Using outdoor experiences to help your child in science, from a science teacher.
News headlines and school boards are often seen mentioning math and reading, yet science (a core subject) is not always discussed. In reality, most children might not find themselves donning lab coats and growing mold in petri dishes… Still, there are scientific skills that are useful in almost every career or lifestyle.
Further muddying the public perception of science is the gravitation towards simplicity. Meaning, for many of us, science was about observing and memorizing the work of other scientists, with the idea that scientific exploration in nature is better left to the professionals.
Though sadly, science is about more than remembering the parts of a frog, or identifying the minerals in a class set. It is even more than telling who eats whom in an ecosystem or which chemicals create an explosion.
1. Be Curious
Whether in the wilderness or in your own backyard, ask questions you don’t know the answer to. This shows young learners that it’s good to WONDER.
Most kids are naturally curious, we even openly discuss a “why phase!” And although one day that phase ends (thankfully) the childlike wonderment is important to maintain throughout our lives.
Because, if you think about it, scientists spend their entire lives wondering about the world around them; asking questions to which they don’t know the answer.
As a parent, if you model this questioning behavior, your child will learn that you can question and notice concepts without having answers. As an adult, you already have the internal dialogue of questioning, we just don’t speak it aloud.
So when you’re visiting the outdoors, wonder your questions aloud. If they begin asking questions back, don’t worry if you don’t know the answer, encourage them to look it up. Or better yet, when a question finally comes along that can’t be looked up (the best kind), make a plan to find the answer together, call it your experiment.
2. Compare & Contrast
Point out the similarities and differences you see in nature.
Much of the rote memorization slept through in dry science lectures actually has its roots in someone else’s exercise in comparing. In fact, the early steps in the scientific method involve deciding what you will COMPARE.
But what if you don’t want to do a science fair project?
No worries, just point out differences in the landscape, species, colors, sizes, textures, etc. around you and then make connections about what is happening.
Here are a few examples:
- Do plants grow differently on different parts of the landscape (i.e. hilltops vs. valleys)?
- Which parts of rivers and streams make different kinds of current or waves?
- Are there places we find certain animals more than others? (Don’t forget insects are animals, too!)
When in the wilderness, pose questions and make observations that directly reference the sizes or amounts of whatever you are looking at.
After a scientist compares, they find something to measure.
Measuring ensures that their work is seen as more than just an opinion. Now, I most certainly am NOT requiring you bring rulers and thermometers on a camping trip (unless you want to…) but getting your child thinking about the fundamental ways we measure will go a long way towards helping them navigate a science project later on.
Use these six fundamental measurements to drive your conversation. Bonus points if you can discuss units (in parenthesis) with older kids.
- Counting (amount): (This is a good starting point for younger kids.) Simply ask the question “how many”. With older students and items too numerous to count, see if a child can devise a way to estimate amounts without counting every single item.
- Length (meter or kilometer): Length can be about comparing. For instance, point out unique items and estimate their lengths. Is there a tree taller than the others? What species of grass grows the tallest? Which neighborhood dog is the longest?
- Volume (liter): While we think about volume constantly, most kids don’t use the word or the definition in their day to day thinking. Volume is simply the amount of space something takes up. Try to get your child to think spatially and compare the volume of something in nature to something they are familiar with. For instance… if a certain lake were to dry up, how many swimming pools would it take to fill back up?
- Mass (kilogram): Purists will tell you that mass and weight are two different things because in outer space your weight changes, but mass stays the same. For all intents and purposes mass is how much “stuff” is in an object. And since most of us stay on earth, weight is the same thing. When you are outside, take turns holding things up and feeling how heavy they are and try to use the word mass while you do it. If at all possible find items that take up the same space but have different weights (ahem… masses) such as two different kinds of rocks. This comparison allows for an early understanding of density which is a measurement involving mass and volume at the same time.
- Temperature (degrees/celsius): Technically, temperature is the amount of vibration in the atoms or molecules of a substance. Yet, without superhero, microscopic vision, the rest of us just notice it as hot or cold. Cold objects have less vibration in their molecules and warm objects have more. Try to find items or places in your outdoor experience where the temperatures are different. For instance north vs. south facing hillsides, shallow vs. deep water, or even the fluctuation that come with the different times of the day. For older kids point out the temperatures when substances make phase changes or go from solids to liquids to gases (or reverse), like a freezing pond or dew condensing on grass.
- Time (seconds/minutes…etc.): Possibly the most familiar fundamental measurement and most likely already part of your daily conversation with your child for other reasons… is time. When applying this to nature, look around for processes that you can time. Good examples might be, the time eggs hatch in a bird’s nest, the number of days it takes all the leaves on a tree to turn colors, or the length in seconds it takes for a bird to finish it’s song.
4. Tell a Cause & Effect or Sequence Story (Systems Thinking)
Discuss a chain of events, try to find steps in the process wherever you are, then organize them using sequence words like first, next, last.
When a scientist finishes comparing and measuring, they take the data from their experiment and turn it into a story. This is the summary of their findings, like the story of what they’ve learned.
Don’t worry if you don’t get to this point right away! It takes a certain amount of background knowledge in both science and language for a child to process their findings sequentially.
A good example might be an oak forest where you point out acorns, the soil they need to grow, the sun they use for energy, the small trees and the large trees, and finally the recycling of organic matter when their leaves fall.
Also, anything that involves running water will capture the attention of most kids. Follow the steps of a river or stream as it twists and turns past rocks and banks as gravity pulls it downhill. Make connections to other stories by using cause and effect words such as: “because it has rained a lot these last few weeks, the stream is higher than normal.” The older and more practiced your learner gets, the more they will contribute to this type of conversation. If you find a dead end, go back to the beginning and be curious again!
5. Make Connections to Society
When trying to make connections between nature and society, in your discussion use questions that start with “what if” or “how.” Then connect the ideas to an individual or group of people.
The most valuable, accepted, and funded science endeavors tend to have direct impacts on humans. This doesn’t have to mean it makes someone money, but simply valuing what we create or observe. Ultimately, that’s our purpose here at Straight Up Outside, too.
From this, helping your child to see the purpose in nature will give them a reason to keep experiencing, maintaining, and sharing the world around them. To do this successfully, be ready to ask the big questions and have some rather serious discussions. Don’t hesitate to circle back to particularly important topics related to the environment or natural resources. For instance:
“What if we cut down all the trees in the forest?” or
“How does this city benefit from being located next to a river?”
With younger kids, it might be easier to make it personal to their life but as your child gets older try to move the conversation to get them thinking about others. In the end, nature only has value because of its positive impact on human life. And the only way to create value is to share those positive impacts with the people around us, especially the next generation.
Use our Wildlife Viewing Checklist in our gravel bike ride post to get started!
This post was written by Nick Schmitz, August 2020