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Science in your own backyard

by Kim Jaworski, Homeschool Resource Specialist


Science is about learning how things work. Earth science- how the earth works and sustains us. How we grow plants, where oxygen comes from, learning about erosion, volcanoes, weather patterns, habitats and how animals live.  Chemistry- how fuels are used, how elements combine, how reactions happen that affect everything from our air quality to our baking. Physics- how machines work, and friction, forces and power.

And it can all start in your backyard (or dining room). It can be a planned experiment (plant some seeds and watch them grow, harvest new seeds and repeat the cycle) or it can be more of an exploration and discovery mission. Take, for example, a family I tested for who had an aquarium set up to watch tadpoles become frogs. They had taken water and the tadpoles from the pond behind their house. When I visited for testing, we were looking over the tadpoles which clearly seemed to be of 2 different varieties. One set was smaller and more like what I expected a tadpole to be. The others were larger with a boxy kind of head and a pacman-like mouth. Regular frogs, and maybe bullfrogs, they thought. How exciting to see what develops!

The next year I came back to do their testing and I was eager to hear if their tadpoles had survived and transformed. Oh yes! They excitedly told me that their guess about the frogs was wrong. They ended up with frogs from the smaller tadpole, but SALAMANDERS from the larger, boxy-headed guys. And that’s just how it works for scientists. Sometimes, they think they know what will happen when they manipulate some factor or add a new component to the dynamics of a situation. But until it’s actually tried and observed, you just don’t know for sure what might happen. That’s the difference between theory and actual scientific evidence- demonstrated right in your aquarium.

Watching caterpillars transform is another great science project. Growing a terrarium, building a waterfall in the backyard, planning a garden. It’s all science. If you’re working on a garden- start some of the seeds on a wet paper towel in a ziplock bag and tape it to the window. Watch the roots emerge and the green shoot start to grow. Then plant them in a clear plastic cup and see the process continue. As your garden matures talk about how each plant’s seeds develop and keep some seeds for next year’s garden.

Catch some rain water and make your own filter set up with gravel and sand (you can find lots of info for this online- check youtube). Talk about how the earth filters our rain water and snow melt, how streams and rivers carry water and how the water cycle works.

You can find kitchen chemistry books at your library or ideas online, but the easiest and most exciting reaction in vinegar and baking soda.  You can use it to blow up balloons, or just to blow the lid off something. This is a great rainy day activity and best done in the bathroom. My sons spent an entire afternoon with a couple of 35mm film capsules, a jug of vinegar and a box of baking soda. They used a square of toilet paper to keep the soda above the vinegar until they shook the container and then threw it in the shower stall where it exploded. They experimented with different amounts of baking soda to get maximum “POP” when the lid burst off. This was all with my permission, so long as the shower was scrubbed down and the clumps of toilet paper collected and thrown away (not washed down the drain!) when they finished. The vinegar and baking soda did a great job on the soap scum in the shower. Science can be practical, too.

Be careful about letting kids mix household chemicals and cleaners. This always requires parental supervision and a careful reading of labels and warnings. Some things DON’T mix.

When it comes to physics there are endless rubberband vehicles, balloon propulsion projects, egg protection contraptions and Rube Goldberg devices to keep your children happily occupied through the winter months. Your library or youtube will be more than enough inspiration and you won’t need much more than your own junk drawer, and recycled tidbits like rubberbands, stapler, popsicle sticks, bubble wrap, balloons, string, tape, drinking straws and a plastic pop bottle.

After reading The Marvelous Inventions of Alvin Fernald, my sons happily spent a day creating a contraption to make their beds with the pull of a cord. They also spent countless hours in the family room making bridges from popsicle sticks and testing their strength. We also used toothpicks and miniature marshmallows to create structures and experiment with strength and form.

You can start with a video or book and kick off your own ideas. Or you can simply put some supplies on the table and see what everyone comes up with. These can be a weekend project for the whole family or just a few hours of afternoon dawdling.

And don’t forget seasonal activities: In the winter, build a shelter out of snow or in the summer, devise a way to collect rain water for your garden and even an irrigation system to distribute it.

For more outdoor adventures in Science:

Collect rocks and analyze what you’ve found. Put your rocks on display in a terrarium (in that 10 gal aquarium for free at a garage sale). Don’t just talk about erosion, look for examples of it on your hikes or in your own backyard. Talk about what ‘biodegradable’ means, and then bury some things in your garden and dig them up next year and check on the decomposition. Try a juice box, a plastic pop bottle, an egg shell, some dead leaves and vegetable peelings. Be sure to mark the burial site and label them. Take pictures of the items you buried for comparison next year.

When you go hiking or even to the neighborhood park, look for evidence of the critters who live there.  What do you think they eat? What bugs can you find? What birds? What are they using for shelter? Get a bird book from your library and see how many you can spot in your neighborhood. Be on the look out for nests and you might be able to watch eggs hatch and baby birds grow up.

I hope by now you realize that science exploration can happen all around you and doesn’t require a text book, at least for these early grades. Around 6th grade you can introduce an earth sciences curriculum to get deeper into the subject or use documentaries. Kindergarten through 5th grade can be all about getting messy with it. And older students will also benefit from some home experiments with trial and error just like real scientists.

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