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Introducing science to kids: Fun activities and developmental milestones

Wednesday - 5/22/2013, 7:40am  ET

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Children explore one of the giant atlases at the Our World exhibit at the National Children's Museum. They can learn about Earth's physical structure, climate and natural resources. (Courtesy of the National Children's Museum)

Alex Beall and Rachel Nania, wtop.com

WASHINGTON - Incorporating scientific methods and processes into young people's daily lives can be as easy as collecting rocks or playing in the sand.

But teaching kids about science shouldn't be taken so lightly -- experts says it's as important as teaching them the alphabet.

"Science is a core learning skill, much like reading and writing," says Andrea Ramey, science manager at the National Children's Museum. "Science actually gives you the tools to be able to not only understand what you're reading and writing, but to take what you're reading and writing to another level."

According to Ramey, science helps children understand and analyze information and also predict more clearly and accurately future events and consequences.

So when should parents start introducing their kids to science?

National Child Research Center head Liz Barclay says science can begin almost immediately.

"I am a big believer in the fact that the scientist is awakened in the crib," says Barclay, emphasizing that basic senses unlock the first forms of scientific inquiry. "Tasting, touching, hearing -- these are all the beginnings of self- discovery."

Once children reach preschool age, they are able to wrap language around that sense of self-discovery. This, in turn, forms a context for daily life.

"Suddenly purposeful play becomes the scientific method," says Barclay, who describes that something as simple as building a tower and realizing it gets knocked over when it's bumped is science.

When children get a bit older, Ramey says they can be introduced to inquiry-based learning. This involves letting children ask questions, then responding in a way that allows them to use inferences, observations and hypothesis to come to the answer.

"Inquiry-based learning is the best way to not just introduce information, but layer information," Ramey says. "As (kids) ask the simple questions, they'll get older and their questions will become more complicated -- and then you teach them how to go about addressing those complicated questions. Questions that don't have obvious answers, you teach them how to go and research the information."

Barclay says allowing children to be creative everyday also encourages scientific thought.

"Encourage curiosity and asking questions, which is what science is," Barclay says. "Let them come up with ideas and they will be curious about the everyday things."

In addition to fostering a child's logical development, introducing science also instills compassion and understanding for nature.

Barclay says is it important for young children to learn about science and the environment, since they are the future for pioneering new forms of green energy and solving issues related to climate change.

Teaching science at home: Easy ideas for parents to introduce to children.

There are a lot of inexpensive tools and mess-free ideas parents can use at home to teach kids about science. Using everyday household and recyclable products is one way to keep the cost of home projects low, Ramey says.

A child can learn how to use binoculars by looking through two toilet tissue rolls strung together. Kids can also put saran wrap on the front of the "binoculars" to explore how different materials filter light.

Test out chemical reactions with children by mixing baking powder and vinegar for a small explosion, or combining corn starch and water to make slime. Mixing food coloring colors and playing with the texture of paint is also a good way for children to explore.

Barclay says bath time can easily turn into some active and engaging science time. Discuss the basic properties of water with kids. What happens to the water level when you fill a tub and then get in? What happens to some of that water if you freeze or heat it? These are all questions that can be explored in the tub.

Going outside allows children to experience the natural world of animals and plants. Ramey stresses that parks are loaded with earth and environmental science resources. Pack a magnifying class so kids can catch insects and observe -- up close -- how they function.

Ideas for where to "find science" in the D.C. area.

Just because schools will soon close their doors for summer, doesn't mean science lessons need to cease. Here are some ideas and activities for how to incorporate science into everyday summer life.

  • Take advantage of the area's museums. Museums like Air and Space, the National Zoo and the National Museum of Natural History are all free and offer a variety of science-based exhibits and hands-on activities for youth. Other museums, like the National Children's Museum at National Harbor, the Playseum in Bethesda and the soon-to-be Children's Science Center planned for Herndon, offer other play-and-science-based activities for kids.

  • Take a hike. As Ramey suggests, getting out for a nature walk, taking a trip to a local park or going on a hike are all great ways to learn more about nature and environmental science. Rock Creek Park's Nature Center and Planetarium offers exhibits (like the beehive display), guided nature walks and topic-specific programs. Other state and local parks offer similar programs. And spending time at the beach can easily morph into a marine biology lesson.

  • Mix it up in the kitchen. Baking soda and vinegar aren't the only ingredients that help to teach science to kids. Cooking, in general, is a great math and science lesson. Barclay suggests some basic topics to cover: What does it take for bread to rise? What happens to flavors and textures when you mix in different ingredients? What does heat do to food? The Exploratorium Museum is San Francisco offers some tips and suggestions for integrating a science lesson into cooking.

  • Build, build, build. Building towers out of blocks, Legos or other materials introduces kids to the basics of physics. How tall can you go before a tower topples? How much width and support does a tower need? Trial and error in basic play is a great way to weave in science.

  • Take a trip to the playground or the library. "A playground with nothing is sometimes the best," Barclay says. "They will find the nature and become scientists." Barclay also says finding some books in the non-fiction section of the library is a great way to immerse kids in science topics that are harder to observe in everyday life, like space.

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