As summer, with its longer days and less structured schedules, gets under way, keep in mind that learning happens all year long. During summer break, children forget some of what they learned during the school year, making it important to balance summer fun with activities that have an educational twist. As you plan art activities, sign up for the library’s summer reading program and plot your family vacation, leave room for plenty of hands-on family science projects.
According to Dr. Sandra Slutz, Lead Staff Scientist at Science Buddies, “summer is the perfect time to encourage kids to ask ‘why’ as they explore science—not on textbook terms but on their own hands-on terms.” This is important at every age, says Slutz. “‘Why’ is the foundation of science, but even more importantly, asking ‘why’ builds critical and creative thinking skills.” Kristi Calcagno, director of the Open Gate Cooperative Nursery School, agrees and encourages parents to explore hands-on science with their children on a daily basis. “The most important thing that children gain from a hands-on science curriculum is support for their natural curiosity,” says Calcagno. “They explore, question and wonder, and by doing so, learn!”
Integrating science into your daily summer “do” list is a lot easier than you think. Often, the trick is simply to realize that science surrounds us. Almost every activity has a science angle, something small that your children can explore or that you can share. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
There is a limitless supply of fun, easy and readily available (and free!) things to do outdoors that encourage children to compare, observe, explore and experiment. From overturning large rocks after a rainstorm to reveal wiggly earthworms to making gigantic bubbles, warm summer days brim with science potential. Frogs, lizards, butterflies, caterpillars, nests, and ponds all invite observation of habitats and ecosystems. Set up multiple bird feeders, each with different types of seed, and see what happens. On hot days, make rainbows with a sprinkler, tumble ice cream in a coffee can, or create sun prints. In an open space, kites, frisbees, and paper airplanes all use basic principles of flight. One plane flies far, and the other doesn’t? Ask why!
Explore the Kitchen
The kitchen is another easily accessible place that invites all kinds of family science investigations. Baking or cooking with your children reinforces math and reading skills and encourages science questions. What happens when you mix those two ingredients together? Why do you need baking soda in those cookies? How does Jell-O stay together? Do all fruits have the same number of seeds? Food science can be fun, but not all recipes for kitchen science are to eat. Add a bit of food coloring to the water in a vase of white carnations for a colorful example of capillary action or oil, water and Alka-Seltzer for a homemade lava lamp. Mix up batches of silly putty, salt dough, or homemade chalk. Reuse empty glass jars to grow and compare salt- and sugar-based crystals on a string. Seal a slice of bread in another jar and use a microscope to watch what grows over the next few days. Ask why!
Indoors or out, letting your kids grow their own flowers, herbs, or vegetables creates a long-term learning activity that encourages monitoring and observation. Plant seeds in an empty egg carton or grow a houseplant in water from a carrot, pineapple, radish, or last night’s avocado pit. Do all plants need soil? Ask why!
When kids build with blocks, Legos, or tinker-style toys, they can compare structures, think about the relationship between height and stability and investigate what stands and what falls. Assemble a marble-run kit from an assortment of household items, including toilet paper holders, plastic funnels, small train track pieces, cardboard, and lots of tape. If you are at the beach, experiment with sand castle building. Do you need water? Ask why!
Enjoy the Night
Stay up a bit later on a clear summer night and spend time looking at the stars and pointing out constellations. Locate Venus and talk to your kids about the planets. If fireflies are in your area, catching some at twilight in jars (with holes in the lids) is a wonderful way to observe bioluminescence. Some organisms glow. Ask why!
Put science on the calendarThe sprawl of days may seem vast at the beginning of summer, but summer break always unfolds faster than expected. Keep your good intentions on track by penciling “science” in on your family calendar. Dedicate one morning or afternoon a week to science exploration, plan a special trip to a science museum, or make up science-inspired days like “Ooblek Day” and turn them into celebrations.
Think Outside the Box
Don’t let what you remember of “classroom science” be the ruler against which you measure what counts as a meaningful at-home science activity for your children. Your most innovative ideas might turn out to be the most memorable and rewarding moments of the summer. For example, plan a scavenger hunt: hand out a science-inspired list of crazy things to find and turn the kids loose. Scavenger hunts are perfect for the park, beach, camping, or on vacation. Things to seek: feathers, shells, rocks, pine cones, and leaves. Include a ruler and make size part of the requirements, or include a pencil and an index card and make an on-location sketch worth extra points!
Incorporating science activities into your summer benefits your children and your family. For Tina Lanese, Science Buddies Vice President, summer break offers the chance to explore areas of science with her kids without worrying about homework or after-school schedules.
“Summer offers an unparalleled chance to create at-home science learning moments,” says Lanese. “That these activities can also be fun and afford moments of family togetherness is a plus.” No matter what science you explore with your children, be sure to enjoy the moments of “why“!
Try some of the activities and crafts mentioned above: