Helping Your Child Learn Science - Activities in the Community
Activities in the Community
Our communities provide still more opportunities to learn science.
Almost all children enjoy a trip to the zoo. We can use zoos to
encourage our child's interest in the natural world and to introduce
children to the many fascinating forms of life.
Here are a few suggestions to help make your visit worthwhile:
- Guessing games can help your child understand structure and
function. "Why do you think the seal has flippers?" (The seal
uses flippers to swim through the water.) "Why do you think the
gibbons have such long and muscular arms?" (Their arms help them
swing through the trees.) "Why does the armadillo have a head
that looks like it's covered with armor, as well as a body that's
covered with small, bony plates?" (The armor and the small, bony
plates protect it from being attacked by predators.) "Why is the
snake the same brown color as the ground on which it spends most
of its time?" (As snakes evolved, the brown ones didn't get eaten
as quickly.) As your children mature, they will understand more
complex answers to these questions.
- Children can learn about organization by seeing related animals.
Have them compare the sizes, leg shapes, feet, ears, claws,
feathers, or scales of various creatures. Ask them, "Does the
lion look like a regular cat?" "How are they the same?" "Does
the gorilla look like the baboon?"
Discuss expectations with your children ahead of time. What do they
think they'll find at the zoo? Very young or insecure children may go
to the zoo with a more positive attitude if they are assured that it
has food stands, water fountains, and bathrooms.
Don't try to see everything in one visit. Zoos are such busy places
that they can overwhelm youngsters, particularly preschoolers and
those in primary grades.
Try to visit zoos at off times or hours (in winter, for example, or
very early on a Saturday morning). This provides some peace and quiet
and gives children unobstructed views of the animals.
Look for special exhibits and facilities for children, such as "family
learning labs" or petting zoos. Here, children can touch and examine
animals and engage in projects specially designed for them. For
example, at the HERPlab (derived from the word herpetology) at the
National Zoo in Washington, D.C., visitors can learn about reptiles and
amphibians by doing everything from assembling a turtle skeleton to
locating the different parts of a snake.
Plan follow-up activities and projects. A child who particularly
liked the flamingos and ducks may enjoy building a bird house for the
back yard. One who liked the mud turtle may enjoy using a margarine
tub as a base to a papier-mâonflex;ché turtle.
Museums are designed today to interest visitors of all ages. Science
and technology museums, natural history museums, and children's museums
can be found in many middle-sized and smaller communities like
Bettendorf, Iowa, and Worland, Wyoming, as well as in large
metropolitan areas like Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York.
Museums vary in quality. If possible, seek out those that provide
opportunities for hands-on activities. Look for museums with:
Natural history museums sometimes have hands-on rooms where children
can stroke everything from lizards to Madagascan hissing cockroaches.
- Levers to pull;
- Lights to switch on;
- Buttons to push;
- Animals to stroke; and
- Experiments to do.
Many museums offer special science classes. Look for omnitheaters.
These enable visitors to see movies on subjects ranging from space
launches to rafting on the Amazon projected on a giant screen. The
sounds and sights of the experience are extremely realistic.
If you are unfamiliar with museums in your area, consult a librarian,
the Yellow Pages of your telephone book, a local guidebook, or the
local newspapers, which often list special exhibits.
Many tips for visiting the zoo are also helpful when you visit museums
or other community facilities. For example, don't try to cover too
much on one visit, and do try visiting at off hours when the crowds
won't seem overwhelming.
Planetariums have wonderful exhibits and activities for youngsters.
There are about 1,000 planetariums in the United States, ranging from
small ones that hold about 20 people to giant facilities with 300 or
more seats. These facilities are particularly useful for children in
urban areas, where metropolitan lights and pollution obstruct one's
view of the solar system. Inside planetariums, children often can:
To find the nearest planetarium, call the astronomy or physics
department at a local college, your local science museum, or the
science curriculum specialist or science teachers in your school
- Use telescopes to view the rings of Saturn;
- See the "sky" with vivid clarity from inside the planetarium's
- Step on scales to learn what they would weigh on the moon or on
Aquariums enable youngsters to see everything from starfish to
electric eels. Children particularly enjoy feeding times. Call ahead to
find out when the penguins, sharks, and other creatures get to eat. And
check for special shows with sea lions and dolphins.
A visit to a farm makes a wonderful field trip for elementary school
youngsters. But parents can also arrange visits. If you don't know a
farmer, call the closest 4-H Club for a referral. Consider dairy farms,
as well as vegetable, poultry, hog, and tree farms.
On a dairy farm, see the cows close up, view silos, and learn what
cows eat. Find out from the farmer:
A visit to a farm also enables children to identify the difference
between calves, heifers, and cows; to watch the cows being milked; to
see farm equipment; to sit on tractors; and to ask questions about how
- Up to what age do calves drink only milk?
- When do they add other items to their diets? What are they?
- Why are the various foods a cow eats nutritious?
If you visit a vegetable farm, encourage your children to look at the
crops and ask questions about how they grow. If your children grew up
in an urban area, they may have no idea what potatoes or beans look
like growing in a field.
See if your children can spend part of a day or even an hour with a
park ranger, pharmacist, veterinarian, chemist, engineer, or
laboratory technician. This can teach the importance of science for
many jobs. Before the visit, encourage your children to read about the
work so they will be able to ask good questions during the visit.
Many communities have parks, forests, or nature areas in which to
walk. Some of these have centers where visitors can do everything from
observe beehives to learn about flora and fauna. If these facilities
are unavailable, walk around your neighborhood and help your children:
- Collect and identify leaves or rocks;
- Observe pigeons, squirrels, butterflies, ants, or spider webs;
- Observe differences among the dogs and cats you see; and
- Talk about the special features of the birds and flowers you
There are special groups and organizations for children in many
communities. Check out:
- Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, or Camp Fire, Inc.;
- Y.M.C.A.s or Y.W.C.A.s;
- 4--H groups; or
- The National Audubon Society.
Some groups focus solely on a particular science activity--ham radios,
for instance, or computers. Schools sometimes organize groups for
students with special science interests.
Contact the National Audubon Society, which runs ecology camps, the
National Wildlife Federation's Ranger Rick Wildlife Camp in North
Carolina (which is a good choice for children who love nature); or the
U.S. Space Camp at Huntsville, Alabama. (See Notes section.)
Look into botanical gardens, weather stations, hospital
laboratories, sewage treatment plants, newspaper plants, radio and
television stations, and after school programs such as Hands On
Science Outreach, Inc., (HOSO) or a Challenger Center.
Children don't need fancy science toys or kits to learn science. But
if you want to buy some for your children, plenty are
available. Look in toy stores, hobby shops, other specialty shops, or
in catalogs. It is beyond the scope of this booklet to recommend
specific toys. However, these tips can guide you:
- Children may not benefit if a toy or activity is a poor match for
their interests or temperaments.
- Learn what the toy can and cannot do before you buy it. Many
youngsters have looked through a toy telescope and been
disappointed when they couldn't see bumps and craters on the moon.
- Read instructions carefully so you gain everything possible from
Libraries and bookstores have a growing number of books to teach
children science. Many are educational, beautifully illustrated, and
fun to read. But science can also be learned from "non-science" books,
such as fiction, biographies, autobiographies, and history books.
When selecting books, remember that recommended reading levels printed
on the jackets or backs of books are not always helpful. After the
third grade, what children read is usually based as much on interest as
it is on reading level.
The National Science Teachers Association asks a range of questions
when evaluating books for young people:
Is the author reliable? Does the author have a good background and
reputation? Is the content interesting to children? Is the sequence of
events logical? Is the material accurate? Is the format pleasant? Are
the illustrations accurate, and do they match the text? Is the
vocabulary appropriate? (Big words are OK as long as they are explained
and used in context.) Are biases evident (biases against race, sex, or
nationality)? Does the book glorify violence? Are controversies handled
Are the suggested activities safe? Practical?
The appendices list some of the science books
appropriate for elementary school children, and suggests places to
find still more. The appendix also lists magazines and periodicals
for elementary school children that focus on science.
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on to the Parents and the Schools