Science is a favorite subject for many students and their families. Some just like hearing the ideas, while others prefer to practice the concepts interactively.
Though teaching science in homeschool is important, and even required for college-bound students later on, I believe it is important for parents of younger students to put the teaching of homeschool science into perspective. Introducing a formal science curriculum at an early age is fine. However, it’s not the only way to introduce scientific topics to elementary school students. In fact, teaching science less formally and on a more relaxed schedule can be just as effective, maybe even more. It might even be a little bit more fun in some families, too.
Consider this. Science takes place all around us. Unless a student lived in total isolation, it would be impossible not to live everyday life without experiencing some form of science. Observing and interacting with things in the environment happen to children whether we notice them or not. No student would probably ever reach the age of 10 or 12 without knowing that most liquids can be combined, flames are very hot, and ice eventually melts in warmer temperatures. By 12, most students will also have experienced moving heavy objects using some form of leverage, the rippling effects of tossing rocks into a pool of water, and plants that have wilted or died from a complete lack of sun or water. Inquisitive children and those with extra guidance and resources will have learned much more. But others, completely on their own and just by interacting with the world, will most likely have hit upon most of the main ideas taught in standard science texts during those years anyhow.
Next, knowing science is accumulated and it is learned incrementally. Just like mastering the use of written language or gradually learning more and more complex mathematics, the study of science builds upon itself. It isn’t something that can be taught in a year and then ignored thereafter. Instead, year after year, experience after experience, students gain an understanding and continually practice with the physical world around them. That is why pre-packed science curriculum products repeat the same ideas throughout a child’s education. And like other subjects (say, history, for example), the same ideas are reviewed and practiced every few years only in more detail and requiring a higher level of thinking and understanding, over and over again.
So, how would it be if instead of teaching formal science from a book, families allowed children to experience science all by themselves? That’s exactly what some homeschool families do — no curriculum needed. Some call this child-directed learning, or unschooling.
Or, what about doing simple science on one’s own, in the kitchen or outdoors or with a group of friends, instead of following a traditionally paced science schedule? Other families do that, too. This falls under many different types of homeschooling, including relaxed homeschooling, hands-on learning, Charlotte Mason Education, and eclectic homeschooling, just to name a few.
The trick to teaching science during the early years is to consider the child. If a child thrives on curriculum, enjoys using it, and learns a lot this way, it is obviously the correct choice. But if the child is comfortable experiencing the world, reading, drawing, measuring, collecting or just talking about it, that method can work well, too. If a family enjoys studying science daily during a particular time block, that’s fine too. But if the parent prefers to identify or point out opportunities to understand scientific concepts throughout the day, no matter what is happening in and out of the home, that can work as well.
Some years ago, I heard a rather popular conference speaker discuss elementary science. The talk was about the early stages of learning and the memorization of oodles of scientific facts and information leading to the eventual application of scientific topics as the children grew older. As I listened, I imagined how my children and other children I knew would feel if they had been denied the experience of science when very young, but had been asked to learn science instead. Over the years in talking with parents, I understood that other families felt the same, some even describing early science books as school-like and boring when their children far preferred to do science instead.
Several years later, I attended the lecture of a teacher-turned-author of homeschool curriculum. The teacher’s viewpoint of science (and history, by the way) was that it should be introduced early, but sparingly, and under very low pressure. That lecture and further research, combined with my instincts and my experiences with homeschool science, helped to cement my thoughts about relaxed science during the early years. And like many other things I learned along the way, I began to see homeschool science more clearly.
That being said, teaching science in a relaxed way is a personal preference and one that may not be appropriate for every student. In our home, we followed a traditional science curriculum for some of our students, but not for the others. Sometimes, depending on what was happening in our lives and what our goals were, we alternated between the two, hopping back and forth from science books to conducting our own experiments and creating things from kits and stuff we collected around the house and yard. Ultimately, how to do science will depend on a family’s goals for science, the children, the available resources and of course, budget. Some years, we had no documentation of science except for photos, because so little written work had actually been done. Other years, we had textbooks and workbooks, notebooks full of written definitions, drawings and completed lab reports to fill our portfolios.
Just knowing that there are many ways to teach science may come as a relief to parents, particularly those that worry and stress about meeting science requirements each and every day (one reason I like to share our stories). It may also help to know that many families do not do science every day with young children, reserving science studies for summer or days off, or for when daddy is home to help, or for when the mood strikes and all of the materials seem to magically come together at the same time.
Learning about science takes time, something that kids have plenty of as they grow up in homeschooling. Children grow quickly and formal studies come soon enough. Parents who prefer to wait on buying traditional science books may have confidence in knowing that other homeschoolers have waited, too. Choosing the most appropriate way to do science in your unique homeschool is always the best method of all.