by Lee Falin, PhD
As readers of my blog know, my wife and I homeschool our 5 children. While we've taken a rather traditional approach to teaching mathematics in what you might call a sequential order, we've found that approach isn't very effective in teaching science. Over the years we've refined our tactics, until we developed a sort of pattern that works well for our family. And while every child is different in their interests and in the way they learn, I wanted to share some of our experiences with you in the form of Quick and Dirty Tips for teaching science at home.
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Unlike other educational methodologies you might read about, I don't have any double-blind controlled tests which measure test score changes resulting from the application of these methods. While those types of metrics have their place, our measure of success for teaching science to our children is whether or not they develop a love for learning science.
Tip #1: Be Prepared
While we occasionally plan things in advance, our preferred method is to wait until one of the kids have either experienced something new or wait until they come to us with a question on their own. Since we're far from knowing everything, as any of my children would happily attest, we find it useful to have a large supply of reference material which spans different age levels.
When we moved to the UK this year, one of the things my older daughters were most excited about was being able to see new kinds of plants and animals. They are big backyard naturalists, so they were quite happy when we acquired several field guides to various forms of wildlife. Some days, they'll spend hours identifying wildflowers in the yard or waiting for new birds to land on their homemade bird feeder, just so they can look them up in the books.
Tip #2: Don't be Afraid to Use "Old Media"
There's a lot to be gained by using videos, animations, and even computer games to teach science. However, plain old books with pictures that don't move around have several advantages as well.
One of our favorite activities in the evening is to gather the family, have everyone choose a book, and listen while my wife or I read out loud to them. Don't assume that the younger kids won't be interested in the books the older kids choose, or that the older kids already know everything in those "little kid" books. Often the best parts of this experience for us aren't the reading material itself, but the conversations and discussions that ensue from the reading. Have you ever tried to have a conversation while watching a movie? It somehow doesn't seem to work as well.
Tip #3: Seize the Moment
When my youngest daughter crashed on her bike for the first time and acquired a small cut on her thumb she was startled by how much blood came out of that little cut. Later that night, long after she was bandaged up, one of my older kids chose a book from one of my favorite series for teaching science, The Magic School Bus. In this particular book, the bus full of science-learning students shrinks down and enters a fellow student's body. After touring his digestive system for a while, they end up in his blood stream where they encounter red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets.
One of the things we learned was that one drop of blood has about 5 million red blood cells in it. So my older daughter told her sister that she must have lost almost a billion blood cells that day in her bike wreck. My oldest son looked at me and asked, "What happens if you lose all of your blood cells?" I told him that if that happened, you'd die. He shot a concerned look at my daughter and I quickly added, "But your body is always making new ones to replace ones you've lost." I had to suppress a laugh at his obvious sigh of relief.
Tip #4: Vary Your Tactics
That same night we read that the way your throat swallows food isn't by gravity, but through muscles contracting in your esophagus which push the food down. The book pointed out that this is why you could swallow upside down. Of course everyone was keen to try that out, so we set the book aside, cut up some apple slices and took turns standing on our heads while trying to swallow. After everyone had a turn the kids were eager to get back to the book to see if it contained any other crazy ideas.
Tip #5: Don't Force Learning
You can't force kids to learn. You can lecture them, read to them, preach to them, show them videos and simulations, but if they aren't interested or ready to learn, you're just wasting everyone's time.
Sometimes when we're doing something, some of the younger kids disengage and wander off. Usually it's while we're discussing a topic in more detail for the benefit of the older kids. But as soon as we're doing something that looks interesting to them again (especially if food is involved), or when they're ready to learn more, they always come back.
Tip #6: Don't Pay Too Much Attention to this List
As I mentioned earlier, every child is different. You might have some children in your care that like listening to hour-long lectures on the finer details of photosynthesis, can't stand hands-on experiments, and are repulsed by books. If so, you should ignore everything on this list and do those things instead. This is really just a collection of things that work for my own children.
Also, keep in mind that children change over the years. Kids who previously only enjoyed hands-on experiments might suddenly develop an interest in extensive reading or observing nature.
An important thing we've learned throughout our years of homeschooling is that that you should never label your children. Think of it this way: If all his life Johnny’s heard nothing but "Johnny doesn't enjoy reading as much as Susie," what is the likelihood that he will ever learn to enjoy reading as much as Susie?
Do you have your own tips for teaching science to children? If so, please share them in the comments below or on Twitter with the hashtag #EEScience4Kids.
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