Ask any young child what he thinks of the natural sciences and he’ll likely offer a blank stare. But point out the moon, or that frog, or that ant or worm and you’ll have his immediate attention. That’s because the smallest areas of a child’s world are filled with opportunities for discovery: the sink is thrilling, the tub is riveting, sand is extraordinary, a rock may bespectacular, a blade of grass is often captivating and dust specks suspended in a slant of yellow sunshine in the laundry room window might be miraculous. Nothing is overlooked; everything is worth investigating.

Your child is already a budding scientist. Be alert and you will see her using elements of the scientific method as she plays, starting with her own observations. Then, she hypothesizes by offering explanations of what she observes. She tests her predictions, draws conclusions and revises her explanations based on her experience. When done in sequence, this is the scientific method!

Today, there are better reasons than ever to promote children’s natural scientific tendencies. The federal education reform law, No Child Left Behind, mandates regular standardized testing in science beginning in 2007. By 2013-2014, all students will need to score at a “proficient” level in science.

This may help to address the problem of American students scoring much lower than students in other industrialized nations on science tests. But the best reason to encourage your child’s scientific appreciation is your child’s well-being; as he develops his science sense, your child gains the means to uncover the hidden laws of the natural world, an empowering experience. As Douglas Wood, former president of the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine, said, “Science education liberates the human intellect”.

10 Great Ways to Foster Science Sense

1. Promote experimentation. Your child is full of ideas as to how things work. Adopt a philosophy that there is no such thing as a preposterous hypothesis. Test whatever is possible, no matter how absurd. For example, if your child states that his paper flower will grow into a tree, ask him how. Do what he suggests. See if it becomes a tree. Ask him what he thinks now that he’s seen the result. Ludwig Wittgenstein, the renowned philosopher, once said, “If people did not do silly things, nothing intelligent would ever get done.”

2. Talk less, do more. Keep it hands-on. Confucius said, “I hear, and I forget. I see, and I remember. I do, and I understand.” Children want to do something while they’re learning. Let them touch it, manipulate it or interact with it. As any parent knows, young children do not have the patience for lengthy or complex explanations. And they don’t need them right now. Mastery of concepts or accuracy of understanding is not as important in the early years as simply enjoying scientific endeavors.

3. Ask questions. The best questions are those that can’t be answered with a “yes” or “no.” Try: “What do you see?” “What is it doing?” “What do you think will happen?” “How can we find out?” The point is not so much to get the right answer, but to hone observation skills and start thinking analytically. Your questions demonstrate to your child that asking questions is the first step to finding answers.

4. Focus on tangibles. Young children are most interested in things they can perceive with their senses. When there is an opportunity to introduce abstract concepts, use tangibles as props and relate the idea to the child’s familiar experiences. For example, in learning about photosynthesis, touch real plants and talk about plants needing nutrition and water and sunshine, just like a person does.

5. Make something. If he loves the night sky, he can help make a model of the solar system from circles you cut out. Tell stories about the names of the planets (all derived from mythology). Young children are intrigued that even though Venus was the Goddess of Love and Beauty, her planet smells like sulfur – a funny smell to a preschooler! Try science activities geared for kids; you can find these in books and on the Internet.

6. Get bodies moving. More than 20 years ago, Howard Gardner, professor of Cognition and Education at Harvard University, proposed a particular type of smarts called “kinesthetic intelligence.” Ever since, educators have been incorporating bodily movement in the learning process. To learn about metamorphosis, for example, your child can pretend to be a caterpillar emerging as a butterfly from a chrysalis and flying away. To learn about where the sun goes at night, ask your child to hold a globe or ball and turn around (rotation) while walking around a lit lamp (revolution). He is the earth. The lamp is the sun.

7. Observe by using all five senses. The practice of careful observation is critical to thinking scientifically. Encourage your child to see more of what is in front of her. Ask her questions that require noticing details; “What color is it?” “How many legs does it have?” “Is it bumpy or smooth?” Make a “spectacle” by twisting a circle at the top of a pipe cleaner. She can hold it near varied things and describe only what she can see through the circle. Activities that require closed eyes can help her discover what can be observed by touching, hearing, tasting, and smelling. Children enjoy guessing the names of objects concealed in a bag just by touching them.

8. Pursue high-interest topics. Preschoolers, for example, are very interested in their bodies, from what they’re made of and how the parts work to waste elimination and gender differences. They’re fascinated with animals, plants and outer space. When you respond to your child’s individual interests, learning is enhanced.

9. Accentuate science in your home. Create a “Question Corner.” When you don’t have time to research answers, post your child’s questions on a sheet of paper or a whiteboard. This lets your child know you take his questions seriously; he will believe in the importance of his own ideas for investigation. Other things to do frequently at home: Display your child’s “collection of the day.” Everything is fair game: rocks, leaves, sticks and even weeds. Create a science scrapbook to exhibit your child’s drawings of his observations. Read books about science and scientists.

10. Research. Use the phrase, “Let’s find out,” when your child asks a question. Involve your child in the investigative process. Books, the Internet and videos are good sources of information, but don’t stop there. Often, people and places provide more immediate and compelling information. Police officers, firefighters and post office staff are open to answering children’s questions if you call first to arrange a visit. Visit historical places and talk about inventions that have made life easier than it was in the past. Visit a sewage treatment plant to answer the question, “Where does my poop go?” Check out kid-friendly programs at area science museums.

As you put these principles into practice, you’ll notice that your child becomes more inquisitive, more creative, more observant and very excited about his discoveries. And the most important discovery he can make during these early years is:  “I like science.”

Science Activities

Build a Volcano: for hands-on lessons in geology

Volcanoes thrill all ages! They begin when pressure forces magma up through natural pipes under the earth through the earth’s surface. Lava is magma exposed to oxygen.

Step 1: Make a cone shape out of modeling clay or aluminum foil shaped around a cup.

Step 2: Form a “crater” in the top of the cone. Optional: Press a round container into the top of the clay for the crater.

Step 3: Add any amount of baking soda to the “crater.”

Step 4: Add any amount of vinegar to the baking soda to make it fizz. This is the lava. Optional: Add food coloring.

Create Slime: for hands-on lessons in chemistry

Try this oozy, gooey slime recipe. The water molecules and borax molecules interact with the glue molecules to make a new substance.

Step 1: Make borax solution: Add 1 Tbs. borax to 1 cup water (Borax is in the laundry detergent section of the grocery store).
Step 2: Make white glue solution: Mix 1/2 cup glue with 1/2 cup water.
Step 3: Pour both solutions into an airtight plastic bag and knead until mixed. Add food coloring if desired. Variations: Add shaving cream, baby powder or glow-in-the-dark paint to the mixture.

Experiment with Bubbles: for interactive lessons in physics

When asked what is inside a bubble, most young children will respond by saying, “nothing.” Bubbles are a great way to demonstrate that air occupies space. Air is “something.” The soap film holds air inside. Bubbles are shaped by the balance between the outward air pressure and the inward surface tension of the soap film when it is filled with air. Try this recipe:

Step 1: Add 1 part Dawn or Joy dishwashing liquid to 10 parts water. Try 2 1/2 cups of water to 1/4 cup of dishwashing liquid.
Step 2: Add Karo syrup or gelatin for longer-lasting bubbles
Step 3: Make your own bubble blower by cutting three small slits into one end of a drinking straw and pressing it so that it is splayed. Or, make a loop in a pipe cleaner or any stiff wire. You can also use a kitchen funnel or make your own funnel from a milk jug.

Fossilize your Foot: for adventures in paleontology

This is an exciting activity for your little dinosaur lover! Many fossils – such as dinosaur “bones” – are really minerals that formed in the imprint of the skeleton of a dead animal after the skeleton eroded into the soil.

Step 1: Fill a pan with sand. Step in the sand to leave an imprint.

Step 2: Make Plaster of Paris according to package directions (it’s available at craft stores).

Step 3: Pour the plaster mixture into the footprint. When the plaster dries, you can remove your fossilized foot from the sand!

Have a Minute? Try Some Instant Science

• Make Raisins Dance: Add raisins to a glass of ginger ale. They will slowly sink, then rise as they collect bubbles in their wrinkles. The bubbles pop at the top and the raisin sinks again. The density of the raisins changes as bubbles adhere to the raisin-wrinkles and changes again when the bubbles pop.

• Create your own Rainbows: Lay a small mirror in a pan of water to make rainbows appear. The water and mirror have a prism-like effect on the light.

• Make “Rubber” Eggs: Soak a raw whole egg in vinegar for 72 hours. Immediately, you’ll see bubbles collect on the eggshell. Over time, the egg will float. The shell will erode due to calcium loss. Children love to hold the egg since the texture is totally different and feels bouncy. Take the egg outside to see if it bounces. (It doesn’t, but it’s fun to discover that first-hand!)

Sheila DePuydt is a former elementary school teacher, curricula developer, and a current freelance writer from Quincy, MA.