Friday, May 30, 2008

"How My 13-Year-Old Son Learns Science"...

(I'll add a photo or two to this later today.)

As I've been working through my house, cleaning room by room, cupboard by cupboard, shelf by shelf, box by box, I've been reading through a lot of journals and notebooks and papers and things I've written in the past 10 or 15 years. I've enjoyed this, and I thought I'd share some of it here, now and then, because it pertains to making a home, living a beautiful life, loving God, homeschooling, family life, and lots more. Basically, it all reflects what was, and still is, important to me.

I'm sure this will seem random, coming out of nowhere, but one of the things I enjoyed reading this morning was a little paper I called "How My 13-Year-Old Son Learns Science." (I think I was asked to write this for someone's webpage.) Well, my son is now 22 and is in college. He continued to love studying, reading, and exploring science throughout his years at home, and he very much enjoyed his college science courses as well. But he is not working toward a degree in science. He's majoring in Linguistics and Scandinavian Studies.

I want to share this because I think it shows how a natural sort of learning can occur when the home environment allows and provides for it, when there isn't much to distract from it, and when there is plenty of free time to pursue it. We didn't use science curriculums in our homeschool (some texts were used, partially, in high school), and there were never any science assignments, either. We did occasionally (not often enough) do nature notebook pages (I'll share some of that later, too, and why I think this is a good thing to do). Mostly science was learned through play, exploration, and nature, and the pursuit was very different for each of my four children. A child might focus on many things or on one or two things (but, trust me, one things stretches into many). This type of learning really can't be pushed or cajoled or directed. It starts in wonder and delight, and it can only be encouraged and nurtured. I'm convinced that God has put a love for His world and a desire to explore and learn about it in children. I think it's the perfect early science curriculum for the homeschooler!

What this isn't, is a model or a pattern for learning. It's not something that can be contrived. This is a very natural sort of learning, and I think it can happen, in different ways, in the lives of all children. My girls also learned in this natural way, but their science education looks quite different. One or two of them never came close to exploring the natural world like Aaron did, but they all had their own areas of interest and pursuit.

I'm also not saying you should drop your curriculum or assignments. There are wonderful tools and interesting things for study out there, and it won't hurt children to have short assignments. Many families greatly enjoy their studies together-- science or otherwise. Making nature studies a scheduled part of your curriculum can be a very good thing. But I would encourage you to also allow plenty of time for free play and exploration where a natural sort of learning occurs. The main and most important part of learning starts in wonder, in a child's own heart, and making room for this to grow will bring much joy to a child and a family.

I used to call Aaron "The Barefoot Boy" after the boy in
John Greenleaf Whittier's wonderful poem by that name. Aaron just delighted in exploring and learning, and he was a fount of information. As I read the few nature pages I have saved of the girls', it makes me laugh how often Aaron figures into them. He was always telling them the names of things, how different creatures behaved, why things were the way they were, where the biggest ant hill was, and on and on. He was, apparently, the official family field guide for nature.

And here is what I wrote about Aaron at age 13 (it's long, even though I'm cutting some of it). This is just how a particular child went about learning "science":

My thirteen-year-old son has always been interested in mechanical things. Even when he was a baby and a toddler, he would carefully examine his toys to see how they worked. When pushing a race car across the floor, he would stop to flip it over and examine the turning of the wheels. He loved to see the inside of things, and as he grew older, he began taking things apart to see how they worked. Then he'd put them back together again. When he was nine, I went into his bedroom to ask why he wasn't vacuuming his room, something I had asked him to do. There he was, on the floor, with the vacuum cleaner disassembled, examining it to see how it worked. He became our vacuum cleaner repairman after that (seriously). One Saturday, my children were visiting their great-grandparents, and my son, then age ten, noticed that Grampy's recliner wasn't working properly. He bent down to look beneath the chair, and after a bit, he asked Grammy for some tools, announcing that he would fix the recliner. Grammy told me that Grampy had already tried to fix it and couldn't, but she decided to humor my son and gave him the tools. In just a few minutes, the recliner was working perfectly.

We saw this inclination in our son to observe and understand the way things work, so we encouraged it as much as possible. We bought many books like The Way Things Work. We bought regular legos, technic legos, capsela, erector sets, and kits and tools of all kinds. We provided batteries, wires, light bulbs, a soldering iron (when he was old enough to use it safely), balsa wood, tape, and anything that he might be able to use for his "play." We let him salvage fans, motors, nuts and bolts, and other parts from things that were being discarded. Whatever made our son's eyes light up with its possiblities, no matter how silly or useless it appeared to us, was not thrown in the trash, but given to him.

We ordered subscriptions to his favorite magazines-- Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, Sail, RC Car Action, Model Railroader, and others. We also provided him with catalogs like Edmund Scientific, Tower Hobbies, and others, according to his interests. These magazines and catalogs have a wealth of information in them that is informative, educational, and inspiring. We saw all of this as our son's science curriculum. We let him take things apart, tinker, and invent. At age eleven, we bought him the basic college text, Conceptual Physics, to use if and how he desired. He loves that book! He does not work through the book page by page, chapter by chapter, but skips all over it to what currently interests him. He especially enjoys the practical application questions at the end of the chapters that deal, not with recalling facts, but with applying what has been learned. He often goes straight to these questions before reading the chapter, and it's been amazing how much he already knows based on the play and reading that has caused his knowledge and understanding to pile up gradually, little by little. For a thirteen-year-old who has never had a science assignment in his life and who has never used a textbook or a program of any kind, our son has a nice grasp of physics concepts.

When my son was young and would wash the dishes, he would experiment with buoyancy and water displacement. I'd see him at the sink, ruler in hand, floating dishes on the water, bent over in observation, taking measurements, playing around, pouring and dumping water, and experimenting with different variables. Typical. Once he came out of the bathroom, where he was sailing a lego boat in the bathtub and announced that if just the red heat lamp was on and no other light, you could see the exact pattern of the flow of water as an object moved through it.He began testing all of his boats, even building new ones from legos or balsa wood, to see which designs were the most "hydro-dynamic."

After reading the Swallows and Amazons books, he began making sailboats (crude), and experimenting with various sail designs. He and his friend played for hours at the lake in front of our house with their sailboats, experimenting with sails they made from saran wrap, cloth, plastic grocery bags, and other materials. They read about sails and sailing, too. My son read stories of famous sailing races, sailing adventures like the Kon Tiki, and others. He read non-fiction books and articles to research the physical aspects of sailing, boat design, sail design, etc. He wrote stories about sailing. He drew his own boat designs and tried to build them from balsa wood.

In a similiar way, my son delved into the subject of flight and flying. He has read many, many books about fighter planes, combat, the history of flight, famous flights and pilots, aerodynamics, and anything related to airplanes. He has experimented with paper airplanes, changing designs and flaps to see how flight is affected. We bought him paper airplane books and kits, some containing quite sophisticated information. My son still experiments with paper airplanes. He will sit with me to illustrate and explain principles of flight and aerodynamics and how various airfoils work. He draws his own designs and explains why they are designed they way they are. This study of aerodynamics, airplanes, and flight started very simply at age six or seven and has progressed little by little, in a very natural way over the years, until now he can thoroughly understand the concepts in adults books and can converse nicely with my husband, who flew in F-111s in the Air Force.

(Skipping some stuff about model rocketry.)

There are many other electronic and science areas my son has pursued over the years. All of his science knowledge has been accumulating literally since birth. He was the type of child who played with an observing eye, his curious mind fully engaged. His play has been full of contemplation. Since he was very young, he has always run in to tell me what he's just noticed about movement or mechanics-- while pulling a wagon, bouncing a ball, hitting a ball with a bat, the way a swing moves, levers work, etc. We would be driving down the road when he was young, and he would make a pronouncement like, "That machine uses pneumatics." Then he would proceed to tell us how pneumatics work. I never knew where he learned these things, but just having resources available opens up the way for children to learn.

My son has keenly observed the behaviour and habits of birds and wild animals. He studied animal tracks and found nests, beehives, ant hills, and homes burrowed into trees or on the ground. He was the type that would discover and understand the water cycle just by seeing how boiling water created steam, which condensed on the pan lid, then dripped back into the water when the lid was lifted and the water cooled.

All I've listed is just a small part of my son's love of science. God made him this way. I couldn't have instilled this innate interest no matter how hard I tried. His science education has been a very natural thing that cannot possibly be divided into categories. It's all been related. Every learning pursuit has literally been inspired by, or branched off of, another pursuit. They have strong connections, and my son continually flows from one to the next, and back and forth, realizing that the principles of one area often applies to the others.

(This doesn't even mention my son's absolute love for the remote control monster truck and sailboat he built, which was going on close to this age-- maybe a bit later-- and all that went along with that. This kind of thing makes for wonderful, surprisingly rich and deep learning experiences.)