Science matters. It matters to society, whose progress depends on curious researchers of all kinds. It matters to schools, which struggle to get their students' test scores up to par. And it matters to your kids in their everyday lives. Science is what helps young people transform confusion into understanding by revealing patterns behind the way things work. Here are three simple ways to help children begin that transformation.
Foster your natural scientist
You don't have to force your child to think like a scientist. In fact, you'd have to work pretty hard to shut down a child's natural scientific instincts, since the human brain is hardwired to ask questions and make connections. Tsivia Cohen, Director of Family Learning Initiatives at the Chicago Children's Museum, explains that "children naturally use a form of scientific process from the time they're babies, constantly forming and testing hypotheses about how the world works."
How can you support this instinct? Cohen says the single most helpful thing parents can do to help children practice habits of scientific thinking is to pay attention to the questions that naturally puzzle or intrigue them. Then, help children solve these mysteries. "If children are asking a question," she says, "they are going to have a genuine interest in exploring the answer. Challenge them to test any hypotheses they may have. Ask them what would happen if they changed just one thing. Do the experimenting together."
Take children's questions about the world seriously. Invest the time and effort it takes to help them make discoveries. A child who wants to know how plants "drink" when they don't have mouths isn't being cute--he's trying to use what he knows about human bodies to figure out a different kind of physical system. Offer him a few cut flowers, some food coloring, and a little guidance (go to Teach Science While Smelling the Flowers for more information). Soon he'll be able to answer his own question.
Don't just learn science - use it
A basic grasp of scientific facts can help children solve a surprising variety of everyday problems. For instance, understanding the concept of friction is useful to any young basketball player who's about to buy a new pair of shoes (basketball courts have smooth surfaces, so look for shoes that have rough or textured soles to provide a better grip).
Adopting a scientific approach can be useful even when children haven't yet learned the specific principles that affect their situation. A child who complains about falling asleep after recess could conduct a week-long experiment in which she chooses different foods each day and makes notes about how much energy she has afterwards. She may not be familiar with how the body breaks down carbohydrates, proteins and fat, but she'll certainly be able to tell that a huge bowl of pasta is more snooze-inducing than a turkey sandwich on whole-wheat bread. Whenever you can, encourage your children to use both scientific knowledge and scientific methods to solve everyday dilemmas.
Put science on your bookshelf
You might not think of science books as telling stories. But the best books about science are anything but dry collections of impenetrable facts. They're compelling narratives that reveal the personalities and processes behind scientific discoveries.
Donna M. Jackson is a children's author who has written about everything from bugs to bones (her book about how forensic anthropologists use bones to solve crimes was listed as an Outstanding Science Trade Book for Children by the National Science Teacher's Association). Jackson says "stories are a great way to communicate information, because they're easy to understand and remember. When you use stories...you create a virtual reality that makes the information come alive." In her books, Jackson tries to "walk readers through the scientists' experience," helping kids "share their ideas, their passions, their exploits, their disappointments."
As you choose science books, look for those that take readers on a journey of scientific discovery. Your family might not be able to study the behavior of hammerhead sharks off the coast of Costa Rica, but a beautifully photographed book about a marine biologist who does is the next best thing. Check out these great resources to help you put science on your bookshelf: