Author Archive

We Underestimate What Kids Can Do

I’ve been letting my 6 year old daughter play light bot, a pre-programing game, every once in a while on my ipad for the last couple months. Yesterday she played for 20 minutes while I was making dinner, and my 4 year old was watching. When it was his turn to use the iPad, he went back into light bot. I tried to dissuade him, since it takes a bit of guidance and I was using the iPad to gain some time for cooking (come on, you all do that occasionally, right?). To my surprise, he sat there for 10 minutes without saying anything about it, so I came over, saw what was going on, and filmed this;

It appears that my 4 year old is much more capable than I thought, despite only watching the game previously and only using the iPad 1-2 times a week. Even though I already wrote about getting out of their way, it’s about time we realize that kids can do far more than what we sometimes project on them.


Experience Driving Misconceptions

Today my 4 year old Aden was sharpening pencils.

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He told me that the pencil was getting longer as he sharpened. I realized he was talking about the lead ‘extending’ out of the wood.

He had seen something happen and came to a logical-to-him , though wrong, conclusion. 

As a high school physics teacher, this is fascinating to me. My kids come into my class with all kinds of strongly held, yet incorrect, beliefs about physics, and this phenomena is widely documented in other sciences as well. So how can doing science with your kids help?

Get them to ask questions.

I modeled science for Aden by designing a quick ‘experiment’; we found a pencil where there was a letter close to where the wood was showing. I asked him to predict what would happen to the space from the wood to the letter. “It will get bigger.” He really thought the pencil grew! So then we sharpened the pencil, and I asked him what happened to the space. “It got smaller!” The dissonance between what he thought would happen and what actually happened opened up the possibility for him that another explanation was possible, and more data, the wood shavings in the sharpener, helped confirm it for him.

I’ve often thought about simply teaching my kids the ‘right’ science (that a plant gets it’s mass from the air, that when you go around a corner the seat and seat belt is actually pushing you towards the center of the circle, etc), but I think that would really cheapen the experience for them. Instead I want to train my kids to always look beyond face value of any experience, ask questions, and make sure that a variety of data and experience supports their conclusions.

I think that can start as early as a conversation about a growing pencil with a 4 year old.


The Magnetizing Pencil Lead Experiment

This post was written by Malke Rosenfeld and is cross posted from her blog

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My (newly 9yo) daughter is a sensory girl who likes to mix things and ask questions while doing so. Over the course of her short life she has created all sorts of goopy, colorful, muddy, tasty inside and outside concoctions out of food, paint, mud, sidewalk chalk, bubbles…all the while narrating non-stop about what she’s going to do and how and why.

This is great but she is very messy and I am, in all honesty, sometimes low on tolerance for daily messes (and for long-running verbal narrative) but I know this is the kind of thing that lights her up. So when she asked:

“Can I take salt and pepper and pencil leads and try to magnetize them in water?”

I said:

“Yes, as long as you clean up after you’re done. And make sure to record your findings.”

And she said:


She put water, salt, pepper and magnets from our fridge into a bowl along with the pencil leads. Her essential question was: “Can I magnetize these pencil leads?” Here is what she wrote down about her experimenting (edited only for spelling):

If I put a pencil lead in water with pepper and salt and rub it to the non magnetized side:

Will it still work if it’s just water and pepper? YES

Will it work with just water? YES

Will it work without water? NO. It does not work if both are not in water. It only works if one is rubbed!

Will it work with a different magnet? YES

When it’s wet it sticks to me! Will it work when I don’t rub it on the magnet? YES, but it does not stick for long.

Her ultimate conclusion was that she could “magnetize the pencil leads but they could not stick to other magnets beside themselves” and that “water has something to do with it.”

I recently picked up a book at our public library used book store called Curious Minds: How a Child Becomes a Scientist. The book is a collection of essays from interesting scientists who were asked to write about how and when in their childhoods they became interested in an idea that led them to go into the sciences. My favorite essay is from Mary Catherine Bateson who is the daughter of Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead. She talks about how she grew up in a household where “the how” of science was the focus. “The what” her father and mother studied changed over time, but it was her childhood experiences of looking for patterns and asking questions that really brought her into her field.

So, when my husband pointed out that the leads stuck together because they were wet, not magnetized as she had concluded, I agreed. We did not succeed in convincing her otherwise, which is just fine with me. What is most important about her sequence of question asking is that she was engaged in THE PROCESS (the how) of science. To me, at this point in her life, the feel for the process is what we want her to have — the curiosity, the personal agency, the flow of question asking.

After all, if you talk to real scientists and mathematicians they will tell you their work is about days and months and years and decades of wrong turns and the resulting new questions. In today’s fast paced world it’s hard to muster patience for this idea of building understanding over time but the truth is this: Coming to know often means you may not have all the answers you want or need right away but as long as you have new questions to ask you can be sure you are heading in the right direction.

Get Out of Their Way

A week or so ago this video of Neil deGrasse Tyson came across my twitter feed (the first minute is the most relevant);

A couple days later I went to check on Melia, my 6 year old, in the bath. The conditioner pump had stopped working, and she had disassembled it and was pumping water through it to try to clean it out. “I think this (points at some possibly stuck conditioner in the tube) is why it isn’t working.” Then she asked for something long and skinny, I found a toothpick, and she used it to clean the pump tube out. She put it back together and it worked (at least better than before, still not 100%).

Then yesterday she wanted to do an experiment with the rocks we have frozen in water in ice cube trays. (aside: Why do we have rocks frozen in ice cube trays, you ask? That would be a question for our babysitter from the other day…) She wanted to see how the ice melts with the rocks in them. Through a bit of conversation (I really have to get better at recording these conversations), she decided to put cubes in 3 different bowls in 3 different locations; inside, in the shade outside, and in the sun outside. She started putting them in some containers, and I suggested that she use the same container style for each one, so everything was the same except the locations. Then she put them in the various locations, and we added a tray with regular ice cubes for comparison.

Melia decided that the tray outside in the shade melted faster, based on very quick qualitative observations. My wife tried asking her why she thought so (“What observations led you to that conclusion, honey?”), but Melia was already onto the next thing. Which is fine, because it’s not about the result right now.

I want my kids to be curious, and stay curious. In both these situations, Melia formulated a question, designed a way mostly on her own to test that question, and carried out the investigation. We just largely got out of the way (with a few suggestions to plant the seeds about control variables and a control comparison).

In another example of how kids can drive the conversation through their curiosity, I received this email from Christopher, author of Talking Math With Kids;

A proper subset of the questions Tabitha asked on our recent camping trip:

-How does mosquito repellent work?
-What if mosquitos adapted and started to like bug repellent?
-If the water is orange, how come it looks so blue? (It looked orange straight down and blue on the horizon)
-Could a spider make a web in your armpit? (referring to the triangular space created when placing your hand on your hip)
-Is it illegal to kill ants on purpose?
-Does fire hurt ants?
-Even fire ants?
-How do ducks decide who to marry?

Some of these questions led to discussion and speculation, some did not. None led to googling, as we were in the North Woods.

I love that I can see Tabitha’s curiosity and, in some cases, thought process. She likely thought about fire hurting ants because of their name, fire ants, but asked about fire hurting them first. Tabitha can formulate questions, and  Christopher is a master of eliciting conversation with his kids; he recognizes here that some of these questions were worthy of further investigation, and some can be left unanswered. In my last post on this blog we used real life to motivate Googling for information. That worked in that scenario, but I in no way want to encourage Googling as the first line of defense in Doing Science with Your Kids. The big thing is to let them question, let them think, speculate, and be curious. Don’t worry about answers/results/correctness.They may make a mess; they may do things differently than you would. Let their curiosity thrive.

Just get out of their way.

Motivating Curiosity with Turtles

Today at my in-law’s house a turtle was laying eggs at the end of the driveway.

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I knew this was a great opportunity for doing science with my kids, but I didn’t have much of a thought for how to approach it. So I put the question to twitter, and got this awesome insight from Adam;

This opened some doors. I did a quick internet search and found this article, which I skimmed, then this one, which was written in a language that my kids could better understand. We read the second article together. Particularly interesting was learning that for turtles, and apparently many reptiles, the sex of the hatchlings depends on the incubation temperature! The kids also liked that the baby turtles were going to be only an inch long and hatch in 9-18 weeks (likely longer in our northern climate, so probably in October; I hope to report back when that happens).

In reflection I realized that my kids wouldn’t have cared much if I had just read them the web page. The real-life event of watching the turtle laying the eggs motivated their curiosity about turtles in general.

Next we talked about how to protect the eggs since they are in a driveway, and Grandma Sue took over. She’s also going to take over the narration here to describe how she and the kids approached this task.

Unbeknownst to the turtle, she laid her eggs in the middle of our shared driveway. We started watching her at 6:30 AM and she did not leave her mission until 9:30 AM! My granddaughter did the subtraction (editor’s note: talking math with your kids!) and realized it was a 3 hour project!  The kids and I decided that was way too much energy spent to let the neighbors run over the eggs with their cars…I suggested we could make some signs and tape them on chairs to put over the ‘egg nest’. They were all over it! They decided what message they wanted on their signs to keep the eggs safe and asked me how to spell the words, using permanent marker so the message would not be ruined in the rain.

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We taped the signs to two chairs and set them over the nests. Challenge in this whole do we keep chairs in the middle of the road for 9-18 weeks?!?!

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All in all a great learning experience for the kids where they did some science, a bit of math, reading, and writing. Thank you turtle!


‘Doing Science With Your Kids’ is Born

My first experience of doing science with my kids happened by accident. In January of 2014 we had quite a cold spell in Minnesota and school was canceled for a number of days. About the same time, some videos about throwing boiling water into the air and freezing instantly were making their way around the interwebs. I figured my kids would like to see if it works. We boiled some water, they stood by the window, and I went out on the deck and threw it into the air. They were thrilled. Then, for some reason I really wish I could remember, we decided to make it more experiment-like. We wondered if the water really needed to be boiling. So I guided the kids to the idea that we should try different temperatures of water to see if it still had the same effect. We would get some water in a bowl, measure the temp with a meat thermometer, and then, crucially, I had each child make a prediction as to whether it would work or not. We recorded their predictions on a whiteboard, then recorded the results, all shown below.


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This was a wonderful experience for both the kids and I. They got experience with experimentation, record keeping, and measuring both qualitatively and quantitatively, and more importantly, had the chance to ask a question and explore to try to find out the answer.

This is what Doing Science With Your Kids is all about; be curious, ask questions, wonder, explore, and authentically seek out evidence and answers while having fun. 

Fast forward a couple of months, I was inspired by Christopher’s Talking Math With Your Kids hashtag (#tmwyk) to start #dswyk, and a few folks and I started tweeting to it. From there, someone mentioned a blog. I thought it would be fun to make it collaborative; anyone could become an author and post to it. So here we are.

Go here if you would like to contribute to this blog. More importantly, go do some science with your kids!