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Everyday STEM for the Family!

27+ Built-In Ways to Learn About Science

During these challenging times, the traditional educational model has been turned on its head, and many parents are thinking about what they can do to supplement their child’s education. Whether that education is virtual, in person, or a mix of both, scientific literacy and STEM skills should be at the core of any curriculum, as it is important to everything we do.

Instead of creating new science activities and fitting them into already packed schedules, let’s focus on the science that is already in everyday activities. There are ways to teach children scientific skills we’re already using at home while being productive. Sure, it takes a little longer to complete a chore or cook a meal with little helpers, but you’re teaching your children valuable lessons about the importance of contributing to the family – all while helping them discover science.

Turn lunch into a lesson! Highlight science in the kitchen. 

Following recipe directions and lab directions are similar! Have your future scientists help you move through recipe preparation step by step.

Whether you’re baking or cooking, it involves various measurements. As you prepare your meal, let your kids measure ingredients. Talk about which ingredients have larger or smaller portions, and have them make predictions about which of the ingredients will stand out in the final dish. 

Activities such as pouring, cracking eggs, and cutting with knives offer kids the chance to work on fine motor skills. These are important skills for scientists to have, from engineers to medical researchers. 

Cooking offers lots of opportunities to experiment. If you add this, what will happen? If you don’t, what will happen? Ask these types of questions as you go, and have your children make a hypothesis. 

Just like in real-life science projects, sometimes working in the kitchen requires flexibility. What if we don’t have an ingredient? Talk about substitutions – what works and what doesn’t? – and how that will impact the outcome. Not everything turns out how you want (especially when kids are helping). What do you do when you fail? What did you learn from the experience? How will you modify your process in the future?

Lastly, cooking and baking with your kids is a great opportunity to talk to them about nutrition and how the body uses nutrients in food. 

Get both their body and their brain moving with exercise science.

Physical activity is important for staying healthy. Take time to move around with your kids and discuss which muscle groups you’re using, how those muscles function, and how the body builds muscle. 

Pain is an important teacher. Adults know what sore muscles feel like, but children are often confused by those sensations. Help kids draw connections between extra time on the trampoline yesterday and sore thigh muscles today so they learn to distinguish the good pain of soreness from the bad pain of an actual injury.

Take a brisk walk or go for a bike ride. Before you leave, talk about cardiovascular functioning. Have your kids notice heart rate and breathing, then make predictions about what will happen to those measurements when you’ve complete your activity. 

Exercise offers the chance to highlight cause and effect and physics lessons. How hard do you have to pedal your bike to get up a hill? Why does a taller person have an advantage in basketball? How high do different size balls bounce? As they play in physical ways, children learn about the physical world, and it activates questions and hypothesis testing. 

As you look for creative ways to keep moving, don’t forget to include water breaks. These stops offer the chance to not only rehydrate, but also to chat about the body’s hydration needs.

Step outside and grow your connection to nature. 

While you’re completing yardwork, have your children select a plant. What elements does that plant need to grow? What happens if the plant doesn’t get sun? Are there places in your yard or community where it’s not safe for that plant to grow? How would the soil’s pH (acidic or basic levels) affect the plant’s growth? Exploring nature offers opportunities to learn about plant life cycles. 

Ecosystems include pests like insects and deer. They need to eat and might find your plants delicious. What is your family doing to potentially harm them? What are you doing to protect them? These conversations can be about the circle of life as well as human-
made environments changing natural habitats. 

Fruits and vegetables can spark discussions about food origins. Ask your children to explain how an apple grew or identify parts of a whole carrot. These are perfect science conversation starters. 

It might seem impossible sometimes to teach your kids patience, but that’s an important scientific skill and nature can help. Find a plant that will flower. Have your kids check on the plant’s progress each day and record what they see. It could be days or weeks, but watching the buds transform will help them better understand that sometimes science is a slow process.  

Go green by incorporating some environmental caretaking science.

There’s water everywhere in your house. How does it get to you? How can you capture and use rainwater? Why is it so important to take shorter showers and turn off the water while brushing your teeth? 

Reduce, reuse, recycle. You’ve heard that before, and likely so have your children. Many schools have recycling programs and Earth Day lessons on reducing waste. From eliminating plastic bag use to making packaging choices when shopping, discuss the ways your family is participating in this effort. 

Start composting. There are numerous resources to teach you how, and there’s no limit to the scientific lessons that can be learned as your kids watch the process unfold. 

Wash, rinse, repeat! Turn a chore into a hands-on science activity.

You probably aren’t thinking of science when it’s house-cleaning time, but the act of tidying up demonstrates important science principles such as time management, attention to detail, prioritization, and task delegation.

Learning what to keep and what to let go is an important life lesson. It’s also a way for your children to process how to discard information or materials that aren’t needed or relevant for a project. 

Talk about the cleaning supplies you use for each chore. What chemicals are needed to complete the task? What chemicals should never be mixed? Are there items in your pantry that also serve as cleaning products (think vinegar and baking soda)?

You’ve probably told your kids that it’s important to keep a tidy environment, but have you explained why? Clutter can contribute to stress and anxiety due to stimuli overload. Having this conversation from a scientific perspective allows you to incorporate some brain science as well as mental health techniques. 

Help your children learn stepwise progression by explaining the order in which you complete cleaning tasks. For example, you dust before you vacuum because you’ll clean up the dust knocked to the floor. Challenge your kids to speculate why things are ordered the way they are. 

Screen time doesn’t have to mean your child’s brain turns to mush.

Both formal Zoom classes and informal virtual playdates offer the chance to learn planning and time management. Going to the bathroom before starting, scheduling computer/room use time with family members, knowing passwords, and having necessary materials (paper, pencil, etc.) are important skills that translate to science tasks.

Successful scientists learn how to see through other eyes. Video calls give children the chance to think about how they’ll be perceived. Encourage your kids to ponder how what they wear, what’s in the background, and the state of the work space (messy or neat?) might impact how others on the call see them. 

Digital technology plays a huge role in today’s science endeavors. Discuss technological innovations around your house, how they can be used for a variety of purposes, and how they have helped – and will continue to help – scientists change the world.

Catherine Lowry Franssen, PhD, is the Science Museum of Virginia’s scientist in residence. She is taking a sabbatical from her position at Longwood University to help the Museum develop neuroscience content. Franssen has a psychology degree from Randolph-Macon College and doctorate in neurobiology from the University of Chicago. Catherine is the mom of two girls, ages eleven and almost six.
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