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The Parent Show

Nurturing (Scientifically) Inquiring Minds

POSTED ON 05/06/11

For those of us haunted by the ghosts of science fairs past, the thought of encouraging our kids to become young scientists can be a bit daunting —especially if it means coming up against a seemingly endless series of really tough “why” questions. After all, how do you explain why wind blows, or waves crash, or tornadoes spin to a preschooler? But as astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson tells Angela in this week’s Parent Show, it’s OK for parents to not to have all the answers. What’s most important is fostering the questions.

Peggy Ashbrook, the author of Science is Simple: Over 250 Activities for Preschoolers, agrees. “Parents should never feel like they have to know the answer,” says Ashbrook. Instead, we should focus on giving our kids a “pallette of experiences” that will allow them to appreciate the science of the everyday world. This could be anything from stomping in puddles and examining the texture of snow to looking at leaves up close and watching ants bring food back to their colony.

Whether they are in the kitchen, on the playground, riding in a car or exploring the neighborhood, Ashrbrook says the key is engaging your kids’ natural curiosity: “Kids [should] feel like it’s their job to wonder about things, “ says Ashbrook.

So how can parents foster (scientifically) inquiring minds? Here are a few tips.

Encourage questions.
Answering a barrage of questions gets old fast, but keep in mind that this is your child’s way of engaging with you – and the universe. If there’s a specific question that you’re not able to answer on the spot, you can always look up the answer with your child the next time you are on the Internet or visiting a library.  And remember, sometimes “why” is just as easy way for a kid to say, “keep talking. I want to hear more about that.”

Ask a few questions of your own. Part of being a scientist is predicting what will happen in the future—and you don’t have to be experiencing the natural world to get started. Next time you’re reading a book with your child, ask him to guess about what a character will do on the next page. (This only works for a book you haven’t read a hundred times already!)

Create a toolbox for scientific discovery.
When it comes to observing the natural world, you don’t need much, though a magnifying glass and a piece of paper for notes or sketches can be handy. Ashbrook also likes droppers or turkey basters, both of which allow tiny hands to manipulate small amounts of water and (as a bonus) can be used to teach kids about pushes and pulls.

Be flexible about what your kids observe.  You take your kids outside to show them the full moon, but instead they wind up looking at the moths circling your neighbor’s porch light. While this might not have been the lesson you envisioned, it’s time to adapt. “You have to be flexible to take advantage of [what your kids] notice,” says Ashbrook. After all, part of science is observing things that may or may not be important (see also, the discovery of Penicillin).

Try these at-home science activities.
There are an infinite number of fun science activities and experiments to test out at home. Here are four our favorites.

1.    Create “alive” and “not alive” collages. Talk to your child about the difference between living things (people, animals, plants) and nonliving things (rocks, water, soil). Then hand her a stack of magazines and a pair of safety scissors and have her create a collage for each category.

2.     Observe the differences between water and ice by filling a water balloon with water then putting it in the freezer to see what happens.

3.    Have your kids draw with crayons on aluminum foil, then put the foil on a banquet-style hot plate and see what happens. (Hint: It’s melty!) Next, create art by putting a piece of paper on the foil.

4.    Put a few drops of food coloring into a glass of water, then stick a piece of celery into the water and see how long it takes for the celery to change color.

Girl with magnifying glass

  • OKDad

    Start with something tangible that your child will like.  Kids like balloons and bright things.  They like volcanoes and rocket launches (show them 3 minute videos on YouTube).  They like action (pour vinegar over baking soda and let it overflow out of a small cup).  They like using their senses (let them smell all of your spices, or a burnt match).  All of these things can be great starting points for science lessons (vinegar and baking soda fizz because of chemistry, or if you want to be an astronaut you need to be strong and good at math).  

    Kids want to learn.

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