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Hands-On Science

by Sue Smith Heavenrich


Photo Purchased From iStockphoto.com
Photographer: Renee Lee





The author describes an unschooling approach to science, which could be incorporated into any home schooling method. Her approach emphasizes real experiences and helping children experience the wonder of discovery



Children are, by nature, scientists. They are eager to find out how something works, and will spend hours patiently taking apart all the alarm clocks in the house (given a chance). Unfortunately, science education seems to discourage learning. There is too much content to cover to meet course requirements, and too little time for lab and field studies. Especially in the lower grades, textbooks tend to avoid the use of sophisticated language and seem dumbed-down. Often the information is over-simplified and broken into sequential bits – neat if you’re organizing an outline, but maybe not the way scientifically-minded children want their information. Mine, for example, want theirs in huge gulps, long words and all.

Scientific discovery implies taking risks – doing an investigation to “find out.” Risks sometimes lead nowhere, and in normal science courses there is no time to redesign experiments. Because risk-taking requires making allowances for “failure,” and because failure is punished in our schooling society, there is little encouragement for students to do creative science.

If we want to raise scientifically literate, inventive thinkers, we must change the way science is learned. We need to create an environment that allows for discovery. For children this means making tools and equipment accessible, and having a place to do messy experiments. We need to eliminate the need to “ask for permission” if we truly want our children to investigate their own questions. This was made clear to me a couple of years ago when my children and their young cousin decided to explore the properties of magnetism. While I was getting breakfast together, these 2- to 5-year old investigators were busy rummaging through the desk drawers and cupboard collecting all the necessary gear. When I peeked around the corner, I found them seriously studying the effects of magnets on compasses. This could not have happened if they’d needed me to get things for them – it was a spontaneous experiment designed to answer a question important to them at that point in time.

Hands-on discovery can get messy, and children need to know that it’s okay to get the table or floor wet. It is by “messing around” that we find new avenues for investigation. Maybe we’ve been doing paper chromatography using markers and food dye and we decide to try adding acids and bases to the water. There’s bound to be spills, and worry about keeping things clean can really inhibit young investigators. Another worry is that things you try “won’t work.” If we can allow ourselves to try experiments without having to know the outcome, we will feel freer to risk discovery.

You can’t shortcut the natural process of discovery. What may appear to an adult as repetitive play may in reality be testing and refinement of a theory. A few years ago Growing Without Schooling (#47) printed a short article describing one boy’s investigation using a balance. He put 16 bottle caps on one side, then a number on the other. He worked with the bottle caps for about three and a half hours convincing himself that 16 on one side would balance 16 on the other. Once convinced, he quickly went on the confirm that 6 wooden cubes balanced 6 wooden cubes, and 12 marbles, 12 marbles.

Traditional science instruction may interfere with this process by substituting textbook reading for actual discovery. This is why hands-on science activities are so important – they provide the vehicle for the child to make his own discoveries. Keep science investigations open-ended and leave experiments set up a while to encourage further play.

Probably the most important part of helping your child learn science is to be willing, yourself, to test uncharted waters. It is okay not to know the answer! This allows you to say, “I don’t know, let’s find out.” I am reminded of a friend’s daughter who decided to return to school when she was in 8th grade. She was so excited because the science room was full of things to use. But her excitement quickly faded. “There is no wonder,” she told me. “We do the labs but they are busywork labs. The teacher doesn’t allow us to ask questions. He’s afraid he won’t know the answer.”

Doing Science

Science often comes from observing the world and asking questions. “What’s inside these old acorns?” “What will hatch from this egg sac?” “What sort of seeds do birds prefer?” “How far does a pickerel frog travel in one leap?” These are the sorts of questions that lead so naturally to collecting information (data), designing tests, and analyzing results.

Scientific inquiry should include fair tests and lead to valid results. One can learn a lot from informal anecdotal stories, but if you want to pursue a question as a scientist might, then you need to take the time to design an experiment. You need to consider: Is our experiment (test) fair? Are we testing only one thing at a time (perhaps the effect of color of light on plant growth). Do we have enough of a sample size to make any prediction? Usually it takes about 40 tests or observations to be able to state results with an amount of certainty. For example, if your child notices that there are some larvae in an old acorn he’s cracked open, you can suggest collecting a lot more and seeing if they have larvae too.

Try to ask questions that can be answered by counting things. This makes collecting the data easier, and you can subject your subjects to statistical analysis. That means you can graph them, chart them, or even do simple statistics.

An important thing to keep in mind is not to let hasty conclusions bias your observations. This is especially important if you are studying animal behavior, perhaps watching beetles on a milkweed plant. A child may observe one beetle climbing on another beetle’s back and waving its antennae around in an agitated way. If he calls this behavior an “attack,” he then colors his subsequent observations and may miss learning that this is really a courtship behavior.

Scientists are often pictured working in labs, surrounded by shelves of glassware and chemicals. But you can do a lot with a notebook, a pencil, and a stopwatch. One of my favorite investigations happened during a bicycle ride. “Why is it,” my son wondered, “that I have to pedal twice as much to go the same distance as you?”

”Let’s look at the bikes,” I suggested, We began by comparing tire sizes, reading the diameter measurements printed on their sides. Then I drew a starting line in the dirt and we lined up our bicycles. We rolled each bike one tire-revolution forward and marked the distance traveled with a stick. When we were finished, we had a visual representation, a crude “bar graph” that showed us something about the relationship between diameter and distance traveled. We hopped back on our bikes to finish our ride, and I thought the investigation was finished. Not so! The minute we got home my son grabbed the bike repair manual. He’d noticed my caliper brakes and gears, and wanted to know about them, too.

This brings up an important point: if it’s real it’s worth studying. Questions that come out of a child’s experiences lead to investigations with results that have personal meaning. Real science has value, and the answers add to our understanding of the world. Unfortunately, too much of the science found in textbooks is “busywork.” One year, when the Gypsy moths were so bad you could hear them munching the forest, my son asked, “How much does a Gypsy moth eat?” Not hard to figure out really … just capture a few and out them into jars, and give them a leaf or two. We made tracings of the leaves, planning to compare eaten leaves with the original tracings and see the area of leaf consumed. A interesting thing happened though. The next day when we retrieved the leaves from the jars, we noticed they’d all been cut in half. Had the leaves been on a tree, the cut part would fall to the ground uneaten. This explained why there were bits of leaves all over the ground outside, and how the larvae could defoliate the leaves so quickly.

One thing necessary to learning is having time to digest the information. If you do a short experiment and it doesn’t seem to generate lots of discussion, wait a bit. Maybe around dinnertime you’ll hear your children talking it over, trying the experiment again on your own. It might be the sort of thing that needs to rattle around inside your heads a bit, but a week later they’ll surprise you with questions that will send you to the reference section of your library.

Remember to take time to analyze and discuss your results. Making graps is a fun activity, and a good way to condense lots of information so you can refer to it later on. If you want to tie in math, then explore “means” and “ranges” (for example the average distance traveled by caterpillars in one minute), or for older students see if you can do a Chi-square test. Just don’t let your calculations get so out of hand that you forget your initial reason for doing the project: to answer a question, to learn, to have fun.

Meeting the Science Requirements

When we wrote up our curriculum plan for the year, we kept it simple and open-ended. Our science instruction encourages a hands-on approach, emphasizing the interconnectedness between the physical and biological sciences. Our children are active participants in designing experiments, collecting data, and organizing the results. We depend primarily on observation and experimentation, go on lots of field trips, and supplement the hands-on studies with reading. We did not list topics to be studied because we do not know what direction our interests will take.

A great advantage of homeschooling science is the freedom to capitalize on current interests. We can study electricity when our child raises the topic, rather than waiting until it’s covered in the curriculum. But what does one do if no one wants to do science? This does sometimes happen … maybe knights in armor is all your child wants to study. If you feel that you really must do something, then find something you want to do. Gather the material, sit at the children’s work table, and begin to experiment. Most likely your reluctant scientists will drift over to see what you’re up to. The as you continue your investigation you can explain the details, offering the children opportunities to help. If you’re using salt and vinegar to to turn tarnished pennies shiny (from the Backyard Scientist series), you might tie it in with a discussion on how knights cleaned their armor.

Make science interdisciplinary. There are some good science stories you can use for reading time, and collecting and analyzing data bring you into the realm of mathematics. If your question touches on the relationship of humans with the environment or each other you have a tie in with social studies. Sound and color experiments combine with music and art.

The amount of time we spend “doing science” fluctuates each week and depends upon the seasons. We might spend an hour in the garden watching bees or digging for soil critters, or 15 minutes observing birds at the feeder. The National Science Teachers Association recommends a minimum of one and one-half hour per week in grades K-3, and two and one-half hours per week in grades 4-6. Though it’s not a lot of time, even 20 minutes a day can be a lot of science if the time is actually devoted to doing an investigation.

Whatever your style and inclination, there are a number of inquiry skills that should be include din your science activities. They include: classifying (sorting things into groups using a system); creating models (graphs, diagrams, charts, 3-D models, photographs); formulating hypotheses; generalizing (drawing conclusions); identifying variables (factors that would influence your study); inference; making decisions; interpreting data; manipulating materials (using the tools of scientific study); measuring; observing (using the senses to predict as much as you can); predicting; recording data; replicating (duplicate someone else’s experiment or procedure to see if you get the same results); and using numbers.

At the elementary and middle school level, science combines the study of the physical world and life sciences. There are lots of everyday activities that involve science in some way. Growing a garden, cooking, keeping track of rainfall, or going on nature walks are just a few of them. Or take a field trip – a visit to the zoo, planetarium, museum, or local nursery. Include reading biographies of scientists and inventors. Hearing about real people often makes science come alive for children, and may spur them on to investigate something new. Though most encyclopedias and books focus on well known make scientists and inventors, there are many women, blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans who have contributed to our understanding of how the world works.

From the Editor:
Sites Offering Ideas for Hands-On Science Projects
  1. Exploratorium: Science Snacks
    These “snacks” are not food-related. San Francisco’s Exploratorium has provided a generous collection of simple experiments you can do at home. Each project is beautifully organized and includes a list of materials needed, instructions for assembly, instructions with hints on what to pay attention to during the experiment, and an explanation of “what’s going on.” These experiments explore principles discovered by famous scientists as well as principles of light, reflection, chemistry, electricity, life science, and numerous other topics. A discussion board is also provided.
  2. Worksheet: “How to Carry Out a ‘Wicked’ Science Investigation

    This worksheet, in PDF format, walks children through the steps in the scientific process.
  3. http://www.homeschoolscience.com/”>Homeschool Science
    This site offers free sample lesson plans, including magnet investigations, a “bird song safari,” and a demonstration of how a pond skater is able to walk on water.
  4. Not-So-Messy hands-On Science
    This includes four science activities on animal adaptations, the water cycle, aquatic ecosystems, and animal habitats.
  5. Web-Weather for Kids: Science Activities
    This offers hands-on activities related to weather, including making “fog in a jar,” and “making” a cloud, a tornado, and lightning.
  6. East Central Educational Service Center: Home Projects
    This site offers five hands-on electricity investigations.
  7. The Lesson Plans PageThis is an enormous collection of science activities, organized by topic. It also offers ideas for interdisciplinary connections, such as literature tie-ins. See also The Lesson Plans Page: Science Experiments.. “These are mostly for grades 6-8 but are easily adaptable to other grades.”


Copyright 1994 by Sue Smith Heavenrich

This article originally appeared in the January/February issue of Home Education Magazine and is taken from The Homeschool Reader: Collected Articles from Home Education Magazine 1984-1994 (second revised edition) edited by Mark and Helen Hegener. Tonasket, WA: Home Education Press, 1997. I found this collection of articles, which illuminate ways of experiencing joyful, living learning, delightful to read. “Hands-On Science” is reprinted with the permission of Sue Smith Heavenrich and Helen Hegener.

See also: “Caterpillar Secrets” by Sue Smith Heavenrich

Growing Together Family Learning Newsletter, Vol. 1, No. 4, page

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