We learned all kinds of things from our parents—manners, safety, housekeeping, how to make a cake, how to pump our legs to make ourselves go high on a swing and where to find crayfish in a creek. As they showed us how to reach these small successes in our daily life, they also taught us science knowledge—even though they may not have known a lot about psychology, physiology, chemistry, physics or animal adaptation. In learning by doing, young children get support for their later formal education: they build a set of experiences that they can recall and relate to new information in middle school science classes and beyond.

Adults don't have to have all the scientific expertise and answers to enjoy exploring the natural world with children. You actually will be behaving like a scientist when you say, "That's a question I don't know the answer to. Let's make some more observations and see if we can figure it out." By example, adults can show children how to ask questions and investigate—and then try to find out more by making focused observations, asking others or reading a book. Research has shown that "when parents play an active role, their children achieve greater success as learners, regardless of socioeconomic status, ethnic/racial background, or the parents' own level of education," according to findings summarized in the National Science Teachers Association's (NSTA) position statement Parent Involvement in Science Learning. "Furthermore, the more intensely parents are involved, the more confident and engaged their children are as learners and the more beneficial the effects on their achievement." (For more on these findings, see the work by Henderson et al. [pdf] and the findings from Cotton et al., respectively.)

Just as there is not one "best" set of steps in science inquiry conducted by scientists, children's participation in science inquiry does not follow a set order but often proceeds in a circular way, with investigations turning up new questions that lead to further avenues to explore. The most successful efforts at inquiry require identification of assumptions, something that children may not do without adult guidance. They may think their beginning ideas, such as, "Heavy things don't float," or "All metals are attracted to magnets," are facts. Parents and teachers can help children uncover their misconceptions by talking about their ideas and, after doing an activity, revisiting the discussion.

To support your child's explorations, use productive questions to guide their participation in science activities. Productive questions—such as, "Why do you suppose…?"—don't put children on the spot, because there is more than one correct answer. Open-ended questions—such as "I wonder why…?" and "What else might have caused…?"—encourage children to think to formulate an answer. You also can direct attention ("What do you notice?") and help children to reason and look for evidence ("What are some reasons to explain…", "How would you explain…" and "What else might have caused…?").

By recognizing the presence of science in everyday life, and by taking time to do activities with children, you expose them to new experiences and increase their science literacy and critical-thinking skills—their understanding of how to review evidence and their ability to make good choices based on information.

Bring science to your home by trying the Bring Science Home tabletop activities for children ages 6 to 12 years. In less than an hour, you will share a fun experience, spur an interest in science and support your child's developing science literacy.

Additional Resources

In print

Spark Your Child's Success in Math and Science: Practical advice for parents, Barber, J., N. Parizeau, and L. Bergman, 2002. Berkeley, Calif.: Lawrence Hall of Science, University of California at Berkeley

Family Science, by Heil, D., G. Amorose, A. Gurnee, and A. Harrison, 1999. Portland, Ore.: Foundation for Family Science


Young Children's Inquiry chart [pdf], by Dyasi, Hubert, and Karen Worth 

Science Snacks (activities), from the Exploratorium: the museum of science, art and human perception

National Science Teachers Association's Early Years blog: Tips and resources for science learning from pre-K–grade 2

Understanding Science: How science really works, "an inside look at the general principles, methods, and motivations that underlie all of science." See section on Understanding Science 101

About the Author: Peggy Ashbrook has been teaching science to young children since 1988. Based on her experiences as a parent, family home childcare provider, and preschool teacher, she developed activities to introduce two-, three-, and four-year-old children to scientific inquiry. Peggy is active in the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) and National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), and writes The Early Years science activity column for Science and Children, the NSTA's elementary school journal. Her book, Science Is Simple: Over 250 activities for preschoolers (Gryphon House 2003), is a teacher resource book for early childhood educators.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Image courtesy of iStockphoto/robcruse