How (I Try) to Make Little Scientists
It’s an oft-asked question. “How do I get my child interested in science?” I think at this point every parent understands STEM skills are likely to determine their success in a modern world.
Neil Degrasse Tyson had one of the most elegant answers, when he said, “Get out of their way. Kids are born curious.”
Watch that video, I think he’s dead on. Using that as a starting point with my toddler, I found that the concept needed a little tweaking as it went into practice. The root of science is discovery, fascination, and critical thinking. Especially at a young age, you’ll do more in the long run to teach them to love learning than to teach them the periodic table. Here are a few pieces of advice.
Let them generate mess, but not all messes are for the sake of learning. Although I try to remain as laissez-faire as possible, sometimes he is just being a little chaos machine for the joy of watching things fly. These are the times I rein him in. Also, learning to pick up after ourselves is important too. You shouldn’t just be chasing your kid around cleaning up messes to encourage their “creativity”. Balance matters.
- Let your child play with the actual thing, not a plastic replica. Unless it’s directly, imminently dangerous, my son can play with our things. In some circumstances, I will child-proof valuable objects or look for a safer or smaller version. To some, playing with real things seems wasteful, like letting him turn the hose or sink on and off or mix kitchen spices together in a bowl. However, it’s worth the small cost to let them really affect their surroundings and observe the results.
- Explain things to them, even if it’s beyond their current ability to understand. One of the most amazing things to watch is when my son is able to grasp something I didn’t expect him to. If you censor yourself and limit what you share with them, they can never outperform the low bar you’ve set. Become a master at describing complex things in simple terms without losing meaning.
- You can’t teach them what you don’t know. No one, including your kid expects you to pull out the physics from the top of your head when they ask you why the sky is blue or how a prism works, but get comfortable saying “I don’t know, let’s find out.” Chances are the tiny computer you carry around to settle arguments at bars works just as well to answer science questions. When they get older, teaching them how to find the answer will become just as important as the answer itself.
- Marvel at things, get excited, and your child will too. Try to remember the things that were cool to see and learn when you were a kid. Sometimes it’s just natural wonder, like exploring rain puddles or looking at the moon. Stopping to point out and listen to planes, pulling the petals off a flower to see what’s inside, watching bugs, and setting up wind-chimes; literally everything is going to be interesting to them. If you run out of ideas, just watch to see what catches their attention and then tell them all about it or find a way to take it apart. Be an unabashed nerd, and hopefully it will rub off.
- Get feedback from them and be ready to change plans. We took our son to a parade recently, thinking he would be excited to see all the people and cars, only to find out he was more than happy to play in a small puddle the whole time. That was fine, we explore what he wants to, not what I think is interesting.
- Read to them, all the time. You have already heard this a thousand times, but always be reading to them. Before they can crawl, they should be flipping pages just to see what’s in there. It’s the same principle as earlier; if you wait until you think they are ready they can’t surprise you. Don’t try to force anything, just make books available to them.
- Give them a screen, but control it and be judicious about the content. There are lots of great apps and programs out there to promote learning, despite what you might read about the negative effects of screen time. In our house, we never say that it’s “his phone,” but he is often allowed to use momma’s phone with a case on, on the bed for a half hour or so. Flash cards are a good place to start, and a painting app has been one of his consistent favorites. Finding the right game and setup requires a little patience. They have an incredible ability to press the wrong buttons and close the game or open an in-app purchase, but there are ways to mitigate this, or use a different app without those options.
- Finally, just relax. You can’t imbue your child with these skills, you can only make an environment to foster them. Everyone will be different, and learn at different paces.And if all this sounds impossible to manage or there’s never enough time, just remember what Neil said: “Get out of the way.” The worst thing you could do would be to make it a chore or give them the impression they aren’t good at it. To quote the adage, “Don’t just do something, stand there.”