Simple Tools For Scientific Discovery

Written by Simple Homeschool contributor Stefani Austin of Blue Yonder

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Men love to wonder, and that is the seed of science.” I would argue that the seed of science got its start not in men, but rather in curious little boys and girls.

Children are the purest, truest form of scientist. They are fascinated by rocks. They thrill to taking apart and recreating all over again.  They are not afraid to get messy, to ask a question, or to postulate a wild and unexpected theory.

Science–that place where curiosity, diligence and imagination meet–is the natural home of a child’s mind.

Imparting the great ideas and discoveries of science to our students can, however, seem such a daunting task. In fact one of the questions that most worries new homeschoolers is something akin to, “How will we recreate a high school chemistry lab at home?”

Take heart, and take a good look at the humble beginnings of many great discoveries. For Newton it began with an ordinary apple. Archimedes made one of his greatest discoveries in the bathtub. Benjamin Franklin changed the world with a kite.

Our children need little more than a few modest tools and bit of training in the ways of observation and record keeping to gain a powerful understanding of science.

Here are a few simple tools for meaningful scientific discovery:

1. A Microscope

I know what you’re thinking. I just said you only needed a few modest tools and now I’m telling you to run out and buy a very expensive piece of equipment! Not so.

In the late 1600s Antony van Leeuwenhoek, a man with no training, fortune or education, began building his own simple microscopes. He tirelessly observed whatever he could find and took careful, exhaustive notes. As a result, he was the first to discover microscopic life and became one of the most important biologists of all time.

Just a little magnification went a very long way for van Leeuwenhoek, and it will for your children as well.

Using an inexpensive microscope, help your child develop a consistent habit of looking more closely at even ordinary things. Have him practice describing what he sees and drawing illustrations. That ability to observe and record is an invaluable skill.

We use the very reasonably priced My First Lab Duoscope and love it. We’ve also found the Usborne Complete Book of the Microscope and The World in a Drop of Water to be inspiring and informative resources for microscope study.

2. Junk, Goggles and a Magic Hammer

In a little corner of our school room you’ll find the always busy “Take Apart Table.” When something breaks in our home it goes to the table. If one of our boys has a few dollars in his pocket they might go to Goodwill in exchange for an old sewing machine or radio. Slowly, painstakingly, these things will be reduced to a pile of circuit boards, screws and cogs.

Along the way we learn a lot about how things work and simple mechanics.

For deconstruction, we highly recommend these great hammers. They are just the right size for small hands and come complete with a set of nesting screw drivers in the handle. When at the Take Apart Table, remember these important rules:

*NO TVs – this can be very dangerous.
*NO banging – banging leads to flying parts, and that’s not safe science!
*Wear goggles – from time to time, things will fly, even without the banging.
*Cut the cords – before beginning any take apart project cut off the electrical cords so all danger of electrical accidents is avoided.

3. Pulleys, Rope and a Glue Gun

Now that you’ve taken apart, you’ve got lots of great parts for making something new! Keep your parts in a big box. Add in a low heat glue gun, some strong but thin rope, and a few pulleys in various sizes. You’ve got all you need for a whole lot of physics and engineering experimentation.

4. Snap Circuits

All that take it apart and put it together machinery inevitably leads to some discussions about electricity. Snap Circuits are a fantastic way to allow kids to safely experiment with the principles of electricity.

5. Camera, Notebook and Colored Pencils

Again, observation and note-taking are essential skills for good science. Practice them often.
Take pictures of your experiments. Write down measurements. Draw the inside of a calculator. Make a map of of the flora and fauna in your yard. Keep records of the changes in the moon.

The more you record, the more you learn.

6. Books

For all our advances in science and technology, some of the greatest inspiration still comes from the printed word.

Gain insight from the lives of famous scientists with the Getting to Know the World’s Greatest Inventors and Scientists series. They are simply written and appealing to kids, but rich in information.

No one can compare to Janice VanCleave for science experiment books. We have many and are always hungry for more.

Golden Guides – hands down the best field guides for children (and great for adults too!)

Stars – The creator of Curious George developed this intuitive, beginner-friendly way of looking at the heavens.

With just these few items, and a big helping of childish wonder, you’re well on your way to science greatness!

“Every great advance in science has issued from a new audacity of imagination.”
John Dewey

What are your favorite tools for science?

About Stefani

Stefani believes that beyond "I love you," one of the most valuable things she can tell her three young sons (and herself) is "take your time." Homeschooling has afforded her the awesome privilege to say it often and with conviction. Stefani writes about her journey to mindful parenting and her learning adventures alongside her boys at her blog, Blue Yonder Ranch.


  1. Hay what a fabulous post!!! We could look at science goodies all day long!!! I think the biggest thing about science is it takes lots of time and somehow it is the last resource we look for!!! Often a whole scientific event will occur on the day that I have absolutely nothing planned and we are idling in the great outdoors. Here is our post on science observations:
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  2. Stefani,

    This is such a great post. We are saving right now for a microscope, it’s time we had a better tool. I couldn’t agree more with the rest of what you wrote either and thanks for the book recommendations. I will be referring readers to this post.

    Here’s something I wrote on “take apart science”

  3. Great post! Summertime is the perfect time for science experiments, even if you’re not “doing school” over the summer.

    If you’re looking for a book to provide some structure to your science adventures, check out Building Foundations of Scientific Understanding . I’m pretty picking about curriculum but I’m sold on its approach – and my scientist husband is really impressed with it as well.

  4. What great resources. This is a very helpful post!
    Leslie’s latest post: Happy 4th of July-

  5. For the younger ages we keep a basket with magnifying glasses, binoculars, a hand-held magnifier (we don’t own a microscope), nature notebook… We have used our field guides tons too (ex. birds/bugs of Alberta). When a piece of electronic equipement dies (VCR, portable stereo) we’ve given them to our son to take apart with a friend. Oh, yes, my kids have enjoyed a set of strong magnets and various experiment books on our shelves. (Although we really enjoyed the Janice Van Cleave series from the library as well).

    • I’d love to hear more about those books on your shelf. Which are your favorites?
      Stefani’s latest post: Flashlight Tales

      • Some of these books are (experiments): Science Experiments You Can Eat, Vicki Cobb; 200 Gooey, Slippery, Slimy, Weird and Fun Experiments, Janice VanCleave; 175 Science Experiments to amuse and amaze your friends, Brenda Walpole. I think the Janice VanCleave series (ex. Biology for every kid…) are my favorites but I’ve always borrowed these from the library. We had various younger experiment books too but I’ve passed them along to one of my brothers. The field guides we love and use all the time are from the Lone Pine series and we have the Bugs of Alberta, Birds of Alberta and Mammals of Alberta as well as some plant guides. We also really like the book “A Complete Guide to Bird Feeding”, John V.Dennis which we found for free – discarded at the library… we love watching birds in our yard & town!

  6. I was just thinking about finding some old electronics for the kids to take apart. They want to build a robot, but I thought it might be fun to scavenge the parts they use! We have the microscope, and we love to collect specimens to look at, especially muddy ponds and puddles. Thanks so much for all of the wonderful information about science at home. You’ve given me a lot of ideas to start working on!
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  7. So you are alive! Whew! 🙂

    I so want a microscope. Thanks for recommending one that won’t put me in the poorhouse.

    My kids were on a take-apart jag a while back but it petered out. Maybe I need to refresh their supply. These are great ideas!
    Hannah’s latest post: What Shes Up To

  8. As a chemistry lover, I’m sorry you didn’t talk more about it. While you may not be able to easily/cheaply replicate a full chemistry lab in your house there are a lot of resources in the kitchen that can be used to teach the basic concepts. A quick search of ‘kitchen chemistry’ on the web will pull up sites to help you. Dowel rods and Styrofoam balls are the classic teaching device for molecular structure. And, as you noted, it is very easy/inexpensive to keep a lab notebook, just like professional researchers, to record all your experiments. A bound composition notebook works well. If your older student wants to go further, a community college class may be a good option. Good luck to everyone trying to give your students a love of science.

  9. A top notch post, but I’m sorry you didn’t mention my field: astronomy. It’s certainly cheap: starfinders are inexpensive and you can view the moon through binoculars. (Just don’t do that with the sun!)

  10. I love your photos as much as your writing. Such well composed images to illustrate this article. I have tons of learning/exploring materials on hand. I’ve got a microscope, stored away in a box. I know I’ve got to get it DOWN.
    Jimmie’s latest post: Wrapping Up the 50 States Notebook

  11. Science is one of our favorite subjects and we spend a lot of time each week dedicated to various topics. One thing we don’t do enough of is taking things apart and I loved your ideas around this.

    I have found that hands on experiments are where most of the learning and retention takes place with my kids. I searched long and hard for experiments that are really fun and packed full of learning. The BEST resource I have found is Super Charged Science.

    I was so impressed with this program that I interviewed the founder, Aurora Lipper.
    She is one of the most amazing women I have met.

    Thanks for the recomendation about the readers for famous scientists. I am going to get my hands on a few of them and see how my kids like them.

    Kim Bauer’s latest post: Hello- Adobe Tech Support—Would You Like the Recipe for Chicken Tikka Masala

  12. I’m back yet again Stefani. We just purchased our microscope through SonLight and now my mind is racing with all the study (history, science, art etc.) we can do with this tool. I came back to see what other resources you recommended – the books and such. So much fun to give our kids the tools they need and then watch the doors open for learning and discovery.

  13. A device that could see microscopic creatures and things, that could also determine their composition.

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