Opportunities to investigate physical, life and earth science are everywhere. You don’t have to live on a farm or visit a zoo to see living things. Looking carefully can reveal a variety of insects, mammals, birds and plants in almost every yard or park. How many different kinds of flowering plants or leaves can we see? What evidence do we find that tells us animals have been here? Seasonal changes in plants and vegetation can be documented through drawings in a notebook or through a cell phone’s camera.
Breezes: We know that children at these ages are all about using their senses and building basic vocabulary. As you walk or sit in a park, describe whatever evidence you have of the effects of the wind with statements like “Look how the tree’s branches are moving in the wind!” or “I see your hair blowing—is mine?” You can also work with your child to create your own “wind” by blowing on a dandelion flower that’s gone to seed or a pinwheel you’ve brought along for the occasion.
Plant textures: Build the language of texture and other physical properties by looking at, feeling and smelling a variety of plants—being certain to stay away from poison ivy, oak, and sumac if they grow in your area! Pine needles and pine cones have rough, pointy, prickly surfaces. Tree bark can also be rough, but the bark of some trees is very smooth. Many leaves are soft on one side and rougher on another, and each smells different too. Spend as much time as possible describing all of these sights, smells and textures!
Bubbles: Everyone loves bubbles—but what does this fact have to do with science in the backyard or park? First of all, making bubbles indoors can be messy, so making them outdoors means easier cleanup. It also means you can watch the effects of the wind as you follow the bubbles through the air. As you or your child blow the bubbles, wonder aloud about their path and speed by making comments such as, “I wonder where these bubbles will go?”, “Look at how quickly the bubbles float toward the tree!” Maybe you and your child can try the Bubble Stuff activity from Curious George.
What can we find?: There are very interesting little critters—worms, centipedes, ants, pill bugs (aka sow bugs or “roly-polies”) under rocks, leaves, pieces of wood and in rotting logs. Look around with your child for likely places to find these animals; once you’ve located some, pay some attention to how they move or their various body parts. The important science ideas here are about structures and needs of these living things, not just identifying them by name. So, wondering aloud with statements like “I wonder how that bug’s shell helps it,” or “I wonder what the ant finds to eat here” helps your child to think more about these big ideas.
Digging: A hand trowel, rigid plastic shovel, or even a plastic spoon all can be used to dig. And besides being fun, digging can tell us about the kind of soil and rocks in a given location. Digging can also help us find things that live under the surface. Find your child a spot where the soil is not too compact, where others won’t mind if there’s a hole and begin with a challenge like, “I wonder how easy it will be to dig a small hole right here?” or “I wonder what we’ll find when we dig.” Sid the Science Kid’s Dirt Detectives activity fits right in with this exploration!
Trees: Trees come in many shapes and sizes, they have very interesting life cycles, and they serve as habitats for other living things like insects, squirrels and birds. Find a tree that is small enough for you and your child to investigate up close. Begin to look for evidence of other living things (“I wonder if we can find signs that another living creature has been here recently?”) If you do find some evidence, such as parts of a leaf that appear to have been eaten, or holes that might be someone’s home, suggest that you try to look more carefully to find the animal that might be responsible. These kinds of observations provide evidence that a tree, while a living organism in its own regard, also can serve as another living thing’s habitat. Visit the same tree a number of times over the course of a year to make note of the changes it goes through—use a camera to document these changes.
What’s in a circle? Use a hula hoop or a tied piece of string to create a similar-size circle, and place it on any field, yard or park. Challenge your child to look carefully at the ground inside that circle to see what evidence of living things she can find. Encourage her to look carefully at the various plants, and imagine what the world looks like from the perspective of a very small animal such as an ant. A hand lens will help this process along. Just the presence of the boundary can help keep children’s focus inside the circle. This activity can help your child recognize the diversity of living things in even a small space.
Field guides: Whatever you do outdoors, try to remember to have a field guide along. The field guide can help you name many of the living things you run across, but the name itself is not very important in science. More important, the field guide can provide other information about this living thing, such as habitat, average size, etc. Once your child has some familiarity with what a field guide can offer, encourage him to create his own about a nearby space. What kinds of living things are there? What information might you provide to help someone using the field guide? Your child can draw pictures of some of the living things or take photos; this can be a very rewarding science writing exercise.
Follow a plant or animal’s growth and development: As children grow more capable of careful observation over time, they can observe and record the growth of a plant or animal. This is possible any time of year, but more rapid change in plants is observable a week or two after a seed has been planted or during the springtime in most of the U.S., when bulbs begin to emerge and bushes and trees get new growth. Give your child a magnifying glass and a small notebook to record the plant’s changes in words, drawings and photos. Although plants are generally easier to follow, your child might want to follow an insect such as a caterpillar which often stays in a very close proximity to its food source. As it grows, munching on leaves, your child can note its change in size and stage from caterpillar (larva) to pupa, to adult. Here’s a related activity, Growing Plants, from Sid the Science Kid.
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