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Tips for Teaching Hands-on Activities to Little Scientists

February 12, 2013


Children by nature are active learners.

Claudia Marinai

Preschool Teacher

The Lake School, Oakland

Sorting buttons, weighing rocks, seeing if fruit will float and rambling outdoors — are all activities that “engage all of the senses,” according to Claudia Marinai, a preschool teacher at Oakland’s The Lake School.

“Children by nature are active learners,” Marinai says.

Richard Dye, the administrative coordinator for English Learner Programs at Grossmont Union High School District in San Diego, expresses the same sentiments.

“Whether you use an abacus or a computer, math sticks or gravel, as long as you are interactive, your kid’s going to learn more,” Dye says. Adults that “discuss and explain things to kids, those are the ones whose kids have most success at school.”

Experts also say that hands-on math and science can help children do better in school and improve their learning and social skills. And they can gain confidence, excitement about learning and awareness about the environment.

Early care and education providers, teachers and other experts offer tips for doing hands-on math and science activities for kids.

Make math interactive

The kitchen is “a great place to learn about quantities and proportions. Two small bowls make one large bowl,” Dye says.

Ask a child to bring you four of something, suggests Ivette Zendejas-Gil, a bilingual kindergarten teacher for the Monterey Peninsula Unified School District. The children are proud to help and they are learning about numbers. Children can also help measure and count ingredients for simple recipes.

Marinai gives several examples that she uses in her program: Trays with buttons, beads, feathers and other interesting objects let children sort by size or shape, or group a certain number of items. With an assortment of boxes and lids, children can match sizes and shapes. They can make matching pairs from magazine pictures and egg cartons cut in half or a pile of different-colored socks, mittens or shoes. Feely bags with different-sized blocks, small toys or outside objects let children learn to identify and describe objects based on touch.

Marinai also fills a box with a kitchen timer, an egg timer, a scale, a ruler, measuring tape and a thermometer so that children can explore weight, length and time.

Engage children in science

When teaching children about science, Tami Ellison of how2science suggests asking them four basic questions: “What is this? How would you describe it? Why is it important? What would happen if we didn’t have it?”

Ellison recalls one preschool class telling their teacher that trees are important because pythons and squirrels need places to live, and people need food and air. The children were thinking about cause and effect while connecting these to what interested them.

Experts recommend having children do simple science experiments using objects from their everyday world. For example, Ellison suggests experimenting with different fruit to see what will float or sink: “Will a whole orange float? What if we peel it? Will the peel float? The segments? What happens if we squeeze the peel under water? Ah, air bubbles come up. What about a coconut?” Children learn about density and why fruits float (so the seeds disperse more easily), as well as grouping and classifying.

Ordinary activities can take on new meaning when children learn about the science behind them. Ellison hides colored plastic figures in plain sight. After the children find them, she talks about the importance of camouflage. You could also use blocks to talk about gravity and stability.

Take kids outside

Preschoolers at Kumara School in Mill Valley participate in an eight-month Nature Project, which includes exploring a creek. As the children near the creek, they are asked to stop and listen and look around them. On one trip, a boy noticed that the creek had “overflowed again,” says Betty Rappaport, a teacher at Kumara School. His classmate responded, “I heard the water is slow and now it’s moving fast. When water goes (through) the grass, the water makes it move.”

Rappaport says they followed the creek because the kids wanted to know where it went. They drew, sculpted and recorded water levels using bamboo rods marked with pieces of tape.

“We saw the children were fascinated with the movement of the water so we got different colored golf balls and timed the movement of the balls downstream,” Rappaport says.

Outdoor activities don’t have to be field trips. Ellison suggests having kids go outside to look at the sky, make cloud pictures and talk about the types of clouds children see.

Plant seeds—or even a garden

Marinai says gardening is a “wonderful” way to introduce young children to science.

“Gardening fosters physical growth through meaningful work with real tools,” Marinai says. “And it strengthens critical thinking, prediction, open-ended inquiry.”

Marinai says children use basic math skills, such as counting, measuring and estimating. Gardening can also teach children about caring for living things. Marinai adds that they also learn where food comes from, including what different people eat —  “an awareness and appreciation for other cultures.”

Seeds can be grown on a sunny windowsill or, if there’s space, think about planting a garden. Children can help in garden planning and planting, such as measuring the length and width of a vegetable plot by counting how many steps it would take. Dye suggests to ask the child questions like, “How many rows can you plant?”

Originally written by Cecelia Leong.