3 Steps to Building a Strong Foundation for Science

By Denise Wilson of Backyard Owls

Do you consider yourself a scientist?  Or a science hobbyist?  Or are you staring at your screen with a little incredulity right now?  It’s ok, I know how that feels.  I’m not a scientist, either.  In fact, when I graduated high school, I had no intention of becoming a scientist, although I’ve always been curious about the natural world and the way things work.

I’m sure you’ve heard this before: Every child is a scientist.  What does this mean?  No, they’re not wearing tiny lab coats and discovering new laws of thermodynamics. They’re exploring, asking questions (lots of questions), experimenting, testing, and repeating – because they’re driven to learn how their world works.

So what happens between the insatiably curious younger years and the time when many people begin to feel they’re just not good at science?  It’s an all-too-common process imposed by adults of transforming the messy process of exploration and discovery into a tidy, flat, multiple-choice-test package. But that’s not science, and it’s definitely not growth.

As homeschoolers, we have an enormous advantage over traditional schools when it comes to science education.  Not because we’re better trained at science, but because we don’t have to wring all the fun out of science.  We can encourage our children’s curiosity while laying the foundation for their growth as science-literate people, even as professional scientists someday if they choose.

We can provide our children with opportunities to pursue answers to meaningful questions, do messy experiments, test their own ideas, and go deep into something that fascinates them. We can set them up with the foundation to develop their skills in science – because science is not just a list of data, after all: it’s a process by which we increase our understanding of the fabric of the universe.

3 Steps to Building a Strong Foundation for Science

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How can you lay the foundation to support your child’s growth in science?

You can do this.  Even if you’re not “sciencey,” you can lay the foundation for your child’s growth, and you can support them through their interests into their later years of homeschooling, even if that means outsourcing with courses.

Take it one step at a time, enjoy the process, and remember that it’s ok if things don’t work perfectly each time because even mistakes are part of how science gets done.

Step 1: Prepare yourself.

This is going to be rewarding, I promise.

If your kids are anything like mine, they ask lots of questions.  And if you’re anything like me, you have found that as your kids get older and their questions get more interesting, you’re less able to actually answer them.  So here’s what you can do.

Set aside just 20 minutes a day for, say, six weeks.  Read some great books about science, watch some documentaries, borrow a Great Course from the library – fill the gaps in your own education.  I’m not suggesting that you tackle any big, dry tomes on science, even if they are considered classics or essential reading.  There are so many engaging, well-written, enjoyable books that make complex topics clear, you’ll find your own curiosity being rekindled. (Which is one of the best parts of the homeschool life, if not one of the best-kept secrets, don’t you agree?)

Think of this like strewing for yourself, with the added bonus that your kids will be able to use these materials someday as their understanding grows, and then you’ll be able to have even more great conversations with them about science.

Step 2: Provide resources.

I love to collect lists of possible resources and follow all the rabbit trails, don’t you?

To lay a strong foundation in science, you will need to keep certain things on hand.  There are always going to be questions about random topics, and you never know what will spark an interest until it’s stumbled upon.  Also, your children need some basic supplies in order to carry out their experiments.

I find it very helpful to keep:

  • A variety of good quality science books on many different topics
  • Reference books, such as field guides and science encyclopedias
  • Experiment books
  • Experiment supplies
  • Observation tools, such as a field scope, hand magnifier, bug catchers, buckets, fish nets, binoculars
  • Measuring tools, such as rulers, measuring tapes, measuring cups/spoons
  • Scales (kitchen scales that show grams are helpful) and balances
  • Notebooks, including those suitable for nature journaling plus a dedicated lab notebook (free printable lab sheets are easy to find online; here’s the one we use) for students in middle and high school years
  • Building blocks, clay, balloons, straws, recyclables and other supplies for creating models and other constructions

Consider selecting a theme. In the younger years, I thought in terms of seasons.  As my son ages, I think in terms of semesters or years.  Ask your child what s/he would like to learn about and make that your primary focus; if they don’t know, then you can choose something.  Then you can stock up on library books and specific supplies for experiments.  Far from feeling constrictive, this gives my family the freedom to go as deep in a topic as we find necessary because I have been able to prepare the resources before the interest wanes.

A word of advice: don’t skimp on quality—Toy microscopes and telescopes always seem to lead to more frustration than enjoyment in our experience, and it’s far more satisfying to either borrow or save up for the real thing.

How to Build a Strong Foundation for Science

Step 3: Engage.

Science is more than observing the world—it is an active pursuit of understanding, and yes, you and the kids will get messy… there will be lots of mud, spilled vinegar, bug jars in various states of habitation, zip-top bags of found bones in the freezer, and someone might even lose a shoe.  (Ask me how I know.)  Make peace with it and enjoy the process!

When your kids start asking questions in the car, have the kinds of conversations that make you miss your turn because you’re trying to figure out how far your headlights would project light if your car could travel at the speed of light.

Watch documentaries together as a family, read about the latest discoveries, find out what real scientists do and talk about what makes them so cool.  Decorate your home with posters and charts with scientific themes—there are some beautiful and fascinating ones out there.  Make science part of your lifestyle.

Cooking is an excellent foundation to science because as your children learn kitchen skills, they are building necessary lab skills: handling hot things, measuring carefully, following directions accurately, assessing what went wrong from time to time.

Be there not just for them, but with them as they explore and experiment.  Your enthusiasm and curiosity, along with your preparations, will go a long way toward keeping science fun in your interest-led homeschool.

Don’t feel you have to do everything all at once.

This is all about building foundations, and foundations take time.  Take the long view.  Science isn’t about remembering answers that fit into a multiple-choice test, and it’s not about getting to the end of a curriculum.  It’s about asking questions, trying new ideas, making connections, getting messy, making mistakes, and leaving the door open to a lifetime of curiosity.

Doesn’t that sound like fun?

Join me in my Homeschool Mindset Facebook Group.


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About Denise Wilson

Denise Wilson is a pro-level follower of rabbit trails who has homeschooled her middle-schooler since he was four (it was his idea). Her work includes writing for children and the adults who love them; creating and teaching science courses for middle-schoolers; and the general magic of the everyday. She's also the editor of the Secular, Eclectic, Academic Homeschoolers blog and newsletter. Denise’s family loves reading, traveling, table games, making stuff, and playing with their dog, Charlie Barker. She blogs at https://www.BackyardOwls.com.

3 thoughts on “3 Steps to Building a Strong Foundation for Science

  1. Excellent article! Especially loved the comment about having conversations in the car that make you miss your turn 🙂

  2. good list for a solid foundation in science, I found just going out and talking about how you do things or what you see and following up any questions as well as asking tons of them was so good to do with my lad. 🙂

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