Three Ways to Help Your Kids Enjoy Science Over the Summer (Without Being a Scientist)

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1. Stop and watch the worms.

Toddlers drive me a little crazy, because what I really want is to get everyone from the house to the car, with all our stuff, NOW, and not be late. Toddlers, on the other hand, go slower the more you rush them, and the later you are, the more likely there will be a fascinating worm on the sidewalk.

Sadly, this urge to watch worms is the heart of all scientific discovery. If I really want my beloved children to develop the intellectual virtues of curiosity and observation, I have to let them practice observing and being curious. Argh.

This goes for older children and us too. We older ones may need more encouragement to stop and observe the world around us, but on the flip side, we can make deeper observations and stronger connections to what they have learned. Did you know that ferns uncurl in the spring? I’d heard of it, but I saw some this year for the first time. They were amazing.

The other day we were at the playground and noticed a single mushroom had sprouted from the wood mulch. It was a strange one, mostly white with just a little brown, and its cap had grown completely crooked so it looked almost like part of the stem. I called over my kids and their friends, and they all gathered around and observed this marvel.

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2. Ask intelligent questions.

Let your kids Help them observe more deeply. What color is it? Have we seen this kind before? How many legs/branches/whatever does it have? What happens if you poke it with a stick (gently)? Whenever I start to worry that science is a Big and Serious Thing, I remember those researchers who wondered if penguins slept more soundly during the day or night and experimented by sneaking up on them and poking them with sticks.

If you’re having trouble thinking of questions, or if you want your older children to practice classical rhetoric, the “common topics” are a great starting point. You can ask questions about what a thing is. You can ask what it’s like. You can ask questions about its circumstances: why now? Why like this? You can ask about its relationship to and differences from other things. And then, when you’ve exhausted your own knowledge, you can ask what others have said about the thing and go Google it. There, that’s classical rhetoric.

Consider buying new summer notebooks for everybody and store them in the car or the back patio, wherever you will use them. At my house, all our school notebooks are all scribbled over and my girls have resorted to swiping printer paper for their crafting needs. Keep a fresh notebook handy and use it to doodle your discoveries.

My goal is to spark curiosity and observation on my kids’ part, not to tell them everything, because they will remember what they discover for themselves.

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3. Get double-duty from your for-fun books.

I’ve started paying attention to the illustrations in what we read. Some illustrators draw generic “flowers,” but others draw specific flowers, with careful attention to blossom count and leaf shape. Some draw pond plants, and others draw cattails and pussy willows. I love to use well-done book illustrations to reinforce our outdoor sciences. “What kind of flower is the mouse hiding by? That’s right, a daffodil. It must be spring in the picture.” That sort of thing. The habit of observation and reasoning even in areas that aren’t “science” will serve them well.

We also love to check out biographies of scientists and inventors, both men and women. They expand your kids’ imaginations as to what can be. We own a handful of “100 Greatest Scientists” and “Great Women Scientists” books, and they’re great. I do usually skip the mandatory paragraph about how mean everybody was to the great woman; my girls take it for granted that of course they could be world-class scientists or doctors or whatever, so we don’t need that at this point. Do what works for your family.

Happy summer, everybody!

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Photo Credit: All photos courtesy of Carolyn Bales

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