All scientists, regardless of their areas of expertise, share one thing in common: They all were once children -- curious, neuroplastic knowledge-sponges hungering for something new and interesting to soak up. Not that your child has to grow up to win the Nobel Prize, or even pursue a related career, to find the field fascinating and enriching. The world brims over with wonder, and science gives us the tools with which to observe it.
It also teaches us critical thinking skills, like asking the right questions, refusing to accept arguments and explanations at face value, and demanding evidence. Science sharpens our minds to discern proper evidence from flimflam, to tell good experimental design from bad and to separate statistics from exaggerations. More than that, it reveals the beauty and intricacy woven into the very fabric of reality.
Inspired? Let's look at some easy and fun ways that your family can explore science together.
Imagination is the engine that drives exploration, and getting it to spark doesn't require expensive gadgets or gizmos. Sometimes inspiration arrives in a $2.95 bag of plastic dinosaurs, a lump of clay or a few vials of food coloring. Play doesn't just pique kids' interest; it encourages them to learn the rules governing the creatures, objects and machines they romp around with. Children love to argue over which dinosaur ranks as the coolest or whether one ancient behemoth could defeat another. The excitement of thunder lizards or whatever game they invent can help you teach concepts such as geologic time, petrification and fossils.
You can browse science-based toys in catalogs, but even science fiction and fantasy books and movies can spark your child's interest in rockets, space, lasers, sea monsters, ancient technologies, buried civilizations and dozens of other cool, science-related subjects.
When the questions begin to outstrip your ability to answer them, it's time to …
Treat the library as a reward for good work in school, for finishing chores or for any other behavior you'd like to encourage. Find a subject that fascinates your children and buy them subscriptions to kids science magazines on those topics. Receiving a monthly magazine makes a child feel more grown-up, and chances are you'll enjoy reading them as well. The writers and editors of such periodicals know how slippery a child's attention can be, so they cover subjects with a high "gee whiz" quotient. Kid-favorite science periodicals include Dig (archaeology), Kids Discover (general science), Odyssey (space) and Your Big Backyard (wildlife).
Magazines and books also help round out your child's education when it comes to subjects that are less widely taught (or well-taught) in schools. For example, National Geographic Kids provides a port of entry into human cultures, landscapes and physical phenomena the world over, accompanied by stunning pictures that capture the explorer's spirit of adventure. For older and bolder youngsters, "The Worst Case Scenario Handbook" teaches problem solving while entertaining them with thrilling encounters.
If your child is too young for such approaches, you can always make science a part of story time. Libraries and Web sites maintain handy lists of recommendations for children and young adults. Don't spend all day with your noses buried in books, however. Take what you've learned and head out to …
Explore the natural world around you through camping trips, hikes and regular old walks around the neighborhood. Before you set off exploring, print out an identification table for plants or trees, then walk through it together, step-by-step. Carry guidebooks for birds, insects or animals that you can spot in your area. Identify tracks in the woods. Bring a notebook. If no one in the family can identify something, designate someone to sketch it, take notes about its appearance and behavior, and then go and look it up together.
Learn the constellations as a family. iPhones and Droid phones both offer apps that use their built-in GPSs to show the stars, constellations, planets and even the International Space Station based on your current location.
Through it all, try to remember what interests your child and ask follow-up questions that keep your discussions going and drive them on into new and deeper territory. Look for teachable moments in movies, cartoons and sci-fi television shows. Read fun books like "The Physics of Star Trek" to help you out.
Once you're ready to focus on a subject in greater detail, you can …
Take field trips. Head to museums, particularly ones designed around science, such as Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry, San Francisco's Exploratorium, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., or one near you. Children's museums all over the world include science exhibits; even ones that appeal to a broader age group typically offer installations geared toward educating youngsters.
Stimulating environments, such as oceans, deserts, forests or even toolsheds and garages, can really fire a child's imagination, so make it a point to trek to them from time to time. Put on some old shoes, wander down to a creek and "go creekin.'"
You don't have to leave home to delve deeper into topics. Web sites like, well, HowStuffWorks.com teach the inner workings and scientific principles underlying the components of our everyday existence -- a real lifesaver when kids keep asking questions and you want them to find reliable answers. Some sites, such as Houghton Mifflin's Science Education Place, offer curriculum resources tailored by age group. Still, there's no substitution for applying what you've learned to …
Encyclopedias, Boy Scout and Girl Scout manuals, and books like "The Dangerous Book for Boys" and "The Dangerous Book for Girls" feature lots of science-related building projects. Museums gift shops, such as the Smithsonian's, offer crystal radio sets and potato clocks for sale, but even building a model, constructing a paper airplane or folding a bit of origami can start turning the wheels in your child's noggin. Educational Innovations offers entire catalogs of science teaching kits for educators and classrooms, many of them useful at home. The Web site ThinkGeek.com offers a more fun-based approach to the same kinds of gadgets and "brainy toys."
When it comes to basic experiments, you don't have to go any farther afield than your own kitchen. After all, baking is (mostly) delicious chemistry that you eat. Baking-soda volcanoes make for a fun and easy project, crystals will grow in a pie tin and you can pull off a non-Newtonian fluid with just water and cornstarch. If your kids love dinosaurs, make a fossil out of some plaster, a seashell and a cheap mold, such as a cut-up milk carton.
Don't be afraid to get messy. Embrace it. Encourage your kids to enter science fairs and give them as much guidance and support as you can. Most important, have fun! You're not just building interest in science, after all -- you're making family memories that will last a lifetime.
Speaking of traditions, you can stock up on more of them on the next page.
What are good traditions for families during the summer? Read about 5 summertime family traditions at HowStuffWorks.
- Frisinger, Cathy. "Cool Science: These Experiments Feel More at Home in the Back Yard Than the Classroom." The Sacramento Bee. Aug. 8, 2011. (Aug. 8, 2011) http://www.sacbee.com/2011/08/08/3823306/cool-science-these-experiments.html#ixzz1UT9pqGjm
- Partnership for Science Literacy. "A Family Guide to Science." American Association for the Advancement of Science. (July 27, 2011) http://www.tryscience.org/parents/pdf/AAASTampabooklet.pdf
- Rillero, Peter. "Teacher Handout: Exploring Science with Young Children." Scholastic Early Childhood Today. (July 26, 2011) http://www2.scholastic.com/browse/subarticle.jsp?id=3462
- Science Buddies. "Involved Parents." (July 25, 2011) http://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/parent_resources.shtml
- True North. "At Home Activities." (July 26, 2011) http://www.truenorthparenting.com/view.php?content=91796&article=1
- WGBH, 9 Story Entertainment and TVOntario. "Exploring Science with Kids." Peep and the Big Wide World. (July 25, 2011) http://www.peepandthebigwideworld.com/guide/pdf/peep-parents-tips.pdf