Low-Key Science, without lesson plans

posted in: pedagogical | 5

As with history, I believe science in the elementary years should be geared toward awareness and interest rather than the acquisition of a testable bank of particular knowledge or facts.

So far this has served us well, mostly because I do have eager readers so far.

Well, it’s served me well, anyway, because this way involves no preparation on my part, no supply lists, and no experiments or crafts. Bear with me, though, because it does not mean there is no doing.

Homeschool science doesn't have to take a lot of materials, time, or energy. Here's how we do elementary science, simply.

Free & Assigned Reading

This year I had four books in Apologia’s Young Explorers series, and for the next school year I’ll complete the set with the remaining two. These books are out with other books, and the boys read them on their own in bits and pieces here and there.

For their independent work, they have the assignment:

Read one section out of any Apologia science book. Close the book when you are done and draw a picture to illustrate what you read about. Write a 2-3 (1-2 for the 7yo) sentence caption for your illustration.

They do open the book back up to get the spellings for words they want to use in their sentences, but I don’t want them copying sentences this year straight from the book. However, last year that was their assignment.

Read a section, copy 1-2 sentences from the section, and illustrate.

Doing it this way has several advantages:

  1. It freed up my time with one fewer read-aloud during a year of pregnancy and newborn exhaustion.
  2. It turned science (and history, since the assignment was similar) into doubling as our writing instruction for the year (I’d go over their sentences and have them make corrections).
  3. It gave them some autonomy in choosing what they’d read and write and draw about, so their drawings and writings were generally better done because they were interest-led and not dictated from on high.
  4. It meant their independent work assignment never had to be updated (except for the clarifications that had to be added along the way) and our plans were never “behind.”
  5. They often ended up reading more than one section, because they got interested. The assignment was there to make them open the book and get engaged, but it was set up in such a way to allow plenty of room for self-directed interest and delight.

Gardening & Yard Work

Education is all-encompassing, it is not something that happens during set hours. There really is no such thing as “extra-curricular.” Life is the curricula, whether we plan it that way or acknowledge it or not.

So gardening and yard work might not be part of a “school” plan. But they do provide opportunities for real-life hands-on science, the kind that comes up as you need to know and do something rather than because a book told you to try this thing that may or may not come out right.

“Mom! I found a worm!”
“Good! Put it in the garden, because worms are good for the soil!”

“Mom? These don’t look like seeds. They’re dried up peas.”
“The pea is actually the seed of the pea plant.”

The conversation and explanations that happen as you work together seem insignificant, and they are certainly incomplete, but they give the children’s minds something to work on in context as they are experiencing reality with their hands and eyes and ears, doing something significant (including play) rather than something to check off a checkbox.

It’s the chance for poetic knowledge, for knowledge that comes almost without rational, conscious acquisition. It’s learning in the same vein as babies learning to move and eat and talk. It just happens because that’s part of the life they are living.

If you have animals, then that’s even more opportunity!

We have an acre, and the kids help me with the garden (mostly the harvesting). They follow their dad around as he fixes sprinklers, learning about pressure and water and pipes. They dig in the dirt and experience what the earth is like. They rake the leaves and pull the weeds and pick the flowers and tomatoes and shovel the snow, experiencing the changes in the season.

I don’t think these aspects of living a full, real life should be discounted in favor of a textbook or a set of artificial, contrived experiments.

Hobbies & Housekeeping

In the same vein, our kids have learned about rocks and petrified wood from their aunt, going on rock-hunting expeditions with her because she enjoys such things. They have learned about siphons and filtering and brewing recently as my husband has taken up beer-brewing as a hobby. They watched their dad design and build a triple-bed bunk bed. They watched their uncle cut down one of our trees with his giant cherry-picker truck and chainsaw.

None of these things were done for “educational purposes,” but just happened as the kids accompanied people doing things they think are fun.

Even helping with dinner is learning about how the world works!

Projects like remodeling, fixing the washing machine or dishwasher, or installing a new door or new flooring or new light fixture are also ready-made opportunities for learning-by-watching.

Books to Browse

Of course we also keep on hand many science-y books for browsing as the spirit moves. The DK Eyewitness books are favorites of the boys, as well as the building books by David MacAulay like Pyramid.

The New Way Things Work is a staple, and one Matt will sometimes send the boys to if they want to know how something works.

Nature Walks

And, of course, there are nature walks. We have not done very many, because it is, unfortunately, one of the first things to go when weather, children, my own stamina, or grocery runs don’t cooperate. It really ought not to be so, but there it is.

When we do do them, it is much more free-spirited than Charlotte Mason’s directions. I don’t give the children any agenda or any assignment, though I’m sure such a thing could improve their attention and memory. It could also result in discipline because of the tempting opportunity to do their own thing instead of following directions. I don’t have strong willed or wild children, but I also don’t have docile people-pleasers. They are much more happy pleasing themselves than others. As are so many of us. I don’t sit on a blanket as a repository of names and knowledge. At this point, my children know more names of things than I do, and I’m not sure how.

Instead, we go to some of our favorite spots around town: the Master Garden only half a mile from our home (where all the plants are conveniently labeled) and a little hide-away spot at the river about 3 miles away. They run, they look, they play, they toss rocks, and I take a bag filled with paper, clipboards, and colored pencils so that if they want to, they can draw something that catches their fancy.

I suppose one other sort of “nature walk” we do annually is a pumpkin patch visit, picking blueberries at Great Grandma & Grandpa’s house, going to a local orchard for cherries and peaches and apples throughout the summer, and meandering around the Farmer’s Market many weeks in the summer.

Getting out, enjoying our home town, and just being out in nature and the sun are the primary goals. It expands their world and their interests, their connection with our area, their home, and that’s as good a thing as any measurable academic goal.

The Reality

All put together like this, you might mistakingly get the impression that we have it all together. But these are all incidentals, really, that add up over the course of years and sounds impressive (perhaps) when condensed down into one post.

I could even point out that my children learned a couple weeks ago that glass was made out of heated sand because their Dad introduced them to Minecraft. He rolled his eyes at me when I pointed out that learning was even happening when they played computer games.

The encouragement I want to convey is that children are learning about the world all the time, and that knowledge they pick up by living and doing and inquiring into a full life is adequate for the elementary years and much more likely to bear fruit in their lives than filling out a lab sheet or submitting to a lesson that dulls them because the point is getting through a program and does not seem connected to their life.

So, our science plan is to read, draw, and live. It is working for us.

5 Responses

  1. Melissa
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    oh to be able to start again… mine are now 14, 12, and 10…

  2. Sarah
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    I am loving these posts! Keep them coming, please. :) they help me see the natural joy that flows out of a Classical homeschool where poetic knowledge (rather than a curriculum list or book list) is priority.

  3. Ainnir
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    Great post! It does sound impressive and thank you for pointing out that it is spread out over time. Science is not my forte and I believe I may be overcompensating with too much table time. Thank you for the reminder that knowledge sticks better when learned through experiences. Also, I am familiar with Minecraft and never thought to use it that way! But it makes perfect sense; it is basically a materials sandbox, after all.

  4. Kelly
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    I am really liking your approach here and in the history post too. :) Thank you for sharing what works for you!

  5. Pam
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    This sounds just perfect. Thank you for sharing the practicalities of how you do it!