Everyone agrees that parents play a critical role in their children's education: research shows that when parents are actively involved in their child's life he will achieve greater success as a learner.  It is also generally agreed upon that a scientifically and technologically literate society is crucial to America's future success, yet much of the general population are intimidated by science.  They don't understand the processes happening all around them every day, and they certainly don't know how they can possibly help their children to better understand it--so they leave it up to the science teacher.

Science education is a national priority, but science teachers can't do it alone.  The school-setting impedes science learning, teachers can't teach science the way we learn it best.  That's why the Parent's Science Initiative was implemented.  It's a call to action from prominent scientists, to encourage parents to take an active role in their children's science education, and I want to echo the sentiment by encouraging families--not just homeschoolers--to practice science at-home.

"Science education has been identified as a national priority, but science teachers can't do the job on their own. They need the help and support from key stakeholders, especially parents," said Francis Eberle, NSTA executive director. "We know that family involvement is important, and parents need help getting involved with their kids in a subject they may not feel comfortable with themselves. We must continue to find ways to break down the walls of the classroom and encourage learning together among families."

Many parents are uncertain how they can encourage their child's interest in science, since they don't understand it themselves.  But we can promote a greater understanding of science just by broadening our perspective of what science is.  Science is not all experiments and white lab coats, and it does not only occur in the controlled setting of a laboratory or a classroom.  Science is all around us, in everything we see and do every day--cooking, gardening, feeding the birds in your backyard, fixing your car or lawn-mower--science is so all encompassing that in some cases it has become mundane and is easily overlooked.  Perhaps you're already practicing science and don't even realize it!

What Can the Average Parent Do to Encourage Science-Learning at-Home?

There are all kinds of things parents can do to promote science at-home.  It doesn't have to take a lot of time, and you can incorporate some scientific behaviors into your current routines just by being more aware of the science around you, use scientific language and take time throughout your day to wonder and question; include your children in some of your curious thoughts, help them to broaden their horizons and question their world too.

  • Establish High Expectations for your Child's Science-Learning: Science is just too important to overlook or disregard.  It is crucially important that we prepare our children for the 21st century society and workforce, this means ensuring our children are scientifically and technologically literate.  They need to understand how to evaluate information and how to think critically so that they can make educated decisions in every day life.  Expect questions from your children, encourage critical thinking-engage your family in discussions, provide them with the opportunities for investigating science and the world around them.
  • Model Scientific Behaviors: Consciously practice science--track the weather daily, experiment with a new recipe in the kitchen, or observe the birds at your bird feeder.  Wonder aloud about things you are curious of, question with your children the whys and hows of the mundane of daily life.  Indulge in your personal passions, you hobbies, and encourage your children to do the same. Use scientific language like "observation" and "hypothesis", and use all of your senses to learn about things.
  • Encourage Questioning and Exploration: Accept your child's questions, even encourage their curiosity.  Permit your children the freedom to explore the world--they are learning science even when it is only building mud-pies in the puddle in the yard. Consciously leave time for these sorts of "free play" and look for the learning in even the most mundane of activities.

Read more about "Using Questions to Create a Climate of Inquiry in the Homeschool Environment"

  • Practice your Skills of Observation: Even by just watching something day after day you and your children can learn unexpected new things.  For example-by observing a pair of birds over the course of the summer you'd have the opportunity to learn intimate details about the lives of the birds right outside your door.  What kind of bird is it? What kind of food does it prefer? How does it call it's mate? What kind of nest does this species build? How many eggs do they lay? And so on.  The average parent might be surprised by the preconceived notions we're carrying around with us, left over from our childhood, which might be shattered with the new-found information.  And you might find a totally new curiosity that fascinates you and your children, creating this special bond as you learn together and follow your curiosities together--all the while learning science.

Read more about "The Ancient Practice of Observation"

  • Recognize the Science you're Already Practicing: Science is so all-encompassing that you're probably already practicing some form of it and don't even realize that what you're doing is science.  Once you come to see that cooking and baking are considered kitchen science, that there's a science to photography, and that science is even a part of fixing that old vacuum cleaner--you'll realize that maybe science at-home is not so overwhelming afterall.
  • Invest in Science: You don't need to buy the old observatory to encourage science-learning at-home, but a few tools might be a practical investment.  An integral part of observing and practicing science is collecting data, and one way scientists do this is by taking measurements, so stock up on thermometers, designate those old measuring cups and spoons to your science-cubby, take a ruler with you in your pack when you go hiking.  When you buy birthday or Christmas gifts consider giving science-related items--there are numerous science-kits on the market now, a good reference book won't go amiss, a nature journal, or a subscription to the science magazine of choice.
  • Take one from the Unschoolers; "Strew" Science: They may not follow a curriculum, but unschoolers provide plenty of opportunities for learning by leaving out materials their children might find appealing; this is known as "strewing".  Leave reference books out on the coffee table, set out a science kit, strew the binoculars and bird-guide near the window so that anyone might observe the habits of your backyard birds at the feeder.  Science-related posters on the wall provide learning and familiarity with science, too; even television programming and documentaries can be utilized in science-learning at-home.

Read about "How to Teach Science Every Day"

Science is Too Expensive; We Can't Afford the Materials

Science-learning doesn't have to cost an arm and a leg; it can even be free if you want it to be.  Even the poorest of families can learn just by practicing their skills of observation.  You can build your own equipment and make your own tools, lots of household materials are useful for science-studies--go through your recycling routinely to confiscate useful items for your science-supplies; designate a cupboard, closet, or storage-tote to store your materials in.

  • Science on a Budget: Even when money is tight you can practice science in your home using inexpensive and even free resources.  Money should not be an impediment to learning about the world around you through science since one of your biggest assets are your own senses (touch, taste, sight, etc.).  Just by observing with your own two eyes you can learn new things.
  • Household Science-Tools: All sorts of ordinary household items can be utilized in your studies, borrow the kitchen measuring cups and spoons, grab containers out of the recycling, designate that old kettle to science.  If you get creative with your materials, you too can have a bountiful closet of science resources.

Read about "Science Materials to Keep On-Hand"

  • DIY Science-Tools: A good number of tools can be made on your own.  With the instructions online and in books you can make things like a plant-press for studies in botany, a snow or rain gauge, an anenometer (measures wind-speed), a butterfly net, and display cases for your collections.
  • Internet Resources Abound: I shouldn't have to tell you about all the free resources available online.  A simple Google search will bring you more resources than you'd need to get started on any one science-investigation.  You can find reference resources, activity and experiment guides, companies to purchase supplies from, and so much more--much of it free for the taking.
  • Use Your Local Library: The library is an invaluable resource.  You can find any number of reference books, magazines, related fiction, biographies of scientists and other notable figures throughout history, access to computers, outreach programs, and staff who want nothing more than to see their community reading and learning.
  • Use the Media: Even television can provide science learning.  Watch documentaries together as a family, get excited about upcoming series events, and look for the science in every-day programming.  The Discovery Network provides us with a number of channels devoted to exploring science and broadening the horizons of society through engaging programming like "How It's Made", "Planet Earth", "Punkin' Chunkin'", "Mythbusters" and much, much more.  With real-life characters like Adam Savage, Jamie Hyneman, and Kari Byron you will soon see why science can be fun and educational too!  Even PBS provides opportunities for learning science, via their new "Sid the Science-Kid" and their classics "Nova" and "Nature"--and viewable even without cable or satellite.
Science Learning Centers & Family Field Trips

These centers and parks are a super resource for families wanting to explore their world and learn more about the world and the natural processes taking place all around us every day.  Making the time to take your family to such a place can help you learn more about existing curiosities, or can develop a whole new interest for you to explore.

  • Discovery Museums: Children's Discovery Museums seemed to have snuck up on us.  We have at least three in Maine that I know of right of the top of my head.  These are centers for learning which are designed to engage the child in all of us, as we explore and learn about this world that we inhabit.  The staff are typically wonderful folks who truly want to assist their community in learning and exploring, providing community outreach and fostering family-learning with their programs.
  • Aquariums, Zoos, and Planetariums: These are probably some of the more expensive outings, but a wonderful opportunity to see creatures and observe science up-close and personal.  A quick online search should locate a center near you.
  • Nature Centers and National & State Parks: These facilities are designed to get people close to nature.  There are at least two nature centers in Maine, funded by the Audubon Society, and every state has their own selection of parks and wilderness preserves, historical sites, and natural wonders.  In addition there are a number of national parks; all of which promote science-learning through the exploration of the natural world.  Most of these places offer learning-programs for children and adults alike.
  • Other Local Resources: It is likely that even the most urban of regions sport 4-H, garden clubs, a local chapter of beekeepers; all of these are great ways to learn more and to meet like-minded individuals.
Get Involved as a Citizen Scientist

Scientists need our help.  The data generated by citizen scientists is a key component in on-going research projects.  Not only do these project allow the average citizen to participate and get involved, but they also help the community learn more about the processes involved in science.

  • Be an advocate for science-learning: If your child is in public school get to know his science teacher, learn more about your school's science curriculum, get involved with PTA meetings and the school board to make sure science is a priority in your district; support policies and investments in science resources.  Advocate for science-learning in your community by supporting non-profit organizations like science-rich museums, libraries, and nature centers.
  • Reach out: Talk with policy makers about the value of science and technology learning and its importance to your children's and our nation's future.  Discuss science with people in your social circle, encourage other families to try science in their home, help the community see that science isn't so hard after-all.  Include friends and family in some of your science field trips to spread the science movement and share your curiosities and passions; ignite curiosity in others.
  • Participate in local research programs: Audubon's Christmas Bird Count is the oldest citizen science research program still in existence today, and there are a number of other programs as well.  In fact scientists are increasingly reliant on the massive amounts of data citizen science programs generate as they seek to understand the impacts climate disruption has had on wildlife.  Other citizen science programs include the World Water Monitoring Day, the Vernal Pool Monitoring program,  Ebird, Nestwatch, and the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail, & Snow Network run by Colorado Climate--just to name a few.
  • Practice science: Follow your own curiosities and indulge your passions.  Explore those old curiosity still lingering from your childhood.  Allow yourself to wonder about every day occurrences, question the reason for natural processes, then try to learn the answers to those questions.  Explore new things to generate new curiosities.  Try keeping a nature or field journal.  Subscribe to science-news online, then read the articles when a headline catches your eye.  Watch documentaries.  Get excited about new learning opportunities.  Share your enthusiasm.
Fun for the Whole Family

Science is so all-encompassing it's almost guaranteed that you are sure to find a curiosity that will spark interest in the members of your family.  It's as easy as letting go and allowing the freedom of exploration to carry you into new discoveries.  It can cost as much or as little as you want, and it's good fun for the whole family.

Simply by adjusting your perception of what science is and what science-learning should be, you can see how easy it is to learn the science of the world all around you.  Just by allowing yourself the indulgence of exploring your curiosities and engaging in your own passions you are providing a model of behavior that proves to your children and those around you that learning is a life-long endeavor that is not only fun, but beneficial to the whole community.  By encouraging science-pursuits you are promoting the skills necessary for our nation to move forward in this technologically-driven 21st century world.

So what are you curious about?

References & Resources

Parents Need Help Encouraging Their Kids in Science - article from RedOrbit.com.

Parental Involvement in Science Learning - The official position of the National Science Teacher's Association.

Science for Citizens - A great resource for anyone interested in practicing science at-home.

Maine Audubon Citizen Science - Here are a few projects currently underway in Maine.

The Big Deal for Citizen Science - Another article, this one from Treehugger, discussing the benefits of citizen involvement in science-research.

EarthTrek - This is a global organization, promoting citizen science projects and they need your help!

Best Citizen Science Projects for Kids - from the Daily Green.

Science at Home - A nice resource for the average parent.

ScienceBob - Provides fun and easy science experiments you can try at-home.

ScienceMadeSimple - Science projects, ideas and topics, science fair projects, easy kids science projects and equipment, kids science articles.

Dried flowers I brought inside to help us keep nature close.

We've been "unschooling" for a couple of months now, and I'm embarrassed to admit that my boys are still obsessed with their video games.  I even hesitate to share this news with you, but in the fairness of full disclosure I want other parents to know that the road to unschooling success has it's own curves and bumps.

Daily Routine

One of the biggest concerns parents of children on the autism spectrum have regarding unschooling is the lack of structure and routine, after all isn't that what all of the professionals tribute to success with autistic children?  Yet we've been homeschooling without curriculum for two months now and our routine remains in-tact.

The basic elements of our days have changed very little since Winter was a toddler, he gets up whenever he wakes up, I help him dress for the day, he chooses something for breakfast, then he brushes his teeth.  At lunchtime the kids eat at the table, then go to their respective bedrooms for a period of quiet-time (this was once nap-time, but neither of my boys nap anymore).  During quiet-time they can read or play quietly with toys.  Most nights we have dinner at the table as a family, and at eight o'clock (or sooner if they desire) the boys head upstairs for the night and the bedtime routine ensues--this consists of preparing their beds, dressing in pajamas, reading together, returning downstairs for bedtime teeth-brushing, toileting, etc.

These things have not changed despite the fact that we no longer conduct a period of formal school-lessons at the table every week-day morning.

Learning to Accept Video-Games

Most mornings lately have been filled with video-games, though occasionally one or both of the boys will finish after only a brief session, typically Winter will play for a good two hours at a time.  The same goes for the afternoon where once we would have conducted a "productive-activity time" we now have--yes, you guessed it--more video games.

Can you tell that I'm still struggling to accept this excess of gaming??

It's hard for me, not being much of a gamer.  My husband accepts it in stride--he's a bona-fide vidiot since his youth, and still plays when his schedule permits; he enjoys spending time playing one game or another with the boys.  It's beautiful bonding time, and once in a great while I've followed his lead and played a round or two with the kids--depending on the game.  I prefer games like "Worms-Armageddon" and "Tetris", when we were teenagers I used to play "Jet-Motto" with my husband to-be.  I never seem to win much when I play, and often kill my character in spectacular fashion, but I have fun and the time connecting with my family is of high-value to me.

I remind myself often that there is learning that happens in gaming.  Summer likes to play Spiderman on the Playstation3, as well as Lego Batman, but he has also been eagerly using the preschool games at NickJr.com, where I often catch him playing alphabet games, games that teach shapes and colors, and counting games--and that is reassuring to me.  Winter is still rebelling against anything even remotely related to educational, he plays games like "Adventure Quest" and "Wizard101".  He has a vivid imagination and a passion for mythology, and these games sport numerous mythological creatures, fantasy themes, and are rich in creativity.  These probably are not typically considered educational, but the amount of reading involved in the games, and the strategy involved reassure me that he will at the very least be exercising his reading skills, and who could complain about a kid so happy to engage his imagination?

Unschooling Autism

One significant improvement I've seen in Winter which I can attribute only to this free-access to the computer, has been his sudden gravitation toward video media and a marked increase in his tolerance levels for music.

Most of Winter's autistic characteristics are related to his highly-sensitive ears--he has exceptionally keen hearing--he notices very small noises.  Which also makes loud noises much louder, and lots of loud noises all at once were just unbearable for him when he was younger.  It's confusing to figure out who's talking to who in a room of fifty people, to discern who's talking to you, and that the music in the background is coming from the radio.  Television was hard enough, but to ask him to watch something so stressful on his beloved computer was just asking too much.  And then all of a sudden Winter and Summer are sitting--side by side--on the couch in the living room--watching US Acres cartoons (Winter loves Garfield) on the lap top that's lately taken up residence on the coffee table.  He's even singing Christmas carols, for Pete's sake!! That's unheard of for a child who's never even been able to tolerate "Happy Birthday"!

Yet, even though I can find good in all of this gaming, I have to admit I would much prefer them to spend some of their time doing other activities.  I often attempt to entice the boys away from their glowing screens with activities and projects I think might interest them, and often I can engage Summer in something aside from the video-games, but Winter is stubborn, anxious, and the activity has to be of high-interest to him in order to engage him.

One wall in my dining room is optimized for learning the science of winter. And I still have space to add more photographs or posters as our inquiring minds investigate!

Strewing Science

I found inspiration in the unschooling concept of "strewing", where you leave out books and other things you hope the kids will discover.  And I had one of those light-bulb moments--when I connected strewing with my own concept of creating opportunity for scientific learning.  Basically the same general idea right?  So following this concept I am taking the Winter-Investigations unit and setting it up at home.  I've put together some winter bulletin-board resources, and I've gathered all of the winter-related books off our bookshelves and our library's shelves and set up a display.

On a piece of construction paper I wrote across the top: Winter Questions, and DH and I brainstormed with Winter a few questions we had about the winter season.  Not wanting to raise anxiety in Winter we settled for three questions to start us off.

Here's what we came up with:

  1. Why does it snow?

  2. Why do we have short days and long nights around the winter solstice?

  3. Why does it get cold during the winter?

I went back through some of the experiments posed on the Kids Investigate Winter lens I made at Squidoo, and pulled a few more out of some of our science books, and I made up these activity & experiment cards, with hopes to do at least one a week with the kids.

Bringing Nature In-Doors for the Solstice

Then the boys and I went out to "the Farm" to collect some "bits of nature" to bring indoors for the winter solstice; I collected a few extra things for our school-wall, and asked the boys to help me look for an insect gall specifically.  They did, but they left me for the warmth of the car before we could locate one.  It was 22-degrees yesterday at mid-day, and they weren't really dressed for making snow-angels. We were surprised by the two-inches of powder covering the ground at that higher elevation just four-miles west of Anson, in-town we barely have anything left to show that it's snowed at all.  So I tucked my precious "bits-of-nature" onto the floor of the passenger's side front seat, and called the dog.  ...somehow it seems like the boys are always ready to be done long before I've satisfied myself.  I always feel like I could spend hours more outside, like I haven't yet seen everything there is to see.  But that's me.

Insect gall I collected.

I buckled them in and began back down the long rutted dirt drive that leads through the woods to the main road, but stopped to collect three insect galls from a place I remembered we'd once found them--when we'd lived out to the Farm before we'd had to move into town.  I let the kids take turns "playing" with one of the galls as I drove down off the hills toward home.  What they're really doing is exploring the thing--feeling the hardness and the texture of the dried plant stem.  Seeing the bulbous growth that houses the mysterious insects inside.  We will sacrifice one of these galls in the name of science.  It will be cut open to see what is inside.  Is it just one insect or many?  Are there different kinds, or just one species?

The Freedom of Unschooling

Since I have dropped the curricula and eased up on some of the restrictions limiting my kids, there has been a marked decrease in the stress-level in our home.  No longer am I fighting with Winter over every lesson, every activity, every hour he spends in front of the computer.  He is decidedly happier.  I've also noticed that he his more conversational, too.  More apt to tell me about his games, or read his Garfield comics to me, or just to tell me a story.  It never ceases to surprise me the use of language my boys have.  I find great pleasure in listening to them tell me whatever they have to say, and they are happy to have someone who will listen.

Unschooling is a frightening venture when you've come from the regulated, systematized world of the institutional school-setting, the corporate grind, the every-day office, where it is all too easy to loose yourself to the hum-drum of that lifestyle.  This style of learning and living is awakening new concepts and new ideas within me--within my children too, it seems.  I can imagine that unschoolers who have come before me have experienced such an awakening; it is inspiring despite the uncertainty we feel at the start of the journey.  I feel truly free, for the first time in my life--free to pursue whatever passing interest takes my fancy.

It's exciting--invigorating.

Recommended Reading:

Video Games Offer Kids Developmental, Social Benefits-Study Shows - article from Creston News.

Take Two Video-Games and Call Me in the Morning - a good article from Scientific American.

Studies: Video Games Can Make Better Students, Surgeons - from USA Today.

Does Your Child Have a Video Game Addiction - article and resources from Parenting Science.

Video Game Benefits for Kids - another article from Suite101.com.

How Do Video Games Help Children? - from eHow.

Faithful readers of my blog might be aware of the plight of the environmental activist in central Maine--which is that the clubs and programs to encourage participation and education among the community are all but non-existent in this area.  This is true of the Maine State Beekeeper's Association as well.

As an extension of my organic-gardening pursuits, I set up my first beehive this year and was quickly consumed with what is referred to as "bee-fever".  I was anxious to learn more about the handling and care of my bees, and as a passionate eco-enthusiast and homeschooler I was eager to share my fascination of bees with others.  The logical place to start was with my local beekeeper's club.  ....Imagine my disappointment when I learned that Somerset County did not support one!

I mulled this over during the summer and fall as I worked my hive and prepared my colony of bees for the impending winter, grinding my teeth in frustration at the lack of environmental coordination in my region.  How could I participate in the environmental movement if I couldn't get to the organizations!?

honeybeeThen in November I posted a tentative query on the MSBA Facebook page asking how to go about starting a new chapter of the MSBA in Somerset County.  Since that day the ground-work for the Somerset Beekeeper's Association has rolled out before me and I am very proud to say that the first-ever meeting will be held at the Somerset County Co-Op Extension in Skowhegan, Maine on January 12th at 6pm.  It couldn't have been easier to get the club underway--the president of our MSBA, Erin Forbes, as well as Kathy Hopkins at the Co-Op Extension, were only too eager to help, and I discovered that these organizations want more clubs to be established.  All it seems to take is a healthy dose of enthusiasm--and that I have in spades.