As kids grow and explore, they’re sure to become curious about weather and to notice melting snow, warming air, and other signs of the changing seasons. For a young child, the gradual shift from one season to another can be a difficult concept to grasp. But it’s the perfect way to introduce a variety of scientific concepts while having fun along the way.
Experiencing seasons with your child should be an exploration, not an explicit science lesson. “I think parents get a little worried about their own knowledge in science,” says Kimberly Brenneman, assistant research professor at Rutgers University with the National Institute on Early Education Research. “Don’t let fear stop you from exploring.”
The science of seasons includes lots of observation, outdoor exploration, and flat-out fun—for parents and kids alike. Get started with these 10 ideas from Brenneman and San Francisco Exploratorium teacher in residence Marilyn Austin.
- Keep a Science Journal. Once a week or once a month, go outside with your child and draw what you see. Focus on things that are tangible: the leaves on the trees, people’s clothing, jobs that people are doing (raking leaves, shoveling snow), animals and plants. The process of recording will strengthen his observation skills. Another journal option: focus on recording what happens to one deciduous tree in your backyard or on your street.
- Take a Sensory Walk. Walk around your neighborhood, or travel to a nearby park or forest preserve. As you walk, stop and watch, listen, smell, touch, and even taste. As you explore, expand your child’s vocabulary by asking questions. Is the temperature cold or freezing? Hot or boiling? Does the air taste fresh or damp? Do you feel rain, hail, or mist?
- Taste the Seasons. Once each season, go to a local farmer’s market and choose only fruits and vegetables that are in season. What kind of foods can you eat in each season? Which season is the most delicious? Make a recipe book, complete with photos of the food you made, to document your tasty year.
- Celebrate Firsts. On your family calendar, mark the day when your child has to wear a sweater because it’s getting colder, or the first day of summer when she can wear her bathing suit. Mark the first day it's hot enough to eat ice cream outside, and the first day she really enjoys hot cocoa. By the end of the year, your child will have calendar full of firsts!
- Seasonable Fashion. Introduce the idea of temperature by recording what your child wears alongside the temperature. Once a week during a changing season, such as from winter to spring, record the temperature and what he’s wearing. Then talk about the trend you see. As the temperature got higher, how did his clothing change? As the season changes from summer to fall, you can repeat the activity and talk about what happens to our clothing as the temperature drops.
- Study Sunlight. As days get longer, says Brenneman, kids should discuss why we protect ourselves from the sun. On a sunny afternoon, put a piece of colored paper in direct sunlight, and another piece under a cover. After a few hours, look at both pieces and discuss what happened.
- Create a Weather Tracker. Buy a calendar that you can dedicate to tracking weather. Each day, draw the weather on the calendar. Let your child come up with symbols for sunny, rainy, cloudy, snowy, and other types of weather (misty, foggy). At the end of each month, count the number of sunny, rainy, or cloudy days. Talk about what kind of weather you see during each season.
- Bulb Study. In October or early November, choose a flower, like tulips, that will bloom in early spring. Take one bulb apart so your child can observe the little roots and the beginning of a flower’s stem. Plant the rest in your backyard. Record what happens through winter and into spring.
- Animal Spotting. Use binoculars to watch animals as the seasons change. Watch squirrels getting ready for winter by carrying acorns into trees. Observe birds migrating south. Or watch birds building nests in springtime. Books like Bear Snores On by Karma Wilson, Hibernation Station by Michelle Meadows, and Home for a Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown will help start a conversation about what animals do in different seasons.
- Leaf Walk. During fall, collect different kinds of leaves and sort them by how they feel, or their color or shape. Austin recommends making a poster board with different shapes so kids can match leaves with ovals, circles, squares, and triangles.
As you move through your child’s first experiences with seasons, don’t worry about explaining the scientific explanations. Instead, focus on the tangible observations. “Science,” says Brenneman, “is as simple as taking a walk around your neighborhood and helping kids extend their curiosity.”