Helping Your Child Learn Science: The Basics

— U.S. Department of Education
Updated on Dec 16, 2008

What Is Science? 

Science is not just a collection of facts. Of course, facts are an important part of science: Water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit (or 0 degrees Celsius), and the earth moves around the sun. But science is much, much more. Science involves:

  • Observing what's happening;
  • Classifying or organizing information;
  • Predicting what will happen;
  • Testing predictions under controlled conditions to see if they are correct; and
  • Drawing conclusions.

Science involves trial and error - trying, failing and trying again. Science doesn't provide all the answers. It requires us to be skeptical so that our scientific "conclusions" can be modified or changed altogether as we make new discoveries.

Children Have Their Own "Scientific Concepts"

Very young children can come up with many interesting explanations to make sense of the world around them. When asked about the shape of the earth, for example, some will explain that the earth has to be flat because, if it were round like a ball, people and things would fall off it. Presented with a globe and told that this is the true shape of the earth, these children may adapt their explanation by saying that the earth is hollow and that people live on flat ground inside it.

Even older children can come up with unique "scientific" explanations, as in the following examples provided by middle-school students:

"Fossils are bones that animals are through wearing."

"Some people can tell what time it is by looking at the sun, but I've never been able to make out the numbers."

"Gravity is stronger on the earth than on the moon because here on earth we have a bigger mess."

"A blizzard is when it snows sideways."

Asking Questions

As mentioned earlier, it's important to encourage your child to ask questions. It's also important to ask your child questions that will get him talking about his ideas and to listen carefully to his answers. Keep in mind that children's experiences help them form their ideas - ideas that may, or may not, match current scientific interpretations. Help your child to look at things in new ways. For instance, in regard to the blizzard, you could ask, "Have you ever seen it snow sideways?" or "What do you think causes it to snow sideways sometimes?"

Such conversation can be an important form of inquiry or learning. Encourage your child by letting him know that it's OK to make mistakes or admit he doesn't know something. Rather than saying, "No, that's wrong," when he gives an incorrect explanation, give him accurate information or help him to find it. Going back to the blizzard, you could ask your child, "How could you check your definition?" "How does the dictionary's definition of "blizzard" fit with what you said about snow moving sideways?"

Knowing that you are willing to listen will help your child to gain confidence in his own thinking and encourage his interest in science. And listening to what he says will help him to figure out what he knows and how he knows it.

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