Angela Oswalt, MSW, Natalie Staats Reiss, Ph.D and Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.
Often in the early school years, children will begin to have homework. Homework offers parents a wonderful opportunity to spend time nurturing their children, encourage their love of learning, and reinforce concepts that children are learning in the classroom. Often, teachers will provide extra activity ideas to interested parents which can further encourage at-home learning, especially if a child is struggling in a particular area or subject.
Another fun way that children can learn while playing is through at-home science experiments. Parents can design safe, age-appropriate and stimulating interactive activities that help children to learn concepts like measurement, cause and effect, gravity and the life cycle. As is the case with many academic topics, fostering children's early interest in science tends to pay off in their continuing interest as they grow. Science demonstrations are more complicated than most reading or math exercises. Therefore, parents frequently need to supervise these activities more closely than others if planned outcomes are to happen. For instance, a model volcano that erupts when baking soda is combined with vinegar won't work properly if the necessary proportions of baking soda to vinegar are not followed. However, parents shouldn't do everything for their children. Experiments that allow children to interact with materials are what will teach them best.
Science experiments will often make a mess. A little preparation can reduce parents "mess stress". Covering the table or floor with old sheets or drop cloths can help with clean up. As well, a basement, garage, shed, or outside location might become the preferred place to conduct science experiments during decent weather. Additionally, children scientists should wear aprons or old clothes while experimenting to protect their school clothing from damage.
Most importantly, parents need to make sure that any objects or materials used in science experiments are age appropriate and safe for children. There should be no toxic or dangerous chemicals, no fire or extreme heat, nor any small parts that can pose a choking hazard for toddlers, if toddlers are involved. Older children, who may engage in more sophisticated experiments with different substances (alcohol, baking powder, vinegar, crystals, etc) should be supervised and assisted. In addition, all "scientists" should be reminded to wash their hands, and avoid putting any of the equipment in their mouths.
Toddlers might love to learn about the physics of water through activities such as outdoor "painting." On a dry sunny day, parents can take their toddlers outside with a little cup of water and a clean paint brush. Children can paint objects (e.g., rocks, the family car, or a park bench) with the water. As the kids watch the water "disappear," parents can provide a simple explanation of evaporation. In another fun water activity, toddlers can place different objects (e.g., rocks, plastic toys, feathers, or vegetables) in a tub of water to see which ones sink and which ones float.
Both toddlers and preschoolers will enjoy science experiments including magnets. For toddlers, parents can take empty two-liter pop bottles and fill them with sand and small metal objects that will react to magnets (leave a couple of inches open at the top and glue the cap back on to prevent sand spillage). Toddlers can take magnets and trace the outside of the bottle, dragging the metal pieces inside through the sand. Likewise, older preschoolers can take a magnet around the house and community to test which items are attracted to the magnet and which aren't. Just be careful that children do not put their magnets close to computers or other computerized equipment, as magnets can erase memory or data from these devices!
To learn about life science, both toddlers and preschoolers can be encouraged to become little farmers and grow things. Adults can help children fill see-through containers with soil and bean seeds or cut-up pieces of potato. After giving these mini gardens sunlight and water for a few days, families can watch the beans and potatoes shoot sprouts, roots, and even leaves. Older children can help plant and take care of flowers or herbs on the windowsill, or help cultivate a backyard garden.
Young school-aged children can learn from more complicated life science experiments. For example, kindergartners and first graders can go outside on a sunny day and observe their shadows in the morning, lunch time, and later afternoon. Have them guess, or hypothesize what makes the shadows grow and shrink, and then discuss the movement of the sun and how it changes the appearance of shadows. By second grade, children can take this knowledge one step further and build their own sun dial out of cardboard with their parents' assistance and supervision (as sharp scissors will be necessary!). By observing how the shadows change on the sundial's face at different times, children can mark off the hours.