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How to interest children in science

    Everyone knows that science is important – a gateway to careers but also to help children understand their world and take their place in it.

    But getting involved in science learning can be tricky.  For parents, our own knowledge can be a bit wobbly – or else showing too much interest can sometimes be a turn-off!  For teachers, the abstract ideas sometimes just don’t get across.  How do you support a child not just to get good grades, but to understand and to love science, and thus to get better at it?

    Two researchers in Pittsburgh recently asked nearly 3000 tweens and teens just that by looking at what kinds of science activities they did and seeing how this affected their interest and motivation for science.

    What are different ways to support children with science?

    They looked along a range from the formal, taught, science in school, through clubs and science camps, through zoo and museum visits to informal activities at home and just being out in nature.  If you think about this range, you can also maybe see it goes from high adult control and low child autonomy (“I’m taking you to an after-school club”) through to high child control and low adult influence.

    Are after school clubs a good idea?

    Guess what?  Informal home activities and engaging with nature tended to go with higher value for science and stronger competency beliefs.  It can be really simple – you can learn a lot of science from burning the toast.

    Adult initiated or controlled activities such as clubs and science camps were associated with lower scientific reasoning ability in this study.  By contrast, freely engaging with nature seemed to lead to better reasoning and confidence in science.

    Less parenting is more progress

    The key difference seems to be the amount of autonomy children have in their learning and what they learn.  Carting kids from club to club risks undermining their interest – and they might learn far more from exploring at home (it also saves you money and time!)

    Key points for parents: Key points for teachers:
    • Do take an interest in science.
    • It is OK to be a learner yourself
    • Asking a good question will teach a child more than giving them an answer.  Try “I’m not sure, how can we find out”
    • Organised clubs, etc, are fine, as long as your child is enjoying them
    • When out and about be curious about things, and talk about it – different size trees, why? – always rains on holiday, why?
    • Engaging families with learning is more about helping them see how learning goes on in the everyday, rather than getting them to do “school stuff”
    • Use learning from home in class to support abstract ideas.  Pet heptathlons (why can fish swim better than cats, but not run so well?) can motivate anatomy, evolution, taxonomy, physics, speed/acceleration, Archimedes’ principle ….
    • Children learn best when they have some autonomy.  Balance the things you need to tell them with opportunities to find things out for themselves
    • Different kids will be drawn to different bits of science.  Some people love plants, other stars.  Use the crossovers between topics to interest


    Pei-Yi, L. & Schunn, C.D. (2016). The dimensions and impact of informal science learning experience on middle schoolers’ attitudes and abilities in science. International Journal of Science Education,

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