Teach Science in the Yard
Parents caught in the role of home schoolers should take their students outside for two benefits: education and health.
The coronavirus pandemic, having led to the closure of schools around the nation and the world, has put parents in a bind: needing to work from home (if they can) while keeping their children’s education going. Many parents have never taught before, but actually, they can be the best teachers, because they know their students better than anyone, and can give individualized instruction. A hardship can be an opportunity. It’s a temporary role for parents; why not make the best of the opportunity? Still, the subject of science can be intimidating.
Some of the best science lessons can take place outside in the yard. This offers two benefits: health and inspiration: health, because staying cooped up indoors may be more likely to spread disease (see Tucker Carlson on Fox News April 20, “Stay inside and save lives? Hard science says the opposite is true”); inspiration, because reality is worth a thousand words. The yard is full of opportunities to not only teach science, but to make it inspiring. Here are just a few examples.
Dandelions. If you have dandelions in the yard, use them for sharing the wonders of biology. Kids love blowing on them (although you may not wish to spread them all over the lawn). Before they blow, teach them the scientific requirement of observation. Have them look at the flowers and the seeds very carefully. Help them take notes of their observations, and draw illustrations. But before they blow, show this short film to get them inspired:
Stork’s bill. If your yard has the little weeds with pink flowers known popularly as filaree or stork’s bill (Erodium circutarium), they make wonderful illustrations of natural design. This is about the time of year when the seeds are ripening. Students can pick ones that look ready to “pop” and watch them coil up in their hand. Spraying fine mist on them can speed up the process. Close observations can show the students how they form a spiral shape and actually drill the seeds into the soil. The seeds come with backward-facing hooks so that they dig deeper and become hard to pull out. Illustra Media is planning a short film illustrating this amazing plant.
Observation. Turn over a log or rock and you’ll be presented by a miniature zoo of small animals: centipedes, worms, beetles, insects, spiders, snails and more. Let them make drawings or take pictures. If you have a hand lens or small microscope, creatures can be observed in detail. Look at the differences in locomotion techniques. Find a spider web. Fill an ant farm with ants from the yard. Put small creatures in a terrarium and learn what they need to survive. Keen observation and consideration of design can help young students overcome fear of “creepy-crawlies” and replace it with curiosity. Once the students reach that stage, they can go on a scavenger hunt to see how many arthropods or spiders they can find inside the house! (Don’t let this give young children nightmares.)
Tip: Illustra’s Film Metamorphosis: The Beauty and Design of Butterflies (free to view this month) is a great introduction to the science of lepidoptera (moths and butterflies). If they can find a chrysalis and observe it hatching, that could be a memorable event.
Taxonomy. Teach a little taxonomy by having the students play young helpers for Linnaeus (see biography), helping him find and name the animals in the yard. Explain that this was the first job God gave Adam. Help them observe similarities and differences carefully, and try their hand at grouping animals: e.g., spiders with 8 legs, insects with 6. (Parents will, of course, be careful about toxic species like black widow spiders.)
Herpetology. Lizards are common reptiles in many neighborhoods, and are truly fascinating and underappreciated creatures. Measure how many body lengths they can move in one second. Figure out how they can cling to walls and climb trees. Ask what would be required to turn a lizard into a flying animal like a bird.
Ornithology. Watch Illustra’s film Flight: The Genius of Birds (free to watch this month) and then go outside. Observe the birds around the house, if any, and then look them up on the computer to learn more about them. Binoculars are helpful for observing. If you hear bird songs, learn to associate the sound with the visual appearance of the species.
Mammalogy. If you have a pet cat or dog, have family members learn some science about them as they walk the dog or pet the cat. Talk about dog breeds, and show how they are all members of the same created kind, but are capable of spectacular variation. Even so, there are limits to variation; a dog kind never “evolves” into a cat kind. Look for other mammals outside: mice, gophers, squirrels, rabbits, opossums, raccoons, deer (in some locales). How are they similar? How are they different? What are their functions in the ecosystem?
Anatomy and Physiology
Use play time in the yard to learn about muscles, bones, the five senses, skin, hair, fingernails, and more. See what kind of contortionist positions they can perform. Play limbo. Hold one foot in one hand, and try to touch the other knee to the ground and stand back up. Look for opportunities in games and exercises to learn about the wonders of the body. And if a boo-boo does happen, tell about the blood clotting cascade as an example of irreducible complexity.
Newton’s Laws can be illustrated in various ways outside. Teach the students how to juggle with lemons or tennis balls. Play with a slinky on the sidewalk. Bounce balls if different hardnesses to learn about friction. Use a skateboard as a science observation tool. Look for other ways to teach about inertia, action and reaction, force, work, and the laws of thermodynamics.
Biomimetics. Look for small animals and plants that solved a problem: for instance, a leaf shedding water, a beetle turning itself upright, a dandelion seed staying aloft. When the child goes back inside, see if they can create or design something that might solve the same problem.
Water is an amazing liquid; why not learn science while watering the garden? Show how a magnet can bend a narrow stream of water; why does that happen? Focus sunlight on a small puddle and watch it vaporize. Do that with an ice cube from the freezer, too. Compare that process to clouds overhead. Combine oil and water and watch them separate; observe the rainbow of colors at the interface. Compare those colors with a butterfly’s wing; what’s the same or different?
Stargazing. Even under city lights, there are celestial objects that can be studied. A small telescope, binoculars, or even the unaided eye are all the instruments you need. In the daytime, the sun’s disk can be projected onto a sheet of white paper to look for sunspots. It’s new moon at the time of this writing, meaning it’s a good time to study bright stars and planets. To draw the students into the history of scientific discovery, read our biographies of Galileo, Kepler, Newton, William Herschel, and John Herschel. Several websites, like EarthSky and Sky & Telescope give guidance on what to look for each night; for instance, Venus reaches its brightest on April 27th. As the moon goes through its phases, explain the geometry of the solar system that causes them, and how that led to the sun-centered universe. Illustra’s films The Privileged Planet (for teens) and Call of the Cosmos (portions for children and teens) are good teaching aids to accompany these activities.
Tip: Whenever possible, incorporate their math lessons with these science observations. This helps them realize that mathematics is not just a set of boring operations on paper, but is tightly integrated with natural phenomena. For example, the patterns on sunflowers match the Fibonacci Sequence (Xn+2= Xn+1 + Xn). Watch this wonderful animated film to see this illustrated: “Nature by the Numbers” by Cristobal Vila (over 5 million views) is a masterpiece! See it on YouTube. And if that isn’t masterful enough to make your heart pound, try his latest short film from September 2019: “Infinite Patterns” on YouTube. These are awe-inspiring enough to motivate your student to enter science or mathematics as a career with an appreciation for intelligent design. After watching, take them into the yard to look for these kinds of mathematical patterns: insect eyes and wings, daisies, pine cones, artichokes, spider webs, and more.
These are intended as teasers only, to show that the yard can be a wonderful science playground, lab, and museum. The best science is that which inspires awe and wonder. Remember Paul Nelson’s statement in Flight: “If something works, it’s not happening by accident.” Arouse curiosity; get your children wondering how things work, and help them learn how to find answers, by scientific methods and literature search.
When they learn about what’s involved in getting a caterpillar to turn into a butterfly, or a millipede to coordinate dozens of legs, those observations can help inoculate them from imagining that they could ever emerge by chance!