Summer is almost here! If the school year was a sundae, we’d be scooping up the last of the melted ice cream and swirls of chocolate fudge from the bottom of a soda shop glass. What does summer mean for kids and families? Technically, it probably means that the schedule is already jam-packed with soccer camp, band camp, family vacation, gymnastics class, volunteering, internships, and mowing the yard.
Oh, but summer also can mean something very exciting…something that better get you hopping on the edge of your seat and reaching for a lab coat…summer can also mean…more time for science!! In the down time from school, you and your family are the lucky winners of some opportunities to keep those critical thinking skills sharp and your excitement for knowledge bouncing! Here are a few ways to keep science going at home over the summer. *Note, this post is intended for parents, but if you’re under 18 and you found it, great! Just be sure to check with a parent or guardian before trying any experiments at home.*
Make Little Bits of Your Summer Inquiry-Based
One way to keep learning minds fresh is to engage in the challenges and quests of inquiry-based learning. Inquiry-based learning means learning through experiences and probing for answers, rather than being given all the facts to memorize up front. It’s a hands-on approach. In a classroom, that could mean being presented with a case study or a scenario, and the students would need to reason through the case to eventually learn and understand the information after clarification from a teacher. The approach greatly helps with critical-thinking skills in addition to observational skills.
At home this summer, one of the things you can do as a family is try to plan for a few mini inquiry adventures. The best part of an inquiry-based or experiential learning approach is that the parents don’t need all the answers before get started. Start by picking a topic, maybe do a bit of background to give yourself a boost, and then start developing some questions that can be answered by observation or even experimentation.
For example, let’s say you want to take biology by the cornibus and visit a nature park, but you’re not quite a field naturalist yet. That is A-Ok. With an inquiry-based approach, you can arm yourselves with guide books and a field journal, and start asking questions. Try focusing on a particular aspect of the environment to keep yourself from being overwhelmed. A few question examples that don’t particularly require background knowledge but are fun to answer are below:
- Are the kinds of plants near the stream the same or different as the kinds of plants near the meadow? Why might that be?
- Can we hear more bird calls at the forest edge or in the forest interior? Why might that be?
- Is there a fair bit of the scat on the ground (oh the fun with poop) or no? What kind of mammals might have been passing through?
- What size pebbles are at the bottom of the creek? Are they big pebbles or small pebbles? Why might pebble size matter?
A key part of inquiry is to work through your questions; in many ways, that process is more important than the answer. As you reason through your question and observations, take some field notes, make sketches– just write as much down as you can. You’ll probably be impressed with what you take note of, and you will definitely be impressed with what your kids observe! And as a bonus, most parks have great naturalists you can pass on some of your questions to if you get super stumped with your guide books 🙂 It’s a great way to get more out of a hike.
Science at Home
Maybe exploring completely new territory isn’t your cup of iced coffee yet, and you want to start with a bit more guidance. Not a problem! If you’re up for a few good home-cooked adventures, here are some great resources below for easy experiments. There are instructions and explanations for the suggested projects, but I’d recommend familiarizing yourself with the concepts behind the experiments, either with a text book or a trusted source. Also, most of the projects can be done with common household items or something you can easily pick up at Target. (But beware—I ALWAYS tell myself I only need facewash and socks when I go in that store…but a new mop, two sweaters, light bulbs, throw pillows, and a box of granola bars later…)
Scientific American—Education, Bring Science I love some of the projects on this page. Many of them seem geared for roughly fourth grade and up, but honestly, younger kids would probably like many of the activities too (they just may not understand all of the explanations.) What I really like about the directions page for each project are the question prompts. A key part of scientific inquiry is being able to reason through your methods and results, and the prompts will help work on those critical thinking skills.
University of Wisconsin—Science is Fun, Home Experiments This page has a number of different experiments that you can conduct at home, plus the explanations for how and why the experiments work. Some of the activities are a bit advanced or involved, depending on what kind of resources you have around the house; but overall the page has quite a few great ideas!
Scholastic—Videos of Experiments Maybe today just feels like a quiet afternoon. Maybe you have dinner guests coming and the kitchen needs to stay clean. No matter! Here is a list of some great videos of experiments that you can watch, and perhaps try yourself later. As a side note, some of these videos give great explanations of what’s happening, but some are going to require a little bit of research—hey that could be a good idea though!
Even if you’re working with baking soda and vinegar, it is always important to keep safety in mind. The stereotype of a scientist in lab coat and goggles came about for a reason, and that reason is to protect yourself! Even at home. Before you get started on a project, what sort of PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) will you need? For most of the projects here, old clothes and some sort of glasses or goggles are probably all that you really need, maybe even gloves if you want to be safe (and let’s be real here, you’ll look cooler anyway.) Amazon has some cost-effective starter gear, if you’re interested. And after every experiment, be sure to wash your hands!