Thursday, June 28, 2012

Science Journey: Ages 4 to 9

I recently answered a question about homeschooling science on the Living Science Yahoo Group. I decided to record it here to help me to remember what we did for science when kiddo was younger. I find myself forgetting things so easily with so much on my mind. While blogging is increasingly becoming the last thing I am able to attend to when I'm free, I am still grateful I have this blog as a memory-holder.

"Explain to me how you define "living science". What does it look like in your home? What is your philosophy and how do you apply it?"

Answer (edited yahoo group post for grammar where I could, and added details, links and photos):

It will look different for everyone. Here's what it looks like in our home.

Ages 4-5: I had no idea what a living book was but did wonder if my son could lead our science studies based on curiosity alone (all those why questions that never stopped had to amount to something right?). So that's we did. We just answered his questions. And he did quite a lot of collecting! He collected leaves and rocks and observed birds and tried to mimic their calls. We did this on "nature walks" while living in a busy apartment community in the middle of a busy city. He did a preschool science class at the local community center where they studied slimy things, flight, weather and so on using simple kits. We grew lima beans. We tried categorizing the leaves and rocks he had collected. He also "collected" clouds, planets and nebulas, and scientists! He would intensely "study" them then mentally file them away and move on to the next interest. Then at about 4.5yo he was obsessed with death and diseases so he voraciously consumed information on the human body and names of diseases and tried diagnosing every little thing.

I lelped him with experiments (we didn't do many, just a few key ones) or did demonstrations for him. I sometimes checked books out from the library and always found a couple that were much more interesting, beautifully illustrated and just so much more rich and worth our time than others.

I only later discovered that this is basically what living books are. Wonderfully written, usually by a single author who is very passionate about the subject. Not dry, or by committee. We tried a number of curricula written for homeschoolers, found them lacking (or requiring too much tweaking to work that it didn't make sense) and just went back to working with the living books to supply information and ideas for experiments where he wanted them. He read some books over and over. We supplemented with a lot of dinner table discussions. And Curious George. :)

A basic DNA extraction lab
Ages 5-8: I learned about the Charlotte Mason method and living books as the name to describe the well-written books we were using. I found the CM method wonderful but not the best fit for how my son likes to learn.

However, the living books themselves were working so well for him that we continued using these, and our home library grew and grew. I added The Happy Scientist videos ($20/year membership) and documentaries galore. We added science kits where available/ interested.

David Attenborough's Life of/ Life in (Mammals, Cold Blood, Undergrowth etc) series was especially well loved. Son developed an intense interest in chemistry so we took that bunny trail for a long, long time with more living books and mass market books and a class or two, and finally a twice-a-month group class that continues to this day (ask me how to set this up if interested).

Made a glider using a kit
We like integrated learning. While chemistry was going on we continued to watch life science themed shows, did a few nature-themed classes, discussed a lot of physics with physics-loving dad, and created a few projects, usually something to do with physics, and with magnets and also followed another intense interest in diseases, viruses etc.

We are amateur (very!) stargazers when there's a chance. We watched a lot of PBS/Quest/NOVA astronomy shows. We "video/ book-stalked" science celebrities: we adored Neil deGrasse Tyson, then Brian Greene, then Oliver Sacks (and visited a neuroscience lab too). We listened to a number of Naxos audiobooks for children about scientists and inventors. Took field trips/ road trips where we could (fell in love with red rock formations for a bit).

Age 9: We are continuing the above but at a slightly higher level now (e.g. using a higher level kit for chemistry such as the one in the picture under this post's title). And it works beautifully. There are areas he is ignorant about (gaps galore!) and that's fine with me but if it's not fine with you, maybe you could do a little gentle goal-setting to see what is important to you for your child to know by what age. There's a book called Home Learning Year by Year by Rebecca Rupp that will give you an idea of the usual "what to do by when" stuff. There is also What Your First Grader Needs to Know and others in the Core Knowledge series by Hirsch that could provide a simple guideline.

Basic electrolysis lab
My philosophy? I tell my son to have fun and let his passion consume him and to try to do it by himself because honestly, his mom is no help when it comes to science lol. But in the end, it looks too tempting for me to watch from the sidelines and I have a go at it with him too. For a while, I agreed to be an unschooler with science. This year, we took a more structured approach, using a distance ed science class because we think it will help him answer a lot of questions he has and also build a good work ethic.

Another family may find that using an even more structured approach or a particular curriculum or two works best for them with living books as supplements; still another family could be more into nature exploration, allowing nature studies to lead their learning adventures with art, sketching, real-life observation and discussion and experimenting being the focal points instead of doing all the sciences at once or living books being the focal point. It really depends what your particular bent is. You'll find it developing as you get into it.

  1. Start one step at a time. Don't let it overwhelm you. Everything starts with those little baby steps.
  2. Have a nice big whiteboard to jot down thoughts, questions and discussion topics...for yourself and your child(ren).
  3. Start collecting everything you can find for free or cheap for science experiments. I have cabinets and drawers full of empty bottles, rubber bands, paperclips, string, cardboard, thread spools etc for experiments. It was hard at first to look for things to experiment with but now, after 5+ years of collecting I now have a good amount of things we don't have to run out for if an experiment idea pops up. :)
  4. Ask questions yourself. Model the "let's find out" habit for your child. It's okay if you don't know the answers. You can google a source and then google another source to verify your first source and it will lead to some interesting discoveries in the process. You will also be teaching your child to question and double-check answers and not trust every answer too easily.
  5. Scientific method can be introduced early. A good book to read together when your child is ready: How To Think Like A Scientist by Stephen Kramer.
  6. Don't sweat the writing if your child is reluctant to write. Unless there are learning issues or disabilities, it will usually fall into place. You can always scribe for your child.
Note: The living science books we used are listed both on this blog and in the Files section of the Living Science Yahoo Group website.


  1. Excellent post, Suji! Just in time for me as I'm starting to think about next year and how to approach science. Thank you for sharing your experience!

  2. Great suggestions! I just put a request for How to be a Scientist at the library. Also, would love to get a large whiteboard. We have a small one but she end up drawing on it and I want one just for myself! ;)

  3. Thank you for this. Our approach to science is also very eclectic and interest-inspired, so it's helpful to see how it all came together for you. The Happy Scientist videos you listed will be a welcome addition (I just subscribed) to our resources!

  4. It was a pleasure you guys! Thanks for visiting and reading and being so thoughtful to include a comment. I'm hoping to write a series of posts on things we did, just so I won't forget them. :)

  5. This is a great post full of excellent suggestions and ideas! Thanks for sharing.


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