education children science

How many times has your child helped you to slow down and notice a bumblebee, a butterfly, a beautiful flower, or something else in the wondrous natural environment in which we live? As they grow older (3 years and beyond), they begin firing off the question, “Why?” Sometimes to an extent that can be simultaneously amusing and exhausting due to their determination to understand their world.

As parents, it is an incredible gift to witness this, and, yet, it becomes more and more of a responsibility to decide when, how, or if to provide the “answers” as we go along. In a recent MIT study, it was found that pre-schoolers’ way of investigating their world mirrors the work of scientists: “They are convinced that perplexing and unpredictable events can be explained.” (D. Halber, MIT news, 3/2/406). There are a multitude of scientific inquiry models that schools and scientists alike have embraced and implemented to better understand our world. The common steps include: 1. Ask a question, 2. Research, 3. Predict (Hypothesize), 4. Test, 5. Analyze results, 6. Draw conclusions, and 7. Ask new questions and repeat.

As parents of young children, hopefully we have enough time, flexibility and patience to allow our children the time to engage in this inquiry cycle. If we just give an answer to the question, “Why” and end the discussion right there, are we truly helping our children? Sure, sometimes (perhaps a lot) we are in a rush, and just answering is necessary. However, if time allows, why not repeat the question back to your child “Why do YOU think xyz?”

Imagine guiding your very young scientist through his or her inquiry process so that s/he may discover very early that not all of the answers have been found about our world – not even close! New stars, species, and understandings are discovered regularly! We need more scientists, engineers, and critical thinkers to lead the future in our complex world!
For example: Your child asks you why the white butterfly is always in the garden? Let’s facilitate his inquiry using the steps mentioned above, in an age appropriate way.

After responding, “Why do YOU think it is here?” (Step 1: Ask), he begins his initial research, noticing the flowers it seems to like, the season, the weather, and the number of butterflies. If time allows, you could suggest reading a book or website together to identify what type of butterfly it is. (Step 2: Research) After learning some more, perhaps you hear his interest developing toward a prediction, “I wonder if we plant more flowers, that it likes, then more butterflies will come?” (Step 3: Predict) Together, you might decide to test this out by planting more flowers. (Step 4: Test) Perhaps this inquiry develops into an ongoing monitoring project. Perhaps he likes to watercolor or to use your camera to take pictures to ‘collect data’ over time.

The format of conclusion and sharing results could be a song, a puppet show, a garden tea party with friends, or all of the above. (Steps 5 & 6) All scientists’ questions and predictions evolve. He might begin to wonder which type of flower the butterflies likes the best and want to compare two species. (Step 7) Get ready for more gardening!

Many times as parents, the responsibility feels so huge; we have so much to teach our children. However, when we slow down and move aside as a guide, rather than act like the ‘sage on the stage’, it becomes clear how much they already know instinctively (and can teach us!). Our children are scientists already, if we can just step back and mindfully, openly facilitate their inquiry, we will empower them not just as scientists, but, as citizens of our world whose voices and questions truly matter.

Image Credit: Infinity Photography Hawaii

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Diana is a mother of two. She has worked in education for fifteen years, training Hawaii teachers on scientific inquiry, engaging students in field studies throughout Maui, and promoting innovative and effective uses of technology. She runs Papini Innovations LLC which offers Full STEAM Ahead LearningTM: programs for students and schools that combine science, technology, engineering, the arts, math, and geospatial inquiry. www.papiniinnovations