. I'm going to check out the ones you recommended right away. Another resource I like for physics is from the Critical Thinking Co. – a book called Hands On Physical Science, Developing Critical Thinking Through Science. It is for upper elementary ages… Oh – and I agree completely about not having math in Physics right away – so smart not to overwhelm before the concepts are understood. thank you for the recommendations – I truly appreciate it – especially coming from a teacher. 🙂

  3. Pingback: General Science & Other Thoughts « So Says Me

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