Charlotte Mason Science for Preschoolers

We know that Charlotte Mason held we should not start formal lessons until six years old, but what can we do before that to encourage our children to explore science? Joining me here today is my friend and coworker, Karen Smith.

Sonya: Karen, you’ve already walked us through, in a different episode, how to teach science in grades 1 through 12. But what about before grade 1? What can we do to encourage our children in the scientific world, in that aspect of creation around us?

Karen: I think the biggest thing is to allow your children to explore, encourage their curiosity and just get out of their way. Really, we get in the way of our children too much, and they don’t need a scientific explanation. They just need to observe and learn at their own pace. Those preschool years are about learning about the world around them and not with terms, but just learning. A child may say, “Look at that dandelion in the yard,” and you may think as a mom, “Oh, I’ve seen dandelions hundreds of times. They’re nothing new.”

Sonya: In fact, we want to get rid of them a lot of times.

Karen: Yes, but to your child, that is a new thing to be explored. It’s interesting to that child. That’s why they always bring you those lovely bouquets. Think about the transformation of the flower from its bright yellow to its fuzzy white. We’ve seen it all before, but your child hasn’t. Give them that time.

Sonya: And even seeing how the white floats away on the breeze sometimes. I would be tempted to say, “Oh look, the leaves, the seeds are going.” Is that okay? Or is that interposing yourself and interrupting them?

Karen: It could be okay. But to draw your child’s attention to it, you don’t need to explain how the wind is dispersing the seeds so that the dandelion can grow more dandelions in other places. If the child asks, you can tell him that, but otherwise just let the child enjoy watching how those seeds float in the air and where they go.

Sonya: I think some of it is that we forget how much our children are observing and registering, even if they don’t tell us. It’s almost like we expect them to tell us. “Okay, did you get that? Did you get that, did you get that?” So that we can check it off in our heads. “Yes, he got that. Check it off, move on.” But so much is happening under the surface, let’s say, in those preschool years. We’ve got to just trust that they are taking that all in.

Karen: Those experiences that they have, those observations: what they see, what they feel, what they do, those come into play in later years, because those are the experiences that they’re going to draw upon when they get to high school and they’re studying biology, or chemistry, or some other formal science. This is the experience.

Those experiences that they have, those come into play in later years, because those are the experiences that they’re going to draw upon when they get to high school and they’re studying formal science.

Sonya: The personal relation.

Karen: Yes, and that’s the important part. They’re building that foundation, those experiences to draw upon. You already have some of those experiences as an adult, and you have to remember that your child is in the process of building those experiences now.

Sonya: I think it’s easy as an adult to just focus on the facts that we got in biology because that’s what is most recent. It’s harder to think all the way back to those preschool years when we were gathering the experiences, and forming the personal connections.

Karen: When you were exploring and experiencing some of those things for the first time, and the wonder that you had about those things, your child is doing that now.

Sonya: We lose the wonder sometimes.

Karen: Yes, give him the space for that. Be ready to give him some more information if he asks for it. But it’s not necessary to tell him all the whys and wheres and hows of things at that stage.

Sonya: Okay, that’s reassuring, because when you said be ready to give him the answers, suddenly my heart started beating faster. It’s like, “But what if I don’t know the answer? What if he says, ‘What is this? Look at this part on the ant, what is that, mommy?’ Something like a thorax?” Is that the correct term for that?

Karen: Yes, you don’t even have to know the correct terminology. You can just say, “Well I don’t know what that is, but isn’t it interesting? What do you think that is used for?” Or “Why do you think that’s a part of that?” It’s kind of that same old question of Johnny coming to mom and saying, “Mom, where did I come from?”

Sonya: Yeah, it strikes fear in the heart of every parent.

Karen: And mom’s like, “Oh no, it’s time for the talk.”

Sonya: Yeah, even though Johnny is four years old. Like, “Oh, how many details do I have to give?”

Karen: Mom goes through an explanation, and Johnny says, “Oh, I just wanted to know because Bobby said he’s from Ohio.” He wasn’t looking for the details that you, as the adult, thought he was. He just wanted to know “I was born in Georgia, not Ohio,” so don’t go too deep.

Sonya: Point taken. That’s a very good point. So nature, getting our children out into nature. This is not like, “Once a week, we do nature study,” in the older grades, or in the grades from first grade on, this is more get them outside every day. Just let them play.

Karen: Yes. Let them play, let them explore. You can do this in your own yard or at a park or while you’re traveling, because there are always new discoveries to be made wherever children go. And they don’t need to have an encyclopedia coming along with them for those explorations.

Let them play, let them explore. You can do this in your own yard or at a park or while you’re traveling, because there are always new discoveries to be made wherever children go.

Sonya: Or even a field guide.

Karen: Or even a field guide. Mom might want a field guide, but the child does not need that. And it’s more about just letting them notice, letting them become acquainted with the world around them.

Sonya: I like the element that we have put into our preschool curriculum. It’s not a curriculum, I shouldn’t call it that. It’s called Our Preschool Life. It’s a monthly subscription box, and the children get a small nature notebook for their own. Each child gets one, and it’s just a blank little notebook. But then every month in the box, they get two little nature stickers to encourage them to observe what’s around them. [shows stickers]

Karen: They are pictures of just common things around them. Like butterflies, earthworms, fish. There’s your dandelion you were talking about.

Sonya: There you go. And once they see it, they can put that sticker in the notebook.

Karen: Wherever they want to.

Sonya: Yes, and if they want to tell about what they saw, mom or dad can write down what they said there, but really the purpose is to get them in the habit of noticing. Which many children do anyway, so this could be more for mom and dad to realize what they’re noticing.

Karen: It encourages them to look for things also, because sometimes we get into a habit of not noticing the things that are there, because we’re not looking for them; our surroundings have become too familiar. And this gives the children something like a scavenger hunt. “Can you find what’s on your sticker this month?”

Sonya: And if you don’t find it this month, that’s fine. Hang on to your sticker. Keep looking. Because maybe next month you’ll find it. It keeps them observant, and we’re setting up a habit of observation of what’s around them. Okay. So that’s getting our children out into nature. That’s one component. What else can we do to encourage exploration of science?

Karen: We can read books with our children that have a nature or a little bit of a science element to it, things that model that when you’re out in nature, how to look for things and notice them, things that draw their attention to something that maybe they don’t live near. For instance, if you live in the middle of the country, your child may never see the seashore, but you can read a book about the seashore.

Sonya: All right, let me grab these books that we have discovered recently and really enjoy. In fact, we include these in Our Preschool Life. Every month they get a book.

Karen: Not always a nature-related one.

Sonya: Right, but some of the boxes contain a nature book. And the one you just mentioned reminds me of this one, The Seashore Book by Charlotte Zolotow. It’s fabulous, do you want to tell about that book?

Karen: It’s a story about a mother and her son, and they don’t live near the seashore. The boy is asking about what the seashore is like, and the mom describes it to him, and the boy, in his imagination, visualizes it. The whole book is illustrations of what the mom is describing to her son.

Sonya: Beautiful illustrations, so it’s a great way to introduce a different habitat to your child. Another book, Step Gently Out by Helen Frost and Rick Lieder. It’s a fabulous introduction to insects.

Karen: Yes, and again, fabulous, this one, I think, has photographs in it, and they are up-close photographs. It goes through talking about when you go out, look, notice the blade of grass, see those little things that we don’t think of.

Sonya: The common things, as we were talking earlier. Charlotte used that term so much.

Karen: Yes, but those are interesting to young children. They are seeing them for the first time.

Sonya: This book, Step Gently Out, can also address an issue that some parents might have. I recently was watching a show where a lady pulled a picture off the wall and screamed and dropped the picture, and then they did a closeup, and there was this little tiny spider. And she’s like, “Oh, I saw a spider!” That can happen with some parents. This type of book presents those insects as a beautiful part of God’s creation, so this book could help. Maybe you want to talk about the parents’ attitude here while we’re at it, how that can affect children?

Karen: It’s important not to show your disgust or your disinterest in something that your child is excited about. You could very well, as Charlotte Mason put it, close the door to that chapter of nature for your child.

Sonya: That’s a sobering thought.

Karen: Yes, we don’t want to close those doors of curiosity. I know it’s hard sometimes when you have some of those phobias, but you have to be careful, particularly, not to show disinterest in what your child has taken an interest in.

Sonya: Even if you need to stand six feet away to show your interest. You can still show an interest. I know we did an episode earlier on nature study fears, and how to handle those. Another great book is Hiking Day by Anne Rockwell.

Karen: Yes, it’s a family, they’re going for a hike. Throughout the whole book, they talk about the different things that they see as they are walking. It’s a great example for parents, but children will enjoy the story too, of how to develop curiosity in your children and not get in their way as they’re exploring. Just give them that freedom to explore. Don’t direct too much. Don’t squash it by saying, “Oh, come on, we have to keep walking.” Give them those moments to stop and observe.

Sonya: Sometimes that’s the hardest part — taking that time. Or letting them have that time.

Karen: We are schedule-oriented.

Sonya: We are!

Karen: And if we don’t finish this hike at the exact time, we’re going to delay lunch by half an hour. Well, delay lunch by half an hour.

Sonya: Not a problem. Bring a snack bar or something. We are fine, not a problem. We need to also be careful that we’re not over-scheduling our children in things outside the home. That then pushes out any time to explore. Just a couple more books. Inky’s Amazing Escape is all about an octopus.

Karen: A real octopus, this is a true story. A true story of how an octopus escaped his enclosure at an aquarium.

Sonya: And went down the drain back to the ocean; it’s a fun story.

Karen: It’s a fun story. You learn a little bit about octopuses, and what they can do.

Sonya: A nice little introduction story in a living way. It’s a great introduction to octopus, and then The Listening Walk. I like this because usually when we talk about exploring nature, we think about what we see.

Karen: And this one focuses on, “What do you hear?” This book is about what you can hear, but you can also encourage “What do you smell?” And in some cases, “What does it feel like?” Or “What does it taste like?”

Sonya: Or even feeling the wind.

Karen: Oh yes, you can feel the wind. You can see the wind and you can hear the wind, so there’s three senses they can use just for the wind.

Sonya: Nice, and this one is by Paul Showers. The Listening Walk by Paul Showers. And then one last one, I just finished reading this with my youngest. Beside the Pond, and it’s by James Witmer; it’s a newer book. But it’s very much in the style of Thornton Burgess. We learn a lot about the little frog, Ferdinand, and he’s a bullfrog, and when the book starts out, he’s teeny tiny, and he goes through lots of experiences and adventures with the other animals in the pond and around the pond. Then as he grows, I won’t do any spoilers here, but it’s just a very sweet book. We really enjoyed this one. So reading these nature books together and science exploration books together, that’s another great way to encourage our children before formal lessons.

Karen: Yes, and remember, you’re allowing your child to get experiences with different aspects of science. There are other ways too, it doesn’t have to be outside.

Sonya: Cooking, for example.

Karen: Cooking is a great way for your child to have experiences with chemistry, because cooking is chemistry. Why does the cake rise when it bakes? Well, it’s because of the chemical reactions of the ingredients. That’s something, you don’t have to explain it to your child, but they see that happening.

Sonya: Or they see that apple that they sliced turning brown when it sits out too long.

Karen: Why does it do that? Well, that’s chemistry also. It’s a chemical reaction that does that, but you don’t have to explain that to them, but they see that happening. Later on, they will get some of that material to explain that for them. But they will have that experience to draw on when they’re studying chemistry in the high school years.

Sonya: So cooking is another great way to introduce and explore scientific concepts. The whole thing here is that we want to encourage parents to focus on the ideas, not the dry facts. So it’s the concepts of science, not just the terminology of science, especially in those preschool years. That’s a key. Then there are other things that our children can play with. I often get asked, “What about scientific experiments? Do we need to do experiments when they’re little?” What do you think?

Karen: That’s more up to the mom, if she enjoys that, but really children just need to explore. You can give them a bucket of water and some measuring cups and measuring spoons and let them explore water. How does it move? They’ll scoop it. They’ll splash it, they’ll do all sorts of things with it.

Sonya: They’ll do some type of experiment themselves, like they’ll take a little bucket that has a slot in the bottom and see how that looks compared to pouring water out. Those are experiments, but they’re natural.

Karen: Or they’ll find things to see if they float or they sink. You can provide materials for them or help them find ones and ask them do you think this will float or sink, but you don’t have to explain to them why it does.

Sonya: And you don’t have to make it a set lesson. “Today, we are going to explore things that float and sink.”

Karen: Exactly. Do the same thing with sand, or one that is fun for children is corn starch mixed with water. It’s a very interesting concoction. It’s sometimes liquid, and sometimes solid when you’re playing with it. Some kids don’t like it because it is kind of weird.

Sonya: It feels weird.

Karen: Yes. But they usually enjoy that one. But again, it’s them exploring the different elements around them in a safe environment. We don’t want them discovering electricity by happenstance.

Sonya: Yes, safety is a concern, of course, so keep an eye on them, but let them explore as much as possible. Anything else you want to encourage us with?

Karen: Just to remind you to allow your child that freedom to explore, the space to explore, and by that, I mean give them the time.

Sonya: Yes, the unhurried time is so important. It’s hard for parents. It was hard for me, because I felt like “I’m not doing anything, I’m just sitting here watching them.” But that’s so important for them to have that unhurried time.

Karen: And be careful that you do not show disinterest or disgust in what is interesting to your child.

Sonya: All good reminders. I love how Charlotte said the flowers are not new, but the children are. That’s such a key for those preschool years, especially. Thanks.