Day 4: Approaching science with young children

In my short time working with children, I’ve noticed that children have a greater capacity for understanding and enjoying science than is currently being explored. That is not to say that we should focus more on science by taking away from the other areas that are being taught in school, or make additional time for science. Kids already spend sufficient time in school and need that space and time to learn math, reading, social skills, discipline, and further their emotional and cognitive development. I am merely stating that I noticed that young children do not receive specialized science instruction in school, although they have demonstrated that they can understand and enjoy learning about complex scientific ideas. This is an issue that I hope to develop further. Hopefully, after many years of working with children, I might up with some ideas to succesfully explore this potential.

Some facts that I have observed in young (ages 5-10) children are:

#1. Kids enjoy story-telling.  They show the same interest when you tell the story of “Rapunzel” and the story of how the Earth goes through periodic ice ages because of the Milankovitch cycles (i.e., how the Earth’s orbit around the sun flattens out sometimes, or how the angle of its tilt changes, bringing polar regions farther away from sunlight). Non-fiction can be just as fascinating as fiction. Most scientific concepts can be transformed into stories – just start with a question such as “Why did the Earth have an Ice Age?” or “Why am I allergic to cats?” and build a story around it, with real-life examples, weird/interesting facts, and allusions to the kids’ reality, which leads to my next point:

620px-milankovitchcycles

Source: Universe Today

#2. Kids can understand complex scientific notions if you structure it the right way. Start by using what the child already knows. If they have a cat, ask them if they remember how the cat licks itself the whole time. Ask them if they know what ‘protein’ is, and if they don’t, don’t be afraid to tell them that it’s a bunch of ‘atoms’, which is something they might have seen in a cartoon (is Jimmy Neutron still alive?!) and essentially invisible. From there, you can explain that people that are allergic to cats are actually allergic to the protein in the cat’s saliva that is spread all over its fur. By linking new information to what a kid already knows, you’re making the learning process easier (which is Vygotsky for my teacher friends).

#3. Kids don’t forget what you tell them. I can’t stress this enough. Please don’t assume that teaching children complex ideas isn’t worth it because they will just forget it. Just because you don’t remember most of your memories from when you were a child doesn’t mean that a child’s memory works like a seive. Even if a child can’t recall exact information, he/she still used brain power, exercised their mental abilities to learn something new, and what they did learn will be a stepping stone to learning more advanced concepts later on. They might only recall vaguely that Ice Ages are related to the way the Earth orbits the Sun. That’s ok, because when they learn about the Earth’s orbit around the sun in Physics class in high school, they will remember that the orbit is elliptical, not a perfect circle. Kids also remember a surprising amount in their short-term memory, which brings me to:

#4. Have a lot of weird and fun facts on hand that can be explained in two minutes or less. If you get the ball rolling with kids, they’re going to ask you for more and remind you of what they learned last week or even months ago. Even if you don’t have lesson plans rolling off the tip of your tongue, you can have a list of handy fun facts that can accomodate to the shortest attention spans. Some ideas are:

  • How is snow formed?
  • How is a planet formed?
  • Why is my hair a different color than yours?
  • What is a rainbow?
  • How does a volcano work?
  • What is Model Magic made of? (just kidding – this really is a mystery. I couldn’t even find it on Crayola’s website…)

*UPDATE*: A friend of mine came up with a much cooler list of science questions. I’ve listed them below to record them and maybe answer them one day in another post. They are:

  • Why is the sky blue, and the sun yellow? (and why is it white seen from space ?)
  • Why isn’t there pink in the rainbow?
  • How do I see/smell/feel things?
  • What is electricity?
  • Why don’t animals have wheels?
  • Why do we sweat?
  • Why are people floating into space?
  • How does a TV work?
  • Where does the wind come from?
  • Why do the lights shut off on a plane while landing?
  • What is loop quantuum gravity and strings theory? (My friend suggested this one as a joke, but you never know if you could inspire the next physicist!)

#5. This applies to other subjects.  For example, “Why did the Portuguese royal family flee to Brazil?”, “How come the order of multiplication doesn’t matter?” or “What does this long word mean and how can we use it an a sentence or a story?” Children are curious and want to find out how the world works. We should cultivate that instead of directing them to easier activities or giving them easier problems that won’t stimulate their learning capacities.

In sum: Don’t be afraid to bring up complex ideas or hard words in a conversation with a child. Ask them hard questions (why does a ball drop, but a balloon floats?) and give them time to think about it (and answers!). Don’t, please don’t, ever underestimate their thinking capabilities. Whatever you think of them today will influence who they become tomorrow.

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