Can you teach elementary science without a curriculum? Absolutely! I think your kids will enjoy studying science in this way far more than using a typical science textbook. Science is fun and delightful discovery. Ask yourself if your kids see it that way? If not, experiment with dropping the boring textbook and teach elementary science without a curriculum. I hypothesize that you’ll love it.
A question in the children’s Catechism asks, “Why did God make you and all things?” And the answer? For His own glory. His intent is for us to explore this amazing world. As we discover the work of His fingers we are to praise and delight in Him. Teach, or even better, explore this world with your kids in ways that lead you to praise and delight.
Children naturally delight in science
We do not have to teach delight in nature to children. Children naturally love the outdoors and discovering the world around them. That delight is natural. A dry or overly detailed science text cannot teach the joy of our world. If you and your kids bog down in a book, that is a clear sign that the book is either poorly written or contains details beyond your child’s capacity to understand. You already know what I am talking about if you are stuck in the middle of one of those books (or maybe you cannot get past chapter three). Do you dread science every day and have a creeping feeling of guilt and failure?
Certainly, do not let words like dry, boring, and bogged down describe your explorations of the world God designed for His own glory. Here are some words I like to associate with science: explore, discover, watch, listen, wonder, and delight.
How we approached science
When my kids were very young we approached science the way I am about to advise you to approach it. After a few years I doubted myself. This is familiar, right? I started buying science text books. Books we never finished.
Personally, I loved science in college. I loved balancing chemical equations and preparing petri dishes in microbiology. Suddenly, as a mom, I was bored with science. Maybe learning science was fun, but teaching science was boring.
No, no, no, a thousand times no! My approach to science was boring. Science isn’t boring.
We survived my foray into science textbooks entirely by accident. First, we loved spending hours and hours outside at the apple orchard, the lake, or the back-yard garden. Second, my kids were given a constant stream of science kits as gifts. We did almost every one of those experiments in our free time (not school hours because we had those textbooks we could not stand to read). Finally, we read a lot of books. We did not just read novels, we read books about tadpoles, stars, and the water cycle. At the library, I would camp out by the science books and page through them, finding books that might draw us in. I would find books about the things we had seen out in the world: apples, eagles, or earthworms. Then we went home and read them together. Three lifestyle choices kept my kids from hating science.
A simple formula to teach science without a curriculum
You can make the same choices and have a simple formula that keeps your kids, and you, excited about science. Spend time exploring the natural world. Spend time doing simple, hands on experiments, and lots of them. Then read a whole bunch of science related books while you are snuggled together on the couch. Everyone in your family will love it. Watch out – you may even end up “doing science” six days a week.
Exploring the World
There are endless possibilities for discovering this world of ours. Children love exploring. When you guide your kids to explore the everyday things around them, you are working with their natural inclination. That means you face less resistance. There will be less arguing (mine always argued a little when I dragged them out for a hike – but only for the first ten minutes or so). Kids are natural explorers, just get them out of them house and away from the screens. Here are just a few ideas:
1. Explore plants of every kind
Plants are one way to explore the world and every single one of us can grow a plant. Whether you have a balcony, a yard, or a farm you can grow and observe flowers or herbs. Let your kids help you plant the seeds, water them, and watch them grow. Then take your kids to the park. Let them run and play, then take a minute to point out to them the trees and what types of leaves and bark they have. Do they have seeds? Take them on a hike and every once in a while point out a notable tree or wildflower. In the spring and summer you can take them to pick fruit or vegetables. Not everybody knows where their food comes from.
As you explore, see what fascinates your kids (other than hitting trees with sticks) and learn more about those things using the internet or library. When your kids can identify one tree, the next time you are hiking they’ll point it out to you. Seeing seeds sprouts never gets old, even for experienced gardeners, and each time your kids grow a plant they’ll add to their previous knowledge. Train them to observe, learn, then observe again.
This is akin to the Charlotte Mason practice of nature study. If you do a pure Charlotte Mason education you and your kids will spend hours outdoors with a sketchbook. In my experience, some kids love to sketch and others don’t. Instead I tried to work with everybody’s natural inclinations so they all loved time outdoors. One child can sit with a sketchbook while another wades in the creek. Train them all to notice details about the natural world.
2. Explore animals and insects
Another easily accessible way to study the living world is by allowing your kids to interact with animals and insects. Get a pet – anything from a Great Dane to a hamster will do – and let your kids learn to feed and care for it. Visit a farm. Go to the zoo or aquarium. Watch dragonflies in the yard. Or hatch a butterfly. Live a biblical life and go to the ant and consider its ways. Of course, buy a birdfeeder and keep it outside the window where you do school. As your kids watch animals and insects, observe their behavior, and learn the necessary ingredients for their survival, your children are learning real science.
3. Observe the weather
A third way to explore the world is to observe the weather. Buy an outdoor thermometer and take temperature readings. At times you can graph it and watch for seasonal changes. And at times just have it available and your kids will give you temperature readings every time they walk by. Measure rainfall. Build a little weather station. Go for walks in the rain. Catch snowflakes and use a magnifying glass to see the shape of ice crystals. Every one of us can observe the weather.
4. Spend time outdoors
If your kids spend a lot of time outdoors, exploration will naturally happen. All of my above ideas involve guided time outdoors. But you can just take your kids out and spend hours and hours in the yard, at the creek, on the beach, or in the woods. Your kids will observe the natural world. But they will also build all kinds of things: levers, pulleys, dams, catapults, or siphons. Guess what? Those are all “science” too. Your kids can be out in rain or snow, just dress appropriately. Get out there and start exploring.
Another fun way to teach science to your children is to plan a lot of hands-on science experiments. There are countless experiments using common household items that demonstrate basic scientific principles. You can have your kids write out an observation, hypothesis, perform a test, and record a new hypothesis. Or you can verbally perform these steps with your kids, if the writing process becomes a deterrent that keeps you from experiments.
1. Get ideas from Pinterest
Pinterest is a great source of science experiments (here’s my science board on Pinterest). When my kids were little we bought, or checked out from the library, books with titles like “110 Science Experiments for Kids.” Then we’d pick out a few that looked interesting. Now that’s all available for free online. On the other hand, now you can easily be overwhelmed by how many are available, then overwhelmed by the ensuing guilt that you have not tried all of them with your kids. Don’t be overwhelmed! Plan ahead and select a couple experiments from Pinterest, buy supplies, pick a quiet afternoon, and have fun with your kids. If you’ve picked the right kind of experiments, your kids will want to perform them several times. Take a week or two off, then plan another set of science experiments.
2. Buy experiment kits
Science kits are another convenient source of experiments. First, they provide a set of experiments grouped around a single principle. Next, they provide scientific explanations of why the experiments work. Finally, everything you need comes out of the box and you don’t have to run to three different stores buying unusual supplies. In the long run, kits may save you money even though they cost more up front.
When your kids get hands-on science experience like this it will feel like play, and they’ll quickly consider themselves real little scientists. And real scientists want to learn and discover more, so your kids will enthusiastically bury their noses in the science books you have around the house.
Fill your home with beautiful science books
Finally, to teach science without a curriculum your kids need access to lots of beautiful books about science. Accuracy should always be your first consideration. Then try to find books with an appropriate amount of text for your kids age level and engaging pictures or illustrations that will draw them in. My last tip is to avoid books with too little information. If you skim the book and cannot learn anything from either the twelve words of text or the inane illustrations, don’t bring that book home. Science should be awe inspiring and your job is to choose books that foster a sense of awe.
1. Non-fiction science books
Most of the books you have available to your children should be from this category. If your kid expresses an interest in outer space, the next time you are in the library sit down in front of the books about space and flip through every one of them. Choose the ones that look the most interesting and check out a whole pile of them. Bring them home. Now for the fun part: cuddle up on the couch and read, and read, and read about outer space. When you get up to cook dinner and your kids are still flipping through the books, consider that a successful day of science.
This process can be repeated with all sorts of topics. If you saw tadpoles at the creek, read about frogs. When a tornado makes the news, read about tornadoes. If you did an experiment with a lever and a fulcrum, bring David Macaulay’s The Way Things Work Now home from the library.
Every time we visited the library I had my kids pick both picture books (or fiction) and a stack of non-fiction books on any topic they were interested in. Sometimes my kids didn’t know which non-fiction books to choose, so I would go over and and pick some myself. Encourage constant exposure to great story and real world knowledge.
2. Biographies of scientists
There are beautiful biographies of scientists written specifically for children. These books can have the appearance of any other picture book and are a delight to read. Your kids don’t even have to know they are studying science when they read these books. Here are two of our favorites to look for, but there are many more! Keep your eyes open for them.
Snowflake Bentley, a Caldecott Medal winner, is the story of Wilson A. Bentley. He took hundreds of pictures of ice crystals. After reading this, look for a book of his photographs (I found them in college libraries) or find them online. Then (if it’s winter and you live in a colder climate) chill black velvet in the freezer then take it outside, catch, and examine the shapes of the snowflakes in your backyard. Lastly, come in and sip hot cocoa while you cut out paper snowflakes at the table. So fun!
The Boy Who Drew Birds introduces your kids (you too?) to John James Audubon. Read it over and over. Then look for his artwork online or in the library. Print out coloring pages of birds. Or put up a bird feeder and sketch the birds you see. You get the idea! Repeat the same process with other books as well.
3. Fictional books about science
Personified animals who interact with the natural world – whether they are planting gardens, gathering fall leaves, or having conversations – are the type of book I consider a fictional book about science. These convey facts but are not completely factual. But they’re a fun way to learn so enjoy these as well.
Scope and sequence
I’m going to be a rebel here. Your scope is unlimited. Your sequence is to follow your family’s interests. Don’t worry about sticking to a strict schedule of biology one year, and chemistry the next. Save that for high school. As the mother provide a little direction if your kids refuse to branch out into new areas. Follow the seasons. Keep in mind your children’s ages and remember, young children need concrete science. They need to feel, touch, and see it. Therefore theoretical concepts – like an atom – are better understood by upper elementary. But if you have kids of all ages, go ahead an expose the little ones to all sorts of ideas just don’t worry about them grasping every one.
To sum up, that’s how we fostered a love of science in our home and that’s how you can do it too. Keep in mind the three key components: spend time in nature, do hands-on experiments, and read a lot of books. “Doing science” six days a week is a real possibility.
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