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:

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.

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 district.


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 tractors work.

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.

People Who Use Science in Their Work

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.

Nature Hikes

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:

Science Groups and Organizations

There are special groups and organizations for children in many communities. Check out:

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.

Science Camps

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.)

Other Community Resources

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.

Learning from Toys

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:

In the Library and the Bookstore

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 fairly?

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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