Tuesday, April 13, 2010

How to Stimulate Scientific Curiosity in Your Kids

A lot of people - parents and teachers - ask for my advice on how to get kids interested in science. My answer: It's easier than you think.

Kids are naturally curious, and science, in my humble opinion, is simply the Art of Curiosity. Getting kids to be interested in scientific topics and to develop scientific know-how is less a matter of turning them on than not turning them off.

Here are some of my suggestions for giving kids the science bug. I'm basing my ideas on the zillion and a half classroom presentations I've done to date. And no, I'm NOT exaggerating (ok, maybe it just feels like a zillion...)

1. Don't pretend to know everything. Don't think you have to  know everything. When your daughter asks a question you can't answer, such as, "Why does grandpa have so much hair growing out of his ears?" admit you are puzzled too! Then hunt up the answer together. Sometimes, this will entail a bit of research at the library or on the Internet. Other times, it will require direct observation and analysis - Aha! You're now doing an experiment!

2. Get out of their faces. Kids need time to think, to muse, to ponder and to wonder - just like adults. That's where intriguing questions come from: How do fireflies light up like that? Are rocks alive? Do dogs feel happiness or anger? What makes Jello jello-y? Children can't let their minds go down paths that interest them if you are constantly guiding them, directing them, or just bugging them.

3. Similarly, don't overprogram your kids. Guess what - sending your kids to science camp may be less helpful to developing a scientific-minded kid than letting them hang out at the park. Time is critical to developing critical-thinking skills (sorry for the bad pun!): Compulsive busyness is the death of thought.

4. Develop your own spirit of science inquiry.  Get in the habit of questioning whatever you hear, see or read. Is anti-bacterial cleanser really better than the ordinary stuff? What about organic food - will it really affect your health, or is a scam? What does "a 25% increase in childhood obesity" really mean? Then find out the answers to your own questions. Discuss with your kids, so they see how asking a question is the first step toward learning. Just like - drumroll - science!

5. Let 'em muck about.  Ok, not on your heirloom dining table. But let your kids explore everything and anything - mud, eggs, tree bark, the underside of a cockroach. You can help them by providing tools that will turn random exploration into productive creativity: notebooks for jotting down questions as they arise, or findings; sketchpad to make drawings, field guides, magnifying glasses, etc. The more varied the materials and experiences kids are exposed to, the richer their thinking will be; it's hard to be curious about how seeds are formed if you've never planted one.

6. Honor their efforts, more than the results. You can't do science without making mistakes. Blind alleys, false findings, and just plain screw ups: these are not only part and parcel of the scientific process, they are the very foundation of it. Graham Bell made more mistakes than you can throw a cell phone at. Edison tested thousands of new inventions, and most of them failed - he made something like 900 previous attempts at his light bulb before he hit on the one that worked. Remind kids that in the world of science, there is not always a "right" answer, just "better" answers. (In fact, you can't actually prove a hypothesis is true, only that it is not false!)

One of my favorite activities to do with kids comes from my book Science on the Loose.  We lay a jump rope on the floor in a circle, then draw it tighter and tighter until a watching "victim" thinks it's the circumference of their waist. The victim steps into the circle and we lift up the rope to see how accurate the guess. No one has ever guessed even remotely correctly!  I ask kids to develop a hypothesis - a guess - of why this might be the case. And then I tell them that any of their hypotheses may be right, because no one knows the answer, even though this activity has been replicated thousands of times all over the world.

Trying to discover the answer to this puzzle - That's science.  We're all capable of doing it. Whether or not our children find the answers isn't the point of science learning. Instead, it's all about asking the questions. 

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