You taught your child the alphabet song and how to count on his fingers. You sang songs before starting piano lessons and bought water wings when it was time to learn to swim. But the space shuttle doesn’t come with training wheels, so how do you teach a budding astronaut to blast off? Odds are, your child isn’t headed for Space Camp, but even if she never makes it to the moon, she’ll benefit from the problem-solving skills, teamwork, math and scientific reasoning required by our astronaut at home activities.

Got pool?

The closest junior astronauts get to weightlessness? Water. In fact, the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center is stocked with a water tank for real astronauts to train in. This activity works with either one child or a group, but everyone must be able to hold his or her breath and swim. You’ll need: a plastic construction set (or, for individuals, a Rubik’s cube), curtain weights or plastic rolls of pennies and duct tape, and a pool.

Almost any type of construction toy can be adapted for this activity; just make sure it’s waterproof. Tape the weights to the connectors (or tie a weighted string around the Rubik’s cube.) Set everything by the side of the pool, check the time, and tell the kids to assemble the kit as fast as possible – underwater. They’ll not only have to work against weightlessness, they’ll also have to work together – something astronauts on missions do every day.

Be the Robot

When astronauts see an interesting specimen floating by, they don’t grab it with bare hands and haul it back to earth. Safety is the name of the game when it comes to specimen collecting, but collecting is also a great way to hone observational skills. For this activity, you’ll need a shoebox, an exacto knife, a few objects to be observed, a chopstick, a rubber glove, and a notebook for recording observations.

Cut a fist-sized hole in one end of the box, add an object, and tape the lid closed. Give the box to your child and ask them to ascertain as much as they can without peeking or reaching in. How heavy is the object? What does it sound like when it moves? Is there a smell? Have them write all their observations in the notebook and create a hypothesis. (“I think this is a rock.”) Then let them use the chopstick to poke the object through the hole, like a space robot, and ask them to revise their hypothesis. (“It’s squishy, so I think it may actually be clay.”) Repeat with a gloved hand. And finally, remove the lid to see how accurate their four senses were.

Go Mnemonic

Mnemonic devices help people remember. When it comes to remembering the planets (in order of their distance from the sun), try the classic “My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas!” (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and the recently demoted dwarf planet Pluto.)

And if all of this only sparks your child’s enthusiasm, Space Camp offers a 3-day program for parents and children aged 7-12. Fasten your seatbelts…it’s going to be an educational ride.