Science in home education

Science is the study of the world around us. In essence, it’s that simple, no matter how daunting it seems when considering science in home education. As parents, part of our task is to help our children to understand the world. When we think about science in home education, we can take it a step at a time, learning alongside them.

Children naturally ask scientific questions

Biology looks at living things; chemistry looks at the elements and how they combine; physics looks at forces and the rules which the universe obeys.  A young child is usually an eager scientist. Toddlers are full of questions about why birds fly, why the microwave makes things hot, why the stars only come out at night… and many more questions. These can often leave the parent in despair, unable to answer even half of them!

Sometimes such a question doesn’t really need a full explanation. So it’s important for parents to see what the child really means by a question.  ‘Why?’ can simply mean ‘I want to know more about this topic’. A trip to the library to find a relevant book can satisfy the need to know more.

Usborne publish a wonderful selection of science books for all ages. If your local bookshop stocks them, it is worthwhile spending some time browsing to find books at the right age and interest level for your child. Alternatively you can search the various online bookshops, new and second-hand, for suitable books.

For children who prefer a more hands-on approach, the KiwiCo company offers a wide range of excellent projects in several categories. They are sent out monthly, by age and (in part) depending on the child’s interests. The price might seem a little daunting, but the quality is excellent; each project comes with a book with detailed explanations, all parts necessary to complete the project, and ideas for taking it further.

From their earliest years you can help your children to understand what is happening in your garden or local parks. So you can talk about the seasons. Point out buds and blossom, or new plants poking through the ground in spring.  Talk about leaves changing colour in Autumn.  If you can, plant some seeds and watch their growth over the months. Help your children to be in awe of the wonder of nature (and of God’s creation for Christian families). You can also help them see that there are patterns to the seasons, and that by observation we can learn what to expect in many situations.

Starting to think like a scientist

Thinking like a scientist at the most basic level involves making suggestions, and then testing out ideas to see if they hold true.  If not, a scientist re-formulates the initial suggestion (or hypothesis) and re-tests. This is a valuable principle to teach children from the time they can sit up and try things out for themselves. You can help them to think along these lines by posing theoretical questions: Will the water in this cup fit into that jar?  Will the seeds grow if we don’t give them any water? What will happen if we leave the chocolate in the sun?

Rather than telling your children what to expect, encourage them to make an intelligent guess. Then they can find out what happens when they try it.  You can explain the principle of a ‘control’ by example. For instance, put one piece of chocolate in the sun and one in the shade, to compare what happens.  A more complex experiment can be set up by having some seeds growing in different environments: some with water but no sun, some with sun but no water, some with neither and some with both.

Demonstrations vs experiments

Sometimes it’s fun to demonstrate what happens under certain circumstances: making a volcano by putting bicarbonate of soda into a plastic bottle and then quickly pouring in vinegar mixed with red food colouring makes a dramatic and messy demonstration (do this outside or in the bath!). But it is not an experiment as such, because no hypothesis has been made. If, having demonstrated this, your child wonders if the same would happen with other substances, then he can make experiments. Perhaps he could substitute lemon juice for vinegar, or flour for bicarbonate of soda, and observe which pairs react and which don’t.

If your children ask ‘What would happen if….?’ then see if there is any way in which they can set up an experiment to discover the answer. This is usually better than simply telling them – assuming it would not be dangerous! If it is dangerous, or totally impractical, see if you can find a book or website which explains or demonstrates what would happen and why. You can find some science-related web-sites listed at my science resources page.

For more specific ideas and resources, see: