Young children are scientists at play. While they're baking mud pies or building worm playgrounds, you may catch them conducting playful experiments. If you listen, in addition to giggling you may hear an exchange of observations or well thought-out theories. In their early encounters with nature, children develop ideas about our world based on experiences with real things.
Curious kids love to stick their noses into nature, but they need your help. You can support their explorative play by giving your children the time, space, and equipment needed for investigating the world around them. Science doesn't require direct instruction, but it does take practice. Your most important role is to encourage, rather than direct, your children's explorations.
Too much direction can dampen your child's budding interest in science and nature, while activities with lots of choices will allow her to follow her own paths of inquiry. When you give your child choices in how he experiences science, you'll be treated to a kaleidoscope of unique and meaningful explorations.
The right tools are important too. If you give your children a wide array of equipment, they can pursue many different investigations. Watch your children exploring, and you may observe them pausing to search for the right tool, such as a magnifying glass or a stethoscope. By itself, each tool helps a child focus on a particular avenue of exploration. A child with a magnifying lens is bound to look closely at things, while a child with a mirror may end up playing with light.
Another valuable way of encouraging your children's interest in science is seizing the moment. On rainy days, children can investigate earthworms and puddles. During a snowstorm, bundle them up to explore the crystals in snowflakes. A walk in the park may reveal hidden caterpillars or sparkling rocks.
Beaches, woods, parks, backyards, and even vacant lots are paradise for a child explorer. When you supply a variety of materials and tools, when you help young children grow gardens or take in small critters as visitors, you are sowing adventures. It doesn't cost much money. It doesn't need to be dangerous or messy. You just need the time and place.
One of the best things about science for young children—and about childhood as a whole—is the joy of wondering. Why? How? Where? When? As an adult, you may want to jump in and give the right answers, but if you let go of that impulse, you too may be immersed in the wonder. By sharing your thoughts as a partner, not the source of all knowledge, you can participate in your children's ponderings. Join in the wonder and go where it takes you!
Excerpted from Science Their Way, by Michael Elsohn Ross—an article in the NAEYC journal, Young Children.