Science isn't a subject that is usually associated with homework for young children. But a new scheme aims to take basic experiments into the home and at the same time improve relations between teachers and parents. It sounds scary, but there's nothing to be afraid of, writes Joan Solomon
Learning spelling, practising reading and doing sums is definitely homework. That's serious stuff which parents remember from their own schooldays, and which has been highlighted in the drive to improveliteracy and numeracy. Important, but not always much fun.
In some schools children are taking home simple instruction sheets called Ships (School-Home Investigations in Primary Science) to guide them through an activity with their parents. The activities are designed to fit in with what the children are doing at school; so if they are learning about shadows there will be activities such as "What does light go through?" with shapes cut from foil, kitchen paper and sticky tape floated on water in a bowl. The bowl is put under a light and the children can see what the shadows are like. This is not just an investigation; it is a halfway stage in explaining what shadows are.
Add a teaspoonful of milk to the water, shine a light through from the side and you have a simulation of car-headlights in fog. This shows that light travels too.
If the children are learning about forces they can make a "wind-up potato" at home (see diagram). The experiment demonstrates three forces: wind-up forces on the children's hands when they wind the lolly stick; the pull of gravity when the potato descends; and tension in the string. It requires only a cardboard box, string, a stick from the garden and a piece of coloured paper.
Alternatively, the older ones could construct a sturdy "high-rise crane" for hoisting up a toy and learning about balancing forces. That is made from an empty squeezey bottle, cardboard, string and a few nails. No special equipment is needed; even lenses are replaced by "magnifying drops" on stretched plastic. Drops of water come in many sizes. Which one magnifies most: the large or the small?
There are 48 different investigations, ranging from "Elephants' ears" and how to separate pieces of apple from pieces of potato in "Floating food", to making cheese from milk and weighing apples with a home-made rubber-band weighing machine.
The older children loved making an insect trap for "Tree creatures"; the younger ones got a thrill out of hiding in a dark place (behind the sofa, or in an almost closed cupboard) to see what happened to what they had made in "Colour needs light", and "Cat's eyes". Parents and children laughed while watching a blob of butter in hot water make huge drips which slowly rose to the top in "Melting drops".
AT FIRST SOME PARENTS ASK A LOT OF AWKWARD QUESTIONS...
I don't know any science. How can I do it?
Don't worry, there are notes for parents.
I need to tell my child when he or she is right. How shall I know what the right answer should be?
Just carrying out the activity, predicting, observing and making up their own explanations is very important in science.
Will I have enough time?
There will only be one activity per half-term and a week will be allowed to do it.
How long will each one take?
Hard to say, but often only 15-30 minutes.
Is this education? It sounds like playing!
The most difficult part of teaching science is to conquer the idea that science is difficult.
The Government wants more emphasis on reading and numeracy, not science!
Each activity sheet needs reading. They are written in simple and appropriate language; there is writing to be done, measurements to be taken and pictorial graphs to be made.
Shouldn't this be the teacher's job?
Happy activities shared with parents, and talk at home about rainbows or muscles, can start a life-time interest in science. Most scientists had their interest in science aroused at primary school age (although not in school).
Suppose it goes wrong. Will I have done harm?
The teacher will pick up the ideas in class and show how they fit into school work.
THERE ARE ALSO QUESTIONS THAT TEACHERS WANT TO ASK...
I can think of some parents who are unlikely to do these activities, judging on past form. It will be sad if their children miss out. What can I do?
This has turned out to be less of a problem for teachers who set up the essential follow-up session in class. The children who have missed out, if any, can be at the front doing the activity, while those who have done it talk about what they found out. This is where the teachers also develop the children's vocabulary to describe what they have seen and comment on their findings.
If I say something different from the parents, does that make a problem? Some of them might know more science than me!
These investigations are done differently in different homes. Parents keen on DIY do them one way, parents who enjoy playing do it another. "Scientific" parents generally get very enthusiastic and know that it is the exploring and making up explanations which are most important. The follow-up session in class becomes richer and more valuable as the children describe the different ways they and their mums, dads and grannies, talked about what they had done. It can form a new understanding in the partnership between teachers and parents.
* Joan Solomon is professor of science education at the Open University. School Home Investigations in Primary Science are photocopiable, wire-bound books published by the Association for Science Education, College Lane, Hatfield, Herts AL10 9AA. Books 1, 2 and 3, which each have six activities at three different levels, cost Pounds 9.95 each. Activities for infants, which are included in books 1, 2 and 3, are also available as a separate book, price Pounds 8.95
SETTING UP THE PROJECT IN YOUR SCHOOL
* When you are convinced the investigations will help you and the children, use some of the pictures to illustrate a letter to the parents and governors.
* Set up some of the investigations in the hall where the parents will be meeting. They will enjoy playing with them.
* Expect some questions about the science, but don't worry. Each sheet has notes for teachers and parents. The first gives explanations and ideas for more investigations in school, and the second provides tips about how to carry out the investigation.
MELTING DROPS (nursery age)
You need a dry, empty jam jar and some soft margarine. Put about half a teaspoon of margarine in the jam jar. Then add hot water from the tap until it is half full. Place the jar on the table. Watch while slow, huge drips are formed and move up the jar. The child discusses this and draws a picture of it.
WHAT DOES LIGHT GO THROUGH? (seven to eight-year-olds)
You need a glass or pyrex bowl, a torch, kitchen paper, kitchen foil, sticky tape, and a spoonful of milk. Half-fill the bowl with water and stand it on a sheet of paper. Cut out one shape in kitchen paper, one in kitchen foil, and one in a short length of sticky tape. Float them on the water. Shine the torch on them and look at the colour of the shadows underneath. One is black, one dark grey and one very light grey. Why? Then take out the shapes, add a teaspoon of milk to the water and stir. Draw the curtains and shine the torch from one side. Does light go through it?
THE WIND-UP POTATO (nine to 10-year-olds)
You need a large grocery box, a cardboard cylinder such as an empty kitchen roll, a straight stick, a metre of string with a knot at each end, a paper clip, a lolly stick and sticky tape. A cardboard disk is fixed on to the end of the stick, two short slits are cut into the tube and one end of the string attached. The stick and tube are pushed through the box; the other end of the string is pushed through another hole in the box. Tie up the potato so that it can be hooked by the paper clip on the to the loop of string. Push the lolly stick through the slits in the tube. Now use the lolly stick as a handle to wind up the potato. Fix a streamer of tissue or foil to the lolly stick. Let go!