by Kenneth J. Stein, Ph.D.
Some time ago, we taught our 10-year-old daughter how nature recycles water through the water cycle. I explained to her that this means all water, even that which you exhale through your nose. A big breakthrough came the other day when it was raining. She asked me if some of the rain that was falling could have been the water used by John the Baptist when he baptized Jesus. In addition, she wanted to know if some of it came from the parting of the Red Sea. I told her that in both of these cases, we couldn’t prove it, but that there was a very remote possibility. I thought, great, this is learning at its best! That is, she extended and applied knowledge in a way that I hadn’t considered.
You can also teach science in the kitchen by baking bread or making pancakes. Discuss the importance of agriculture and how wheat has been an important dietary staple throughout history. Teach that the yeast reacts with sugars in the flour to produce carbon dioxide. Baking powder releases carbon dioxide by a chemical reaction involving baking soda. The carbon dioxide becomes trapped within the dough or batter, causing it to rise. Use this time to discuss the “Bread of Life.”
Gardening is a great way to discover the life cycle of plants. It requires a bit of work to prepare and fertilize the ground. You can use this time to discuss how nutrition is important to plants. Next comes planting the seeds, which is always a lot of fun. Within a few short weeks, the children will see tiny plants rise above the ground. Then, in mid-summer they will feel a sense of accomplishment when they pick the ripe vegetables. Gardening doesn’t have to be complicated. If you don’t have the space or the right conditions, you can grow a few plants, such as tomatoes or beans, in pots.
If you like to fish or hunt, then these activities can also serve as a science class. I take our daughters fishing but most of their time is spent playing with my leeches and crayfish baits, or overturning rocks along the riverbank. They mostly look for crawling things and make mudcakes. I teach them about the different kinds of insects, salamanders, and so on. When we return home, filleting fish becomes a class on fish anatomy. The other neighborhood girls say that, “it’s gross,” but our daughters don’t seem to mind. However, they aren’t quite ready to clean a fish—just yet.
Birdfeeders are very popular today. Consider placing these in highly visible areas, such as near dining room windows. Is it possible to see the birds while you’re eating breakfast or dinner? Keep binoculars and a field guide handy. Can your children learn to identify birds by their songs? Besides birdwatching, see if they can learn about behaviors and interactions with other birds. Perhaps they can describe these in a daily journal.
Butterfly watching has become another means of entertainment. Nurseries sell certain flowers and shrubs that are highly attractive to butterflies and moths. These can provide the opportunity for your children to learn about butterflies in your neighborhood. How many different species can they identify? What can they learn about their behaviors? It requires much patience to watch and take notes, but can be quite rewarding.
Every so often, you may find a bird or rabbit nest in your yard. These provide the chance to see how parents care for their young. Any such discovery should be accompanied by a trip to the library to check out the references that describe the biology of these animals. If you keep a reasonable distance from their nests, then they become comfortable with their surroundings and may continue to use your property for nesting, year after year.
Once in a while you may find other oddities around your home, such as swarms of bees and wasp nests. About two years ago, a queen hornet chose our garage as the location to build her nest. I conducted research on wasps and bees for over fifteen years, so this was my turf. We decided to allow the hornet nest to stay where it was. I kept saying to myself, this probably isn’t a great idea, but knew enough not to disturb them and keep the children away from it. (Of course, if it ever became a problem, then we would have to destroy it.) Every time the automatic garage door opened, the door moved upward and ripped open the back of the nest. The nest came alive for a few minutes with hornets buzzing and flying all over. Eventually, they became accustomed to this and would quickly seal the hole. During the times when the nest was torn open, I would hold my daughters up high on my shoulders and have them peer into the back of the nest. They could see the queen and workers tending their larvae. Bees are perhaps not the safest subject of study, but it’s very easy to find interesting things around you.
Sometimes one small gift opens up a new frontier for science exploration. I received a very large magnifying glass from my grandmother when I was in first grade. I looked at anything I could find outside: leaves, ants, grass, and bits and pieces of paper. In second grade, I received a microscope as a Christmas present. I still remember my enthusiasm and excitement of looking at the assortment of slides that came with the set. I liked making my own slides too, from table salt or colored sugar sprinkles that came from my Mom’s kitchen.
Perhaps the best Christmas present that I received was a chemistry set. I was in 5th grade and could spend hours conducting all sorts of experiments. Even though it came with many detailed experiments, I ended up going to the library to find ones that took me beyond those in the set. If a child seems to have a science vocation, then you need to find things to help keep it going.
Teaching science does not require any special magic, just a little bit of creativity. Find activities in your daily life and relate these to science or your Faith. I’ve listed a few examples, but there are countless others. Everything has a story to tell and it often requires some research to discover the story. Make sure that your children participate in these investigations. They will have fun and see firsthand, that the purpose of science is to learn about the natural world—His Creation.
Header Image CC ToniVC