Thoughts on Elementary Science

Young children have an innate sense of wonder about the world around them. It can alternately drive you crazy or fill you with your own sense of wonder as you repeatedly answer the “Whatzzat?” from a toddler or the “Why?” questions of a two-year old. (Not to mention the inquisitiveness of a nine year old who makes a claim on every broken appliance so he can disassemble it to discover how it works!) A child’s curiosity is what makes it so much fun to take a hike with a little one on your back or holding a small hand of a preschooler. Seeing the world through the eyes of a child allows a parent to regain the childlike delight in simple things we’ve become inured to.

Teaching science to young children offers great opportunities to foster this sense of wonder, but sadly some programs just squash it or bore the kids to death instead. I’ve been considering just what criteria matter to me in science curricula while recently crafting a long-range science plan for my family. Starting with what the teens will be doing first, I then was able to plot a course for the elementary kids. First, I determined the themes I want to focus on, and then I began to evaluate various curricula. But to do that, I had to revisit my goals for elementary science. Here’s a peek into my thinking.

Beyond looking for programs that maintain the “Wow!” , I want materials that give a solid introduction to nature study and other life sciences, earth and space, physical science (pre-engineering), and even some chemistry. Just as I want to lay a strong foundation for future history studies by giving my children an overview of world history when they are young, introducing them to the basic areas of science makes it easier to go deeper when they encounter the same subjects at a later time. So a curriculum that focuses primarily on cool experiments without giving the background information to explain them might go a long way in helping kids enjoy science, but it still fails if their knowledge is not also increased. I also prefer to dig deeply into one (or maybe two) content areas a year rather each year skimming over the surface of many.

Not only this, but I want my children to begin to think like a scientist. In a sense they are already doing that when they ask “Why?” But I want them to go beyond that and ask other questions. “What would happen if we did ___ instead of ____?” I want them to learn to make hypotheses, develop tests for their questions or guesses, reassess after doing some exploration, and read what others have learned. Science presents many opportunities for children to begin to think analytically and logically (on the appropriate level for their development.)

Note: Some moms hate science experiments because they don’t always turn out as expected. When that happens, don’t fret! This occurs all too often in real laboratories, so you are giving your kids a taste of true science! Just turn the experiment flub into an opportunity to think critically. What might have caused the results to turn out this way rather than what we expected? Did we use different materials from those in the procedure we were following? What kinds of changes might we try to alter the results? Encourage your kids to think about possible sources of error and possible changes to make, something I require my older students to include in lab write-ups.

Along this same line, a great program should encourage discovery learning. Guided discovery learning means you let your children try things out and test hypotheses, then draw conclusions from the results. Don’t be too quick to give answers or always tell them how to do something. Ask them, “How do you think we could find out if …?” Sometimes as moms we need to figuratively put gags on our mouths and tie our hands behind our backs. Let your children wrestle with questions, materials, and ideas.

Finally, and most importantly, as I teach science, I want to point my children to our amazing Creator God. Having a sense of awe about the world around them is an excellent starting place, but this wonder should lead our children (and us as well!) to then worship the One who made all things! Romans 1:20,21 says that “since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made” so we “are without excuse” if we do not honor God and give Him thanks. But seen through the eyes of faith, God’s creation, whether it is the power of a mountain stream, the intricate structure of the human circulatory system, or the amazing properties of an atom, causes us to stand in awe before the God who created all things.

Now this doesn’t mean that I will only use Christian curricula. It’s not the presence of a Bible verse on every page that sets a curriculum apart. Sometimes well-written secular books do such an excellent job displaying the marvels in the world that I find it amazing that they don’t see the Creator behind the creation. Pointing our children to the Lord through science does not depend necessarily on a Christian textbook, but on us keeping our eyes open to see His design throughout all that He has made.

You may have different goals for teaching science to elementary children than I do. But figuring out WHY you want to teach science will help you know WHAT to teach. After you know where you are heading, you can develop a master long-range plan. From there you can choose the materials that will help you get where you want to go. In the next two posts I’ll explain how I’ve approached these topics.

Col. 1:16 For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities--all things have been created through Him and for Him. 17 He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.


Kristen Wegener said…
Speaking of experiment flops, recently Dr. Harwood was trying to show the difference concentration had on a chemical reaction. So she had two concentrations of the same chemical and threw in some the reactant with a balloon over it (like baking soda and vinegar) and the balloons showed the difference in how much gas was produced. Only problem was that the lower concentration's balloon got bigger than the higher concentration. Oops! The only reason we could think that it happened was because one balloon was thicker than the other.

And that in front of a classroom of several hundred students! =)
Anne said…
Ha ha! Just goes to show you ought to practice before performing in front of a large lecture room of students.

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