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Physics is Child's Play

by Lorraine Nessman

Photo From
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, natural science.

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 concepts.

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 this.

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 into place.

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 school physics.

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 love Him.

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 Earth dances.

Held in the circles of the planets, around her sun she turns, and turns her moon.

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, asleep.

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, 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

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