Q: A neighbor and I want to give our five kids (ages 8, 10 and 11) science experiences this summer, as we can't afford camps at nearby colleges. How can we plan something valuable across those age ranges?
A: Summer is a wonderful time for family-led science activities. Schedules are more flexible; you can take a deep dive into hands-on projects, and no one has to stop and put away the materials as they would in school. Plus, you can take field trips to visit professionals who work in science-related careers.
For a summer filled with science, take three steps, says Allison Duarte, a middle school educator who designs science curriculum for New York City's Harlem Academy.
First, choose a stack of nonfiction children's books that match kids' interests. "While it may sound counterintuitive, start with reading," Duarte explains. "Nonfiction introduces key concepts through developmentally appropriate storytelling and photos or illustrations. Introduce 'academic vocabulary' (that) kids need to understand the topic, build background for further study and reinforce literacy skills."
For example, do your kids want to study birds? The book "Birdology: 30 Activities and Observations for Exploring the World of Birds" (Chicago Review Press, 2015) shows them how to spot birds almost anywhere and gets them to analyze, write about and draw what they see. It teaches essential vocabulary such as "migration," "nesting," "territories" and "preservation."
"Read science books with your children to check for understanding and prompt conversations that lead to questions about the book's topic," suggests Duarte.
Ask your kids' teachers or a children's librarian to recommend titles. Or choose from recommended science books for grades K-12 published annually by the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) and the Children's Book Council: nsta.org/publications/ostb/.
Second, conduct experiments that help them develop the skills to carry out scientific investigations independently. "Guide them through the scientific process: question, hypothesis, materials, procedure, results and conclusion," advises Duarte. "Have them keep a science journal to reinforce observation and recording skills. At the conclusion of each experiment, ask children to share their results and suggest a follow-up experiment."
To find experiments, Duarte recommends two books that yield quality results, offering clear protocols with illustrations and using everyday materials: "Kitchen Science Lab for Kids: 52 Family-Friendly Experiments From Around the House" (Quarry Books, 2014) and "The Everything Kids' Science Experiments Book" (Adams Media Corporation, 2001).
Third, plan field trips. "Exploring museums and nature centers is a valuable economical way to share science with kids," says Duarte. "Many museums offer free classes or drop-in experiences with scientists. Check the museum's website for suggestions on how to make the most of the experience before, during and after the visit."
She also encourages getting kids "off the grid" and into natural settings. "This encourages environmental stewardship and scientific inquiry about the natural world," says Duarte. For example, hike the same trail several times. Have children record close observations about trees, animals, sounds and weather. How does one habitat differ from another? What's the same and what's different?
By providing summer science activities, "you invest in your children's continued growth as scientists and scholars," says Duarte. "As a bonus, not only will kids love the special time together, you may learn something new!"
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)