Physics is Child's Play
by Lorraine Nessman
Photo From worldofstock.com
Photographer: Davis Ewing
This writer eloquently explores how even very young children can be introduced to physics concepts.
Physics is child's play! Really! What infant does not thrill to the
wonderful effects of gravity? They are born linguists, and scientists, and
we hardly even know it until their innate genius transfixes us with the
wisdom of simplicity, and that, when we least expect it. They love the
study of all of life, and are quite adept at observation and organization of
megabytes of data.
So what do we normally do to help children learn more about what they
observe on their own? Do we not talk about the color of the toy in the
child's hand? Telling him gently the name of the food he eats? A child's
weakest link to accessing more fully what he loves to observe is what he
does not hear. Children hear the names of birds, animals, friends, foods,
and more. We know they can learn these real life words and many others too.
These words help them interact with people and time and objects in the world
around them. Now, for a twist..... Could they, and should they learn the
words that help them interact with the natural science of physics? Yes,
Even Anna Botsford Comstock considered that the study of physics in nature
is just as important as animals, insects, weather, and so on, or so she
states in the notes at the beginning of her well known and respected
Handbook of Nature Study. She did not address physics herself, not because
she considered the study unimportant, but because it was not her area of
expertise. She did not address the study herself, not because she
considered it above children, but because someone who was familiar with the
science, and loved it, would better draw the heart of each child into the
love of observation, and especially into the process of asking questions.
Still, Anna Botsford Comstock believed that parents who knew how to say, "I
don't know," yet were eager to draw their children's attention to the
amazing miracles in the earth and all of life, were fully capable of
teaching natural sciences to children. Wouldn't she also believe that the
same kind of heart in a teacher would draw the heart of children into the
study of physics in the natural world? Wouldn't she ask us to contemplate
the depth of that calling too?
Before I had seriously considered homeschooling, when my oldest son was
three years old, I was watching an interview with a highly respected
physicist whose father was also a physicist. The thing about the interview
that piqued my interest, as a mother, was that Mr. Physicist Sr. had begun
to introduce physics to Mr. Physicist Jr. when Jr. was only three or four
years old. The thought intrigued me, so I listened further. There was only
one example given as to how this father accomplished such an odd-sounding
feat. As well as I can recall, the example is as follows:
The child was playing with a ball in a wagon. As the child played, the
father asked him what the ball would do next. When the child was surprised
by the results, the father helped him further by supplying him with the
vocabulary for his observations. In essence, the child had begun to learn
the concepts of inertia, and learned the word which identified those
Closer to home, I wondered if my son would have such an interest, and how I
would know. Though now I believe that all children are fascinated by the
basic principles of physics (what baby doesn't experiment with the effects
of gravitation, and with great enthusiasm?), it was fortunate that I did not
know whether my son would be interested.
I say I was fortunate, for, as I watched for signs of interest, I stumbled
upon one of the better ways of teaching. In practice, I waited for a moment
when my son was observing the effects of physical laws, and then asked him
questions about it. As he needed more vocabulary, I offered him help with
The first occasion was modeled on the example of Mr. Physicist Sr. and
Jr.'s. While driving home from day-care, my son was observing the movement
of the pennies in the console. I asked him questions as to what he thought
they would do when the car began moving, and stopped again. He was
fascinated by the results when they agreed with his thinking (his
hypothesis), and when they did not. As the conversation and observations
continued, the benefit of better vocabulary was obvious, and he quickly fell
in love with inertia, developing a hypothesis, variables, etc. Through the
next couple of years, he continued asking questions until it seemed time to
introduce him to Sir Isaac Newton and his three laws, as they would answer
his most recent questions with more clarity. Not remembering them well, I
mentioned asking my father about the laws.
We did not memorize the three laws, but my son was introduced to them
sitting on Grampa's knee. Later, he got excited when I found a biography on
Sir Isaac Newton in the junior section of the library. We read most of it
together. He loved hearing about the kites and lights and experiments that
Newton benefited from as a child, and how Newton expounded on those early
observations when he grew up.
Watching my son ask more and more sophisticated questions was fascinating,
and fortunately, not intimidating. This shouldn't have been intimidating
anyway, as I will explain later, but the fact that I had small introductions
to physics and chemistry in high school gave me confidence that I could
grasp the basics enough to point him in a fairly good direction. What was
even more fascinating than my son's progress, was the nature of the
questions. The increasingly sophisticated questions had to do with laundry
cooling as it came from the clothes drier, cooking, falling leaves, and
other things which we take for granted in our daily lives.
Later, when I took my son out of private school and began to homeschool, I
heard of other homeschooling parents, even previously poor students in
school themselves, who were teaching their children without much, or even
sometimes, any curriculum. They were achieving astounding results. This
seemed foreign and a bit frightful to me. One of the things that they kept
emphasizing was that the home is a laboratory. It is funny that I didn't
understand this right away, although I had been using our home as a
laboratory. But as my son continued to ask questions and learn, it quickly
occurred to me, that I had accidentally stumbled onto some of what these
non-curriculum families were benefiting from.
There is a seven year gap between my oldest two sons. When my second eldest
son became old enough to begin observing the laws of physics, and my eldest
son needed more vocabulary than I had retained from my early introduction to
physics, I went to the library for help. To help us determine better
vocabulary, more understanding of the laws of physics, and
experiments/systems to set up to observe the laws in motion, we checked out
some experiment books, and some biographies of physicists, as they are as
close to heroes as my oldest son has. One of the books we picked up was
Science as it Happens! Family Activities with Children Ages 4 to 8 by Jean
Durgin Harlan, Ph.D. and Carolyn Good Quattrocchi. There is an encouraging
thing I want to share with you from the first chapter of that book. It
discusses, "Why early science?"
"You can make science real and fascinating for your child. And yes, you
can do it.
"You don't have to convert your house into a science lab--it already is
one....In recent decades, educators have realized that the easiest children
to teach in school are those who have already learned much at home. Today
you, as parents, are encouraged to build the foundations of reading as soon
as you can hold both a book and a baby on your lap at the same time......"
"The older, narrow vision of formal, school-based education as the best way
to teach children is changing. But, for the most part, the physical
sciences are still deemed 'too difficult for amateurs to teach.' These are
the very branches of science in which today's American high school students
have been faring so badly.
"But impressive evidence backs the idea that you can help your child with
beginning steps toward future science learning." (Benjamin Bloom, in his
book Developing Talent in Young People.)
"Beginning physical science is only 'too difficult for amateurs to teach'
when taken out of the context of the child's known world..."
Well, that's it. It's simple. Perhaps too simple to quickly feel
comfortable with how simple it is. Once you spend a little time looking at
science this way (and perhaps children's experiment books) it just falls
I remember using my son's "known world" when my son and I discussed the
sheets coming out of the drier and finding ways of putting the issues of
heat loss/surface area into more specific terms (that when the sheet is
spread out, creating greater surface area, the heat loss is faster than when
the sheet is bunched up---and discussed why that would be so). There are
many, many other examples like that. We lived day to day, observing as we
went. When I get a book from the library with experiments, I especially
look for the specific instructions, or vocabulary alone, which I want to
help my children 'run into' when they are in the tub, in the kitchen, etc.
I actually do experiments with them from time to time, and when my thirteen
year old son was eleven I particularly remember one experiment which he
altered as he went. His changes accidentally created a model of clouds
being held up by air pressure, or water pressure increasing as you go deeper
into the ocean. It was an experiment of buoyancy, but he took it further,
discovering the cloud and ocean model on his own. It was rewarding to see
his joy at this simple project. (By the way, I didn't naturally use the
word buoyancy. As his observations increased, my vocabulary became more
distinct and concise for him.)
In another experiment, he concisely discussed why water explodes out of a
cup if it is 'superheated' in a microwave. Since then, my sons have
observed nucleation points in liquid systems as they enjoy carbonated
beverages or cooking together, or even set up experiments themselves. The
oldest son uses most terms effectively while asking even more questions.
Questions I wouldn't have been able to design for him, and terms I wouldn't
have run into except for his questions, but he just keeps running into
these. The second oldest son might instead ask what that word is that
defines the point where the bubble forms (nucleation point). He'll watch
again for a while. Occasionally he'll even ask another question. All the
while, the youngest son just observes our observations. This is a
lifestyle, and one which I do not believe will fade before my youngest has a
chance to begin learning the same way.
Through these various experiments, I began to see how the principles we
discussed at home fit into the equations that had been covered in high
My oldest son, now 13, is currently enrolled in a co-op class using
Conceptual Physics by Paul G. Hewitt. To add to the fun, I am finally
learning enough about physics with him to feel confident that I can take the
next step when he is in high school and teach him a full-blown high school
level physics course. I look forward to obtaining a copy of _Mechanical
Universe_ in the future. We have a physics instructor living across the
street, and he is able to help with the few things that we just can't begin
to dig out of a textbook ourselves. Physics is indeed, at some point, too
complicated for most of us. We each need to determine where that
complicated point is individually, but it is much further up the ladder of
concepts than most of us ever dreamed of. Don't decide quickly that
learning is too much for you. If you decide to learn as a lifestyle, it
comes to you in baby steps until you are ready to walk, and then to run.
While working our way through this particular text (_Conceptual Physics_), I
have acquired better tools to teach my second son more about the wonderful
world of natural physics in his daily life. I am renewed in my fervor to
continue opening up this enlightening science to all four of my children.
This in spite of the fact that I don't necessarily anticipate a single
scientist coming from my home.
Indeed, in our co-op studies, I have come face to face with how much science
has impacted philosophy throughout millennia. Aristotle's views on motion,
first rejected by the church, then later held to by the church dogmatically,
altered our understanding of life, God, each other, and more. Not until
Galileo actually observed the physical world more in keeping with itself
than another man's supposition, did we begin to see new changes in man's
philosophy occur with significant rapidity. Thinking he had local authority
to finally publish his findings, though prosecuted later in spite of his
documentation of that authority, Galileo showed the world that not only
Aristotle's views on motion, but his conclusions about life, though
predominantly accurate, were flawed.
This change in understanding was furthered by Newton's study, conclusions,
and mathematical proofs. Many people began to rationalize that God either
did not exist, or did not need to be a relevant, 'near' God, or any other
sort of argument to explain away their lack of regard for their own creator.
These are rationalized responses to scientific discovery, but they in no way
make science a study in opposing God. The created earth is a reflection of
the creator. Understanding this reflection helps us to understand Him
better. The better we understand Him, the better we can see Him. The
better we see Him, the more fully we will be prepared to reflect Him if we
When we first began science notebooks for my second son, we went to the
library and got books about sound as we studied that God spoke and things
became. Thus, the beginning of a note book. We looked into poetry, etc.
Then, when light was created---another trip to the library and another
notebook. And so on. We learned a song about creation, which he enjoyed.
Some of these notebooks are very detailed--on a child's level, but detailed.
During that time, one example of a 'treasure' that we found from the library
was the following poem, illustrated by a school play, with children
symbolizing the planets, holding stuffed animals which represented the
various moons in the solar system, all spinning in orbit around the child
who stands for the sun--a dance.
"In silent space between the stars, in the middle of the Milky Way, the
Held in the circles of the planets, around her sun she turns, and turns
Through the years she whirls, tilting into summer, spinning into fall,
tipping into winter, twirling past spring. Tilting, spinning, tipping,
twirling, the Earth turns through the days into the nights. Sheltered,
secured, we turn with her, singing, sleeping, dancing, dreaming, awake,
In the silent space between the stars, the Earth dances." (from
Earthdance by Lynn Reiser, copyright 1999 Greenwillow Books) Through
this simple book, it is powerfully clear to the observer what is happening,
even to young children. This poem went into my children's notebooks, along
with jokes, and stamps, and experiments, and listings of biographies. We
are excited about what has happened so far.
In the meantime, I think that many homeschoolers do physics more than they
think. I don't think that I have to 'do' science for my children to have
discovered important scientific principles along the way. That is what we
do most...we just kept observing it on our way about our world, which does
at times inspire a quest. These quests for knowledge involve mere questions
to ponder at times, other times they involve actual experiments. Physics
is gravity, light, inertia, water/solid/vapor, lift, pressure, simple tools,
friction, etc. Many of you have discussed these things with your children,
but have not had the power of this concretely in your mind. These things are
physics. If you occasionally look in a book so you can learn a little
vocabulary, you will start asking more sophisticated questions bit by bit.
You won't always have the answer, but isn't that what constitutes the heart
of a love of learning?
A lifestyle of learning such as this is what will help you begin to piece
together the tools you need to turn your own home into a laboratory. From
these daily interactions with your children, the simple ideas lead to
questions which involve combinations of earlier questions. The interactions
of time, pressure, temperature, etc., with one or more variables changing at
a time, and the way they work within a 'system' are the next step. But it
is a step that you can take together with children. It is child's play.
Let me leave you with the thoughts of Charlotte Mason, in The Original Charlotte Mason Series Volume 2, pp.
36-37, where she says:
"An Idea may exist as an 'Appetency.'--Ideas may invest as an atmosphere,
rather than strike as a weapon. 'The idea may exist in a clear, distinct,
definite form, as that of a circle in the mind of a geometrician; or it may
be a mere instinct, a vague appetency towards something,...like the impulse
which fills the young poet's eyes with tears, he knows not why.' To excite
this 'appetency towards something'--towards things lovely, honest, and of
good report, is the earliest and most important ministry of the educator.
How shall these indefinite ideas which manifest themselves in appetency be
imparted? They are not to be given of set purpose, nor taken at set times.
They are held in that thought-environment which surrounds the child as an
atmosphere, which he breathes as his breath of life; and this atmosphere in
which the child inspires his unconscious ideas of right living emanates from
his parents. Every look of gentleness and tone of reverence, every word of
kindness and act of help, passes into the thought-environment, the very
atmosphere which the child breathes; he does not think of these things, may
never think of them, but all his life long they excite that 'vague appetency
towards something' out of which most of his actions spring. Oh, the
wonderful and dreadful presence of the little child in the midst! "
Copyright 2002 Lorraine Nessman
Used With Permission
Growing Together Family Learning Newsletter, Vol. 1, No. 4, page