Hard science for lil' shavers
October 4, 2006 1:38 AM   Subscribe

I want to give my 4 year old a decent grounding in science, but I'm prety dim, myself. Where do I start?

I'd like to make the world a bigger place for my kid. We've been exploring the environment around here and it's been a lot of fun for the both of us, but now I'm looking for good math and science resources, online or on the printed page.
posted by maryh to Education (22 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
It wouldn't hurt you or your kid to learn some math and science together. Consider it one of the fruits of being a parent, and stop being afraid of doing the work to become literate in math and science as you bring those topics to your child.

If you struggled in algebra, resolve to struggle again when the time comes, this time with an audience, who may learn something about the worth of knowledge from your furrowed brow. If you need a tutor, it may show that child that tutoring is a necessary thing, outside his own needs.

That said, at the age of 4, so much depends on skills not related to books or computer screens, that drawing your child's attention to Internet sources or books may not be the most effective way of preparing him to observe and reason, at this time, where sciences are concerned.

Now is the time to learn to count. Now is the time to learn to observe. Now is the time to learn to be patient, and watch quietly the world around you. Get a pet, if you haven't one. Get a plant, if you haven't any. Ask the child to count things, and show him why knowing numbers is important in your life. Give the child the best attitude, and you've done 95% of the teaching you, as a parent, need to do.

When your child is reading, the Internet will still be here, and librarians will still be working in the libraries where you live.
posted by paulsc at 1:54 AM on October 4, 2006 [1 favorite]

There is no better foundation for chemistry than the culinary arts. You will be teaching your child how to prepare a workspace, assemble the necessary ingredients and equipment, and follow directions. Once your child is comfortable with a few recipes you can start varying them. Your child will have learned that different conditions produce different results and he or she will, with time, learn to hypothesise and test his or her theories. The results of these experiments may or may not be edible, but they will be educational or, at the very least, entertaining.
posted by Joe in Australia at 2:47 AM on October 4, 2006 [2 favorites]

I have fond-ish memories of this book. It makes math interesting and the concepts are fun and wonder-inducing; if you can get the kid interested in math, it will be much easier to teach him.
posted by Rubber Soul at 3:08 AM on October 4, 2006

posted by beccaj at 4:28 AM on October 4, 2006

When I was young, my mother read science books for kids to me along with regular children's stories. To this day, nothing has done more for my appreciation of science and my understanding of its purpose. I highly recommend that route...it definitely turned me on to science. Just make sure the books are good. Oh, and don't be afraid to let him/her start learning about things that are supposed to be too advanced for his age. It's amazing what children's brains, so incredibly malleable, can learn if you don't tell them they can't. (But don't make your kid miserable in hopes of producing the next Einstein, either. :P I'm sure you know all this already.)

Oh! Another thing my mother definitely did right was performing lots of science "experiments" -- ex. baking soda and vinegar to make a "volcano". Maybe Mentos and Coke is the modern equivalent... Just as long as there's an explanation of the chemistry behind the pyrotechnics.
posted by markcholden at 4:41 AM on October 4, 2006

Best answer: Holy cow - I was about to suggest "I Hate Mathematics!" too! It's a good way to begin.

My folks filled our house with books on science and we absorbed them. Foe example, we had tons of the How Why and Wonder series. The local library had a "Science in a Shoebox" program that we used heavily.

We had a telescope, microscope, chemistry sets, model rockets, and so on.

Encourage it, get involved with it, live it.
posted by plinth at 5:07 AM on October 4, 2006 [1 favorite]

Send the kid away to be an apprentice to a scientist. Cleaning beakers and monkey cages for ten years is the hardest science a kid can learn. Believe me.

But if that's not done in your country, there are lesser ways to be introduced to science. Go out together and be empirical. Take note pads and colored pencils (and a digital camera that can do close-ups if you've got one) and head for the nearest piece of nature and see what you can see. For instance, look at everything there is to learn by studying phyllotaxis. There's maths, botany, and drawing, all in one trip to the park. Plants are beautiful and a walk is good exercise, so what could be better for both of you than wandering around and looking closely at every different kind of plant you can see?

It's not a good idea (and often is illegal) to pick wild plants, but you can grow many interesting plants on your own window sill or in a garden, and you can buy many kinds of plants at garden centers, florists, and groceries. Try that, and then you're free to pick and dismember and even eat them in the name of Science with a big S.
posted by pracowity at 5:33 AM on October 4, 2006

At 4 years old, your child really needs to be experiencing science and not so much just reading about it. There are definitely good suggestions above, but another one that hasn't been mentioned is going to a science center. A quick google search for you location shows this. In a similar vein, zoos would be good.
posted by Durin's Bane at 5:34 AM on October 4, 2006

At 4, I'd take him outside and show him all the creepy-crawlies you find when you look under a rock. Make sure he knows what snakes are, first, though. When he gets a little older, you can do experiments with germinating seeds and seeing how light, water, and soil composition affect seedling growth rates. I always thought "Where the Wild Things Are" by Maurice Sendak was cool, too.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 5:55 AM on October 4, 2006

DNA is Here to Stay and the author's related books are fucking awesome. They're what I got from my toxicologist dad as a kid.
posted by Anonymous at 6:12 AM on October 4, 2006

Subscribe to a magazine like Discover or Scientific American and just keep them around the house. I know as a kid I ate that stuff up and although 4y/o may be a little young to appreciate the complexity of much of the material in those mags, just a cursory look can start the imagination working in the right direction. My parents also had a couple Time/Life books about science and geology which were awesome for a kid to look through.
posted by JJ86 at 6:25 AM on October 4, 2006

When I was a wee thing my dad got me a children's chemistry set. It was unbelievably cool. I used to get in trouble for playing with it too much.
posted by yogurtisgenocide at 6:54 AM on October 4, 2006

I think that 4 is a bit young for a lot of the suggestions posted so far. At this age you should be more concerned with cultivating an interest in these sorts of activities then actually teaching them to a child. I would second just going out and looking under rocks, a walk in the woods can be a wonderful experience, and if you do a little reading about local flora, fauna, and rock types in your area you will be all the better equipped to answer the innevitible "what is that?" and "why is it like that" questions you will recieve. Also bake some stuff with you child, baking has the benefit of being safe, and also using measurement and different ingredients to create something, and if you end up with cookies it will probably keep their interest for a while.
posted by BobbyDigital at 6:57 AM on October 4, 2006

I second BobbyDigital - at 4, you want to keep it simple and tactile.

My friend's daughter LOVES bugs, and her parents got her a little plastic terrarium that has a lanyard on it so she can wear it around her neck. Whenever she finds a bug, she can go get her terrarium and put the bug in it and then keep it with her. To learn more about the bug, you could get a field guide. This could be done with plants as well.

If you have a digital camera, it would be easy to take pictures of birds in the backyard, and then try to identify them through field guides.
posted by Sprout the Vulgarian at 7:51 AM on October 4, 2006

At 4 the childs ability to conceptualize isn't sufficient for most branches of science. 4 year olds still put most things in their mouths. That said, crickets and pill bugs never killed anybody.

But 4 year olds also mimic Mom and Dad and what they learn to mimic goes way beyond phrasology and sleep patterns. They also pick up on what is or isn't interesting and time-worthy.

Since science is foremost observation, any where and any thing that can be observed is the best starting place. Since he was 2, I've taken my son geocaching. This gets us outside and away from the limitations of fences and sidewalks. "Finding toys in the woods", he calls it. While we are out there, he learns how and why trails are made, what animals to watch for and what they eat, how and why certain plants grow in one area and not in another.

If you want to teach science, teach the art of observation. Most people exist focused on themselves. Observation is the looking beyond one's self. It's healthy and profitable for science, sociology, ecology, etc.

Want math? Try sports. How many pitches did that batter get? How many times was the ball hiked before the touchdown? Or try shopping. There are three of us in the family. How many apples will we need if we each want two? Math is everywhere. We adults have just learned to do it without paying attention. Mostly.
posted by kc0dxh at 8:09 AM on October 4, 2006

Janet does a great job of writing about her kids and the fun sciency stuff they do together. Here are the archives of that category on her site.

The other thing that you can do is to inform yourself. When asked a question, don't say "I don't know". Say "let's look it up!" or "let's investigate!" Science is all about finding things out, and can be a lot of fun.

Does this short fat container hold more water than this tall skinny one? How could we test that? Etc...
posted by chrisamiller at 8:24 AM on October 4, 2006

Best answer: 4 year olds still put most things in their mouths. - kc0dxh

What the hell 4 year olds are you hanging around with? I think this is a bunch of bunk.

Since science is foremost observation, any where and any thing that can be observed is the best starting place. ... If you want to teach science, teach the art of observation. - kc0dxh

This is good advice. Kids are naturally good at this. They notice all kinds of things that we don't, or that we're so used to seeing that we take them for granted. Listen to them. Stop and take interest in what they're interested in. Ask them questions about what they're seeing, about what they think will happen next, about why they think it's like that. You can provide the correct answers as you have them, but it's not just about teaching them by giving them the answers. It's also about encouraging their creative thinking, their ability to make predictions, their curiosity.

So if you're stopped watching a catepillar crawling across the lawn you could ask things like:

"Where do you think it's going?" "How long will it take for the catepillar to get there?" "Will that make it tired?" "Where do you think it sleeps?"

"Maybe it's hungry, what do you think it eats?" You could test your kids theory then - offer whatever food the kid suggests and see if the bug is interested. This can naturally lead into talking about what might like to eat the catepillar.

Answer his/her questions as you're able, but don't be afraid to say "I don't know, what do you think?" and "Who else could we ask?"

I love talking about this stuff with my pipsqueak (she'll be 4 in February). I try to foster an environment where it's good to be curious, ask questions, and where we have time to explore. It's neat to hear her ideas about things not matter how outlandish. I follow her lead - let her choose what we're going to be fascinated with today. That way it's less like a lesson, and more just part of the fabric of our life.

Also, when she asks questions that I know the answer to, I don't assume she won't get it. I do talk to her about the real scientific answers in vocabulary she can handle. Some of it she'll understand, and some of it she won't. But the more we talk about this stuff the more she'll be able to understand it.

Example: When we see a rainbow, I'll talk about how all the colours of the rainbow are all mixed together to make sunlight, but when the sunlight hits the raindrops, the different colours separate and are reflected back to us. She doesn't understand it on the same level as an older kid that talks about waveslengths and prisms etc will. But she's introduced to the ideas, and she knows that it's not "magic" - there's a process there, something we can't see but there is an explanation.
posted by raedyn at 8:57 AM on October 4, 2006

You can use board games to help with math at this age (maybe a little later). Kids love to handle Monopoly money.
posted by crazycanuck at 9:20 AM on October 4, 2006

Go browse Amazon, under searches like "kid's science". There are a million titles with fun simple science "experiments"; there are several fun books of experiments to do with food. This will give you a sense of what to look for at the local library.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:09 AM on October 4, 2006

If you haven't already read 'A Short History of Nearly Everything' by Bill Bryson you abosultely must, if you have any interest in science.

The knowledge it contains will help you help/teach/inspire your jungen kind.
posted by oxford blue at 4:53 PM on October 4, 2006

Feynman has a great story about his father's influence on him with respect to science.
posted by dhruva at 5:20 PM on October 4, 2006

Yes, my four-and-a-half-year-old has inspired me to learn a lot about science and nature, too (to date mostly whales, bugs, dinosaurs, rockets).

A while back, he really enjoyed the "Peep and the Big Wide World" videos (they air on TLC and Discovery Kids, but we get the DVDs from the library). The characters explore the world around them in a non-sappy and often genuinely funny way (for kids and adults). The show's website has a science activities page, with lots of ideas of things to discuss with your child and little projects to do.

As for books, my son likes the Magic Schoolbus series; go for the classic series if you can, as the books are much better written and illustrated than the ones derived from the TV series (imagine that!). Looks like they also have a science section on the website, but I haven't used it.

Lastly--and getting a bit further afield--I have a subscription to MAKE magazine which has inspired me to want to make more stuff with my son and share that exploratory experience. I can't tell you how much fun we had making the cigar box guitar.
posted by bevedog at 9:31 PM on October 4, 2006

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