4 Simple Methods for Teaching Elementary Science

Written by contributor Renee Tougas of FIMBY.

This past spring all of us here at Simple Homeschool shared our curriculum choices. In my contribution to that series I talked about the curriculum we’ve used so far for elementary reading, writing, and math.

But of course there is a lot more to our homeschool routine than just those subjects.

Today I want to share how we teach science to our elementary aged children in the context of every day life, without a set curriculum.

I have found science to be one of the easiest “subjects” to teach our children.

I know it will get trickier as they get into the higher grades and so we plan to start using curriculum sometime during the junior high years.

But so far interest-led science has worked well for us.

Here are the four methods we’ve used.

Nature Study

Nature study is a popular practice among homeschoolers and for good reason – it’s a wonderful, hands-on way to learn about the natural world.

Although we often think of nature study as being for young students (in the Charlotte Mason tradition at least) famous naturalists like John James Audubon spent a lifetime doing nature study.

bug in jar

Nature study isn’t a precursor to real science it is real science.

Much has been written about the why’s and how’s of nature study, including last Friday’s post and other great posts here at Simple Homeschool.

Here’s a few more places to check out:

Play

One of my children’s favorite activities is to build paper airplanes. My son particularly enjoys this and I’ve found a few how-to books over the years to encourage this activity.

I sometimes question encouraging this activity as planes whiz over my head and land in awkward places around the house.

elastic blocks
Photo by Renee Tougas

Building paper airplanes is play. Building paper airplanes is also the beginnings of the study of aerodynamics.

Your child’s day is full of this kind of play.

Building, mixing, taking stuff apart. Digging, planting, putting stuff back together.

Many of these will make a mess of your kitchen, living room, and yard but it’s very worth it, science is necessarily hands-on.

Children’s play is not “supplemental” to their learning. It is their learning.

The connections they make in their own minds as they build paper airplanes, mix baking soda and vinegar, plant a garden, and dig in the backyard lay the foundation for their future study of physics, chemistry, biology, and geology (to name just a few).

baking soda science experiment
Photo by Renee Tougas

So much of what children do, the activities they naturally engage in, are scientific inquiries. If you follow their lead you’ll find ways to use their play as a jumping off point to study a scientific subject more in-depth.

Questions

This winter my husband and son took a day trip to the New England Aquarium because my son loves the ocean and aquatic animals. Marine biologist is one his many “when I grow up” aspirations.

The destination itself was a science activity. But one of the conversations they had in the car on the way there triggered a whole separate study in mechanics.

It all started with a question, “Daddy, how does that machine work?”

Questions are the first step in the scientific method. Children ask lots of questions. It’s how they learn. Children then are little scientists in their own right.

Teaching your children science can be as easy as helping them find the answers to their questions. Thank goodness for Google.

My own son’s question about machines led to an explanation about hydraulics (my husband’s an engineer and can explain this pretty easily, it would have required some investigation on my part) and subsequent child-led study.

hydraulics explanation
Photo by Renee Tougas

This wasn’t part of any curriculum and wasn’t in my “lessons plans”. It all started with a question and willingness to help our children understand their world.

Kids are hard wired to ask questions and seek explanations. In other words, they are hard wired for science.

Reading

Reading is intertwined with the above three points but is also a stand alone science activity.

You read when you use your guide book to identify plants, follow the instructions in the paper airplane book or look up the answer to your question.

Not everything we learn about science is always initiated through nature, play, and questions. This is where reading is so important.

Having a variety of science books on hand (with a homeschool libary or regular visits to your public library) will expose children to ideas they might not otherwise encounter.

I can’t even begin to list all the science exploration we’ve done this way. Sitting on the couch or around the kitchen table.

Our children have loved David Macaulay’s Way Things Work and The Way We Work. We also own a variety of children’s science reference books published by DK and Usborne, to name a few.

books about the brain
Photo by Renee Tougas

Our goal for elementary science is not to cram our kids’ heads with scientific facts and information they have little use for. Instead we explore the natural world, build brain connections with hands-on inquiry (play), encourage and answer questions, and discover new ideas with good books.

Early years science–it’s “Elementary, my dear Watson.”

What are your goals for elementary science? What methods do you use?

About Renee

Renee is a creative homemaker and homeschooling mama of three. She loves to write, take pretty photos, and be in nature with her family. Her mission is to nourish, encourage, and teach; build relationship and create beauty. FIMBY is where she tells that story. Drawing from her years of experience and training, Renee also offers individual and personalized Homeschool Coaching.

Comments

  1. Aren’t questions great? I like it when the kids ask questions about how things work or famous people. I like it even more when I can answer their question. But the best part is being able to show them the answer…just because they want to know.
    Rachel E.’s latest post: More Homeschool Planning (plus some)

  2. Fantastic post as usual Renee. It looks like a lot of your approach is the same as here – we have a rough ‘theme’ (at the moment it is living things and classification, soon to move on to human bodies) but there is a lot of nature study, and answering of questions on everything to do with velocity to stomach contents. Between engineer dad, google and books we manage to answer most of it.
    Natalia’s latest post: WIN a copy of ‘Steady Days’ by Jamie C. Martin

  3. I enjoyed the post and agree with all of the positive things mentioned. Another inportant ingredient that will help to prepare students for the more difficult integration of math into science is measurement. Science becomes more difficult when students have to SUDDENLY start analyzing data in high school. This is what makes subjects like chemistry so difficult.

    Try to incorporate measurement into evey nature study. By measuring, students will start to recognize patterns. A quick example is to find 10 different maple seeds (or other “propellor-type seeds”. Make a data table with columns for length, width, and time. Measure each seed to the nearest centimeter (could carefully number them to keep them separate). Be consistent in measuring. Drop them from the same height and time and record how long they take to reach the ground. Is there a pattern between the time it took them to hit the ground and the length or width of the seed? A discussion of WHY there was or was not a pattern could follow. This same experiment could be done with leaves this autumn.

    • Lovely idea! We’ve just been on a Nature Walk where we chatted about the origin of a river and vlei (amongst other river info). The children built very simple cork floating boat at the end. I now have two little scientists playing in our garden with the hosepipe and their boats, creating a river on a slope in the garden……everything we chatted about is being played out! I love this type of learning!

  4. We use a lot of nature study as well, and put together units on topics of interest. Our local science museum is also fantastic — they have a lab with different experiments every week and have kits you can pick up at the front desk to do more in-depth explorations of their standing exhibits. We go there about once a week and have a blast!
    Kathy’s latest post: Yarn Along for July 27

  5. We’re still using these methods in junior high as well!

  6. We do a lot of natural science since we are blessed with a forest surrounding our house. I feel like my son is absorbing a great deal of information all hours of every day, he’s like a sponge with an unlimited absorbency rate. Its amazing how inquisitive he has become since we began homeschooling.

    When it comes to documenting our work however I become baffled. How do our activities translate into the portfolio? I’m always afraid its never enough. I keep saying my son will do best once he respects the process, but I have yet to convince myself to TRUST the process. This post is really inspiring, I love how homeschooling allows kids to essentially teach themselves. I’m learning more about my children as well as myself every day. I was afraid homeschooling would give my son too much freedom to resist learning when in reality its done the absolute opposite. He now has a natural desire.
    cat’s latest post: Rome Wasn’t Built In A Day, and neither was our curriculum.

  7. Lorarian89 says:

    I’m a scientist, a chemist to be more exact, and the one things I love the most is finding new ways to teach my kids about chemistry and nature! Science rocks!!! :D
    Lorarian89′s latest post: שליחת SMS

  8. I love this post! It reaffirms what I hope to do with my girls as they grow (they are three now). We just did a butterfly study after stumbling onto a butterfly sanctuary (think green house crammed with lots of beautiful plants and butterflies flying everywhere!). The girls were fascinated with the butterflies and the guide told them all about the eggs and caterpillars and chrysalises so on our next trip to the library we got butterfly books. We spent a week doing butterfly crafts, coloring butterfly life cycle pages, and looking for them in our own yard. This was so much fun for them and for me!

  9. You said : Children’s play is not “supplemental” to their learning. It is their learning.
    I’m so glad that I I’m not alone. I’m so hard to explain this to my husband. He kept repeating, “Stop playing – start to learn.” Tomorrow morning will show him your article. Thank you very much!
    Katie’s latest post: קבלה לעם

  10. Thanks for the reminder not to stress about a formal science study!

    I just downloaded HowStuffWorks for the iPad. It’s a free app with great reviews. Have you tried it?
    Hannah’s latest post: Tuesday Travels: Colorado Escape

  11. Great post! Thanks for the reminder that our kids can learn science without a textbook. We have also enjoyed the book Transformed that shows how things are made.

  12. Oh how I wish that in the public schools “play” would have been considered a part of the science curriculum while I was teaching…at least for the primary grades.
    Emily’s latest post: Infections In The Hospital And Other American Medical Travesties

  13. In addition to nature study, experiments, having fun with magnets, k’nex (etc.), field trips, reading lots, sketching, certain videos (Magic School Bus early on and Bill Nye the Science Guy), my children would choose two or three topics of interest to study each year and present their learning on a poster or in a lapbook (really however they chose). In the younger years I’d get them to choose an animal of choice to learn more about. One year, this resulted in my kids ganging up on me and, after they’d put the work in studying about parrots, we ended up with a bird as a pet :) This has never been my favorite subject but somehow we’ve all ended up learning and having some fun along the way.

  14. smart and simple! i think it should learned at school…
    sapir’s latest post: Diet for Life

  15. Renee,

    Wonderful ideas about science. I think you’ve pretty much summed it up how kids naturally learn science when they’re young. We also love going to places like museums or labs, too.
    Christina Pilkington’s latest post: The Death of Traditonal Teaching Part 2

  16. These are some wonderful ideas….you’re right it’s useless to try to cram kids’ heads full of stuff they don’t care about.
    Kristin @ Preschool Universe’s latest post: Math & Science Activities: Graphing with Preschoolers

  17. Nice writing, you are doing great effort, your way of writing is unique, thanks for sharing such nice work. Keep more post..

  18. I love this post; thanks for your work in putting it together. Last year I went to hear a woman speak. One thing in particular stood out to me. She encouraged us to turn our children into naturalists before scientists – believing that the love they gain for the created world will then ignite their curiosity and ultimately lead them into the realm of science.

    That said, I’m in the process of developing my own 2nd grade science curriculum for my daughter entitled, The Young Naturalist: Discovering creation in the garden, on the farm, on the trail and through animal behavior. We will be hiking lots, heading to the beach, observing an anthill in our loft, volunteering our time at an organic farm, hatching butterlies and listening to A Treasury of Animal Stories on CD.

  19. This is essentially what we are doing, too. My daughter (her own initiative) made me a list of things she wants to learn more about and told me we need to get lots of books out on those things (sky, guinea pigs, rabbits, weather, etc) and so we are going to be learning more on those things based on her interest. This past year we learned so much about birds…and I thought I already knew a lot about birds! I learned so much more. Its amazing to me as well that since it was interest-led for her, just because we “stopped” studying it doesn’t mean she stopped. She still gets books out, asks to look up bird calls on the computer to identify a bird, talks about them, points them out etc. etc. Today while blueberry picking (wild) we heard a great blue heron call and I had never heard that before even though I have seen dozens of the birds. She was so excited!

  20. i like the idea,it is very important to alowed the child explore the environment this will help the child developed basic concept in naturale science.

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