Never Too Young To Be A Scientist

14th March 2014

In honour of National Science & Engineering Week, 14-23 March, Leonie Thompson suggests ways to support your offspring’s scientific education, and suggests three easy experiments to carry out at home

If you have a child who keeps asking questions, you could well have a potential scientist on your hands. It is curiosity and a desire to find out the answers that seem to be the key qualities for children to develop both a love of science and the confidence to succeed in the subject. And parents who want to help their child do not have to have studied science themselves; they just need to be aware of how easy it is to build on natural curiosity and nurture the desire to know more.

Many of the commercially produced science kits and science books are aimed at junior-aged children, but why leave it so late? Jane McDermott, who has taught chemistry for eighteen years, has two pre-school children of her own and has already installed the sense of wonder and interest in their surroundings. “Cooking is just a series of chemical reactions,” she says, “and children can easily be included in activities which will begin to help them to notice the changes that take place when food cooks.” She feels that the best science students she teaches are those with a genuinely enquiring mind – those prepared to address questions, not simply regurgitate the answers.

Comparing a cooked egg to a raw one, for example, demonstrates the concept of permanent chemical change, whilst a melting lolly that can then be re-frozen shows a reversible physical change. But just getting young children to notice these things can help them become more observant. Jane encourages her children to ask questions, to try things out and to get their hands dirty. “Sometimes it’s just a case of letting them get stuck in and clearing up afterwards.”

Sara Kendall, who teaches at Cassiobury Infant/ Nursery School, Watford, agrees. “The best thing parents can do for their child’s scientific development is let them get out and get dirty. Nothing beats the actual hands-on experience when the child can see for itself either how something works or moves”.

London’s Science Museum has an area dedicated to their youngest visitors. In ‘The Garden’ the emphasis is on learning by playing via ‘an exciting, multi-sensory environment’. Key scientific principles are introduced in a fun way and tempt inquisitive children to experiment and explore while they develop the important scientific skills of observing, predicting, testing and drawing conclusions.

Having worked as a scientist in the pharmaceutical industry for twenty years, Jeremy Stables found that many of the graduates applying for work had great scientific knowledge but limited understanding of how science works and were unable to investigate. He realised that only candidates with a proven track record of scientific research were being considered for employment – skills that cannot be gained from text books alone.

Jeremy is now owner of Mad Science, offering a range of scientific activities for children, from in-school workshops and after-school clubs to holiday camps and birthday parties. He feels that even the youngest children “respond very well” to the Mad Science sessions, and says that by choosing topics of particular interest, like sound, light and colour, and selecting experiments that produce instant visual results, even the 3-5 age-group can be kept engaged. Demonstrations are followed by hands-on activities. “In the simplest way we are hypothesis testing” he explains, “We are asking the children, what do you think is going to happen?”. Mad Science is “all about children investigating for themselves” – enjoying science without becoming obsessed with the facts.

Former primary school head teacher Alison Gauntlett supports these ideas, observing that children are born to be natural ‘sponges’ and that it’s essential to stimulate their interest in science and the world around them during the pre-school years. “Parents and carers can use any opportunity to talk to their children, ask questions, encourage children to question them in return, and thereby develop their vocabulary, understanding and desire to learn”.

Luckily, most youngsters enjoy mess, surprise and exploring the environment around them. Let the learning begin…

Three Easy Scientific Activities to try with your Pre-School Child.

1. The infamous Mento sweet experiment…

This must be carried out in the garden. Use a funnel to drop half a packet of sweets into a large plastic bottle of fizzy coke and stand well back. A spectacular reaction with a real 'wow factor'!

2. Volcano experiment

Firstly make the 'volcano' from a cut-down paper cup covered in foil. Then add tablespoons of bicarbonate of soda, a teaspoon of orange powder-paint and watch the eruption as vinegar is dropped onto the mixture. This is a great example of a chemical reaction, demonstrated by the fizzing.

3. Grow cress seeds.

Draw a face on an empty boiled egg shell and put some damp cotton wool inside. Sprinkle cress seeds onto the cotton wool to watch the cress 'hair' grow. The cotton wool should be watered daily and it should be placed on a window sill. The child may even realise that plants need water and light to grow.

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