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Science for Tots

By Melissa Morgan
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #65, 2005.

Teaching science to your preschoolers and getting everyone else involved at the same time.
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Melissa Morgan

My mom affectionately called me a "question box," when I was a child. I didn't understand what she meant until I raised kids of my own. Their curious minds thought up an inexhaustible supply of questions, such as "Are birds cold?" and "Where do animals sleep?"

I began to realize that tots need adults to help them put their questions into words, using who, what, when, where, how and of course the ever popular, why?

Parents need patience more than pennies when it comes to preschool science. Young children live in a world of movement and sensation. They love things they can see, taste, touch, hear, and smell. They'll learn about science in the bathroom when they learn to be clean and in the kitchen when they help you bake a cake. All they really need is you, to help them learn what to call things in the house, in the yard, at the store, and all around the neighborhood.

Name That Thing

Supply your child with science vocabulary, starting with words to describe parts of the human body, animals, trees, plants and foods, weather, seasons, and everything else in your child's world. Help your preschooler comprehend and use verbs and adjectives to describe the world, ask questions, identify cause and effect, and follow simple directions and explanations. Talk about quantity, texture, size, shapes, and colors of things.

Spark Interest with Trips

Take a free field trip to the pet store, animal shelter, or a friend's house who has farm animals or pets. Consider buying a reciprocal zoo membership and visit zoos and aquariums all over the country for the price of one.

Instead of just going to the doctor, dentist, pharmacy, or any outside errand, make it educational. Whenever possible, and where adults have time to accommodate you, encourage your youngster to ask questions. How do you get to be a dentist, doctor, or pharmacist? What do you need to know about? What happens if you never brush your teeth?

Look It Up!

Once you get your preschooler interested in a topic, find a book about it. For instance, if your child had fun at the dentist, look in an encyclopedia after the trip and talk about teeth. Find library books about dentists and about teeth.

Look for older literature and nature sets at garage sales and thrift shops. Start a core library of simple reference and guide books about animals, plants, and nature, to help answer difficult questions. Recent editions of CD-ROM encyclopedias (only a few years old) come cheap at second-hand computer and book stores.

You don't need textbooks to teach preschool science. Snuggle up together at bedtime with a science-oriented fiction book, such as The Berenstain Bears Four Seasons by Stan and Jan Berenstain. Before bed or naps, books can be a relaxing way to take turns labeling animals and objects in alphabet and word books.

Visit the library often to find more resources and explore your budding scientist's interests. At our local library, we found dozens of science activity books, such as Bubbles, Rainbows, and Worms: Science Experiments for Preschool Children by Sam Ed Brown; GIANT Encyclopedia of Science Activities for Children 3 to 6, Kathy Charner, Editor; Totline Book's Four Seasons Science by Jean Warren; Bugs to Bunnies: Hands-on Animal Science Activities for Young Children by Kenn Goin, Eleanor Ripp, and Kathleen Nastasi Solomon. PHS columnist Janice VanCleave has written a wide variety of science activity books for preschoolers, and don't forget the books and kits from Jane Hoffman, the Backyard Scientist!

Also explore preschool science ideas, such as how you and your child can make butter, through information on web sites such as www.universalpreschool.com.

Be Prepared for Adventure

Keep handy supplies in your car or backpack. Carry plastic bags (for messy treasures like rocks and shells), dollar store bug nets, empty film canisters (for small specimens), field guides (for identifying plants and animals), binoculars, magnets, and magnifiers. Find places - such as a garage cabinet, a bathroom shelf, your child's window sill or dresser - for sorting and displaying collections.

Science Seasons in Your Children's World

For everything there is a season. Try a long-term science project with your child. Spring is the time for growing plants and watching animal babies. Hunt for bird nests and baby bunnies. Visit nature centers at metropolitan parks. Plant gourd seeds in the spring, dry them, and carve them into bird feeders for the winter.

Summer nights offer the chance to capture your child's imagination with a magnifying glass, and a few lightening bugs (also known as fireflies). As long as they have air holes, insects won't know the difference between an expensive bug habitat and an empty peanut butter jar.

Make pictures from leaf rubbings in the autumn. Put the leaf under the paper, and run a fall-colored (red, yellow, brown, orange) crayon over the bumps. Talk about the smell, size, shape, feel, and color of different leaves. Talk about what is safe to taste, and what is not safe.

Buy sunflower seeds for pennies at the end of the season, and grow them next year - they'll probably still germinate well. Preschoolers love to plant sunflowers, and the seeds are the right size for little hands. Plant them where you can see the sunflowers from the house and you'll get to observe birds feeding on the seeds in the fall. In winter, hang a garland of popcorn, grain cereals, or dried fruits from the dried sunflower plants or trees.

Make your own rainbow in a clear glass of water on a sunny winter day. Move a piece of white paper to just the right place, and catch a rainbow! You can also catch a rainbow with a mirror in water, in the sun.

Look for animal prints in the snow, and read books together to find out what happens to animals in the winter.

Involve the Whole Family

What if you have older children, too? Can they and a preschooler do any activities together? Definitely, as long as basic safety considerations are kept in mind. For example, a preschooler can watch an older child dissect a grasshopper, but shouldn't be the one holding the scalpel. With this in mind, science activities can be shared by a wide range of ages and abilities. Check my unit studies page, www.eaglesnesthome.com/unit.htm, to learn more.

After a few years, assumptions about ordinary things can make science seem boring. However, little children experience butterflies, ants, rainbows, and birds as fresh and miraculous, thus making it more exciting for their older siblings as well as for their parents. Through homeschooling, you can share the joy of discovery - and questions - with your preschooler!

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