Saturday, September 16, 2006

Science with young children

Baking Soda and Vinegar


“What’s that?”

“What happened?”

“Why, why, why, why, why?”

Sound familiar? Young children are natural scientists, curious and eager to explore the world around them. They want to know the names of things, what will happen next, and why, why, why.

Preschool-aged children are at an exciting age for science exploration! It’s easy, it’s fun, and mom and dad don’t have to know the table of elements, the parts of the cell, or taxonomic identification. (Although those are fun things to know.) You just have to know that in early childhood, science is about finding patterns and figuring out the world. Observing, predicting, experimenting, and forming conclusions come naturally to young children. Drop a spoon on the floor and it falls. Every time! Watch the leaves change in the fall as the weather cools and bud in the spring as the weather warms up again. Mix water and dirt—mud! See a squirrel bury nuts, or watch a spider spin a web. Baking bread is science. Going for a walk to look for leaves is science. Pouring water into different sizes of containers in the tub is science. Counting the legs on a spider and then counting the legs on an ant—science.

As parents, we can explore right along with our budding young scientists by asking open-ended questions like “Where did the spoon go?”~ “How do you think the fly got caught in the web?” ~ “What do you think will happen next?” ~ “What might happen if?” Open-ended questions help children to form their own conclusions and shape their abilities to form hypotheses and make predictions. In addition to questioning we can facilitate learning by offering language to talk about what they see—sharing the names of things, or offering simple explanations like “The spider’s web is sticky.”

Simple science experiments allow young children to explore new ideas and they fill a rainy afternoon. Experiment with experiments. Follow the directions to see what happens, and allow children to play around with the materials. Put safe materials on a cookie tray and let them have at it, who knows what they'll discover. Don’t worry if an experiment doesn’t turn out the way it “should”. At this age it’s the process that’s important, not just the end result!

As we question and explore with our children we learn new things too. Their interests and excitement can be contagious. Before children, I never imagined that one day I’d be fascinated by earthworms-- did you know they have tiny bristles?-- or know several facts about each of the planets in our solar system. (Alas, poor Pluto. Our family is in mourning.) Encourage your children to follow their interests by providing more information on topics they find fascinating. Check out books from the library, find pictures on the Internet, or talk to someone you know who’s got more information. A magnifying glass, some yogurt cups, spoons, and kitchen supplies can get you on your way to some great experiments. Have fun!

Check out these books:

Mudpies to Magnets and More Mudpies to Magnets (Williams, Rockwell, & Sherwood)

Bubbles, Rainbows and Worms by Sam Ed Brown

For more information on science with young children:

Help Your Child Explore Science

Fun experiments

TRY ME! (Three simple experiments you can do with stuff in your kitchen)




Bowl, spoon

Put several spoonfuls of cornstarch into a bowl. Slowly pour water into the cornstarch a little at a time, mixing with your hands. until the cornstarch is no longer powdery. What did it feel like? Did it change as you added more water? Is the glop different when you squeeze it in your hands than it is when you let go?

(At a certain consistency the glop should make a solid when squeezed, and a thick liquid that will flow between your fingers when you stop squeezing. Try it! This is a little messy, but it’s easy to clean up.)

Swirling Milk


Glass pie pan or similar clear flat-bottom container

Dish soap

Food color

Pour some milk into the pie pan (about 1” deep). Drop in some drops of dish soap and some food color. Watch. What happens? What if you use a clear drinking glass instead of a pan? Does anything change?

(The color should swirl around in the milk. If they are a little sluggish try adding a few more drops of dish soap.)

Yeast Experiments


Warm water



Three small bowls or cups

Put some warm water into three separate cups or small bowls. Sprinkle yeast over the warm water in each bowl and stir gently. To the first bowl add a little honey, to the second a little sugar, and to the third add nothing. You may want to label each bowl. Wait a few minutes and compare. What happened? (The bowl with the sugar should be the foamiest; the one with no sweetener the least.) Try the experiment again—what happens if you try three bowls with a lot of sugar, a little bit of sugar, no sugar?

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