With the majority of UK children now permanently at home, parents and guardians have suddenly been given a new role – school teacher. It can be difficult to know how to keep kids engaged and learning about a range of subjects from English to maths and history. Sometimes, it might seem like a frankly impossible task, especially when you’re busy working from home yourself.
When it comes to science, there are ways to get kids thinking about the subject in a way that’s fun and attention-grabbing for little ones.
We spoke to Bryony Turford, a Chartered Science Teacher and freelance primary science consultant based in Yorkshire and the Humber, for her advice on getting children thinking scientifically through at-home experiments.
“As soon as science becomes paper-based it becomes about finding the right answer. If you've got something practical to do, then there isn't necessarily a right answer and it doesn't matter if it goes wrong - it actually becomes real science,” Bryony said.
“The vast majority of parents at home are not going to be primary science teachers,” Bryony pointed out, adding the important thing for parents to do is “try to stimulate curiosity and conversation.”
Here, Bryony shares her top science experiments for kids of a primary school age, grouped into themes children would normally learn about at school.
“The first thing to try might be a family sunflower competition – everybody plants two sunflowers all on the same day and cares for them in the same way,” Bryony said. Once your flowers have grown, you can measure them to see which is the highest.
“Another thing you could do is try to grow plants from things that are already in your home, like a carrot top – you’d slice off the top, put it in some water, wait for the root to grow and then grow more flowering carrot plants. Talk to your kids about what else can you try it with. Does it work with celery? Apple?” Bryony suggested.
“If you’ve got some seeds, try to explore different conditions. With five seeds you could put one in the daylight and water it every day, one in the daylight and water it once a week, one in the dark and water it every day, one in the dark and water it every week – then place a fifth one wherever you want. Observe how they each change (or not) over time. Kids could take measurements and keep a table, then turn that into a graph, or they could make a photo diary of progress,” Bryony said.
This varying of conditions would be much more suited to older primary children, whereas for younger kids, reading instructions, planting seeds and watching them grow could be enough to prompt a discussion around what plants need in order to thrive. Many seeds will germinate at this time of year with some soil you’ve dug from your garden, so no need to buy kit.
“Really simply, this is about noticing shadows and finding them when you’re on your daily walk. Can your kids change the length and shape of their shadow? Can they take a photo of it? Can they change their body shape to make their shadow look like something else?” Bryony said.
“You could also get them to place their favourite character, like a superhero toy, on a piece of paper and move it around in the garden until they get a shadow on the paper. Then, they can trace around it.
“You could go outside at 9 in the morning and get your child to draw around the shadow of their feet with chalk and write the time. Then, do the same at 10 with their feet in exactly the same place and following that, do it each hour. At the end of the day you’ll see their shadow has changed shape and length and position, and it can spark a conversation about shadows and the fact the earth is rotating throughout the day,” Bryony said, adding that if parents don’t have all the answers – Google is their best friend.
Frozen in ice
For a fun way to prompt discussion around changing states, Bryony suggested freezing household items.
“Take the opportunity to freeze some things in ice – whatever you fancy – LEGO characters are quite fun.
“If it's a warmer day, you could get five ice cubes all the same size with LEGO characters inside them and place them in five different spots around your house or garden, some in the sunshine with some in the shade.
“Look at what happens and which one comes free first. You can talk with kids about how to speed up or slow down the process. If you add salt it lowers the freezing point and it’ll be harder to free the LEGO figure,” Bryony said.
This is all about exploring the senses and helping children to understand how they’re interconnected to each other and won’t work without the brain.
Taste: “We taste with our nose and eyes, it’s very rarely just our taste buds and this can be highlighted by doing blind folded tasting. Prepare a piece of peeled potato and a piece of peeled apple, ask kids to hold their nose and cover their eyes then taste them and see if they can tell the difference. Actually they taste exactly the same when you take away the other senses,” Bryony said.
Touch: “Feely trays are a good thing to do. Put some objects in a tray, cover it with a tea towel and let kids feel their way through and guess what the items are, perhaps by describing them to you. This could be done with some cooked spaghetti, which might feel like worms to children, or a bit of mud.”
Smell: “Take an old issue box and fill with strong-smelling things. This could be fresh mint or food flavouring essences like peppermint, soil, or your perfume on a piece of fabric. Ask kids to identify the items through smell.”
Sight: “On your daily walk you can talk about what sights you can see and if they’ve changed from yesterday. If we’re in isolation for longer you can talk about the changing of the seasons you can see in trees and flowers and kids could even do a photo diary or a time lapse video.”
Hearing: “Ask kids to go and sit in the garden or outdoor space, close their eyes for a minute and then write down or tell you about all the sounds they can hear. Then, you could go on your daily walk and talk about what sounds are the same as or different to home.”
Other fun ideas
Looking for a one-off experiment to get children excited? Bryony has shared these to try…
Make paper spinners using templates from the internet. You can make them in different sizes or use different materials then see how long it takes for them to land on the floor to look at the impact of air resistance.
Grow a gummy bear using liquids from around the house. Put the same amount of washing up liquid, oil, honey, squash, shampoo – whatever you can find – into five different cups and place a gummy bear in each one. See which will make the gummy bear grow quickest after a day, then a week, and talk with kids about why that is. With oil, not much happens but in water the gummy bear can grow double or triple in size.
Separate ink by putting spots of different types of black or red felt tip – or other colours – onto kitchen roll. Dip the end into a bit of water, hold it still and let the colours spread up the kitchen roll. You can talk about the colours that change and ones that stay the same and why those differences might be happening.
Make your own ice cream using salt, ice, cream, a couple of sandwich bags and a tea towel. Put a blob of cream in a sandwich bag, and ice and salt in another sandwich bag. Seal the bag with the cream in and put it inside the other bag then seal that. Wrap in a towel and shake it for five minutes - you’re lowing the freezing point of the ice to make it cold enough to freeze the cream. Open the bag and eat the ice cream when it has that solid ice cream texture.
Still looking for more ideas? Bryony recommends checking out these digital resources.
Practical Action is a charity that normally works in developing countries, helping to find sustainable solutions to problems. It has been setting STEM challenges in schools based on these real-world issues and is now making these available for parents at home.
The RSPB website’s ‘Fun and Learning’ tab has some great, entry level resources that are a lot of fun.
There’s a website called That Science Lady and she’s done a whole list of home discussion points themed on curriculum subjects. It’s a stimulus to get conversation started.
STEM Learning has put a huge bank of stuff into its ‘Home Learning Primary’ section. You can also find their resources on social media using the hashtag #Sciencefromhome.
Science Sparks uploads awesome stuff, including the series ‘Science Tray A Day’. She’ll put a photo up in the morning of a few things you might need in a tray and you can replicate the task at home.
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