I am astounded by the number of upper elementary and even junior high kids who are taught scientific concepts and reactions without seeing, touching, hearing, smelling, and generally observing the physical materials or doing the experiments.
This can happen in grade five chemistry, as some of my students have confessed. (I work with students of all ages from a multitude of schools and several school systems and districts.) Sadly, this reality is on the increase. Students are being asked to learn science without adequate hands-on experience.
At school, they are taught theory—read, written, and spoken—and tested on what a chemical versus physical reaction is, for example, when they are unfamiliar with the materials themselves and their properties.
In a world where kids spend increasingly less time at home with parents and have less playtime with crafts, sensory materials, and free outdoor play, they go to school with fewer physical-world experiences than ever before.
Preschoolers may not have spent adequate time in the bath (supervised, of course) playing with containers and testing the physical properties of water. Some preschoolers and elementary children may not have observed a cake being made or seen oil floating on top of water. Some kids have not run around in the woods, made mud pies, or mixed silt, sand, and rocks with water. They’ve never had enough uninterrupted down time (or have grown too bored) to watch a water spider skip across a pond and wonder how it can stay on top—a concept later linked to surface tension of water.
Educators and curriculum developers—and parents—need to be aware of this.
We cannot assume that all kids have experience with certain substances or concepts through childhood experimentation or observation. We cannot teach science without letting them see on a physical, tangible level—that is, through experimentation—the materials and reactions we are discussing.
Schools teach a great deal of abstract and theory, but if kids have nothing to attach it to, how can they understand? How can they enjoy it? How can they care?
Below are some suggestions for play that help children become familiar with basic concepts about their physical world. Through play, they develop skills they will need in the future, priming for concepts they will study at school.
Preschool and elementary
- Water play (gravity, properties of water, buoyancy)
- Goopy things (texture, viscosity)
- Cornstarch and water (Cornstarch is weird. One day, they will understand why, when they study molecular structure, but that understanding is helped by relating back to the way the substance behaves.)
- Gluing and cutting skills (manual dexterity, accuracy, creativity)
- Sand play (more useful with containers and water)
- Climbing (coordination, muscle development, learning about themselves and the physical world, characteristics of things)
- Blocks and building structures; can even use 2L milk cartons (spatial development, creativity)
- If you bake or cook, give them safe things to touch and help with
- Play with magnets
- Play with a compass and maps
- Grow a plant in a pot
Elementary science – elementary ways to understand life
Below is a list of safe materials for basic scientific experimentation that parents can do at home with their children.
These safe science experiments help kids relate to the physical world and discover properties of materials—priming for higher level science at school:
- Mix vinegar and baking soda (liquid + white powder –> bubbles, gas, chemical change)
- Fry an egg (structural change in protein, chemical change)
- Dissolve sugar/salt in water What happens when you keep adding sugar/salt? What happens when you heat the water? (solubility and saturation)
- Mix oil and water versus vinegar and water (viscosity, miscibility, density)
- Place a large object in a dish of water. What happens to the water level? Push a floating object down into the water. What happens? (buoyancy, displacement)
- Test small items for “sink or float”
- Mix cornstarch and water (molecular structure, viscosity)
- Food dye: drop in water and leave still (diffusion) versus drop in water and stir
- Coffee filter: filter sand from water; filter sugar and water solution; allow water to evaporate from sugar solution in a shallow dish (filtration, methods of separation, evaporation, physical change)
- Grow a seed in a jar with damp paper and in a pot with soil (growth, requirements of plants)
- Place a plant in light and a plant in darkness (chlorophyll, chlorosis)
- Place a tea bag in cold water versus hot water; stir versus don’t stir (rates)
- Make tea and add lemon. What happens to the colour? Add milk. What happens? (milk curdles in acid)
- Dissolve an eggshell in vinegar (solubility, properties of acids)
- Vinegar test on red cabbage (acids and bases, indicators)
- Follow a recipe. Advanced: convert the recipe to make fewer or more servings (conversions, equivalency)
Kids used to have more free time and access to the outdoors than they do today. They don’t know the things that we often took for granted, or the things educators might think they know. Schools are trying to build a house (teach curriculum) without a foundation (the knowledge of the physical world). So educators’ efforts crumble, and kids are left discouraged.
We need to understand the physical world we live in–which means understanding sciences on a fundamental level—in order to make choices that benefit our lives. All career paths should require this, especially those of decision makers.
Scientific concepts aren’t for the sake of theory. The understanding of them—hence of the physical world around us—is needed in many matters of the world today.
As parents, we can help kids understand science by giving them simple, real-world, tangible experiences that will help them to understand their curriculum better when the time comes.
A few important concepts for understanding math, literature, and passage of time
- Teach time, and play with an analogue (non-digital) clock (picturing time)
- Discuss and count days, weeks, and months on a physical calendar. Add the child’s events and help to count days (enables a child as young as four to independently track and visualize passage of time)
- Talk about day/night and the seasons
- Read and discuss with the child (Vocabulary, events, the problem or goal, the “wh” questions: who, what, when, where, why, and how. Primes for comprehension, critical thinking, verbalizing feedback, retelling/summarizing, sequencing events in time. Develops empathy and understanding of people and situations)
- Ask the child to retell a movie, identify characters, comment on it, etc. (some of the same benefits as above)
- Janet Lee Hamilton is a teacher/educator with 40 years of experience, a portion of it international (Japan, Norway, Sweden, Whales). She received two Teacher of Excellence Awards. Ms. Hamilton is an ATA (Alberta Teaching Association) facilitator as well as a mentor for public schools and two universities. Her focus is development in the early years. In this interview, Ms. Hamilton discusses the ultimate learning platform for children as she discusses the Project Approach.
- “When will I ever need this in real life?” (how school subjects apply to life)
- Playing Music — A Full Workout for the Brain (how music develops all parts of the brain, enhancing learning, executive function, and problem-solving)
- Pt. 1: Writing for Meaning, Reading for Comprehension
- Pt. 2: Reading Comp Approaches for Teachers — How to Bring Back the Enjoyment of Reading
- Pt. 3: Reading, Curriculum, and Relevance