Priorities for Grammar School Science

by John Mays

A customer recently asked about the priorities for students in grammar school science. I wrote a fair bit about that in my book From Wonder to Mastery—so for a fuller response, check that out. But here are a few highlights:

1. Begin with wonder. Show your own constant amazement at God’s creation. When you see a bird, pause and marvel at it for as long as possible, and then ask your wee one, “Who made that bird?”

2. Get your children or students out into nature as much as possible. There is much to say here too, but as Richard Louv shows in Last Child in the Woods, many of the problems experienced by children today are due to what he calls “nature deficit disorder,” and getting out into nature is the best way to bring things back into balance.

Make nature encounters as deep as possible—your backyard is better than nothing; your garden is a great next step and can be as intense as you want to make it; a good city park down the street may be even better and can be visited regularly. A state park is far better yet, and a deep nature encounter (completely away from civilization, in the mountains or forest or desert) is the best. When traveling with kids, seek always to stop at nature areas along the way and let the kids get out and get dirty. (As our friends at True North Leatherworks say, Mud Washes Off). And if you teach at a school, encourage school families to do the same. For resources to help, check these out:

  • 1000 Hours Outside (a website, a book by Ginny Yurich, and a phone app, as well as other support resources)
  • "Recovering the outdoors" books by Richard Louv, mentioned above: Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life; The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age; and The Nature Principle: Human Restoration and the End of Nature-Deficit Disorder
  • Screen management: Andy Crouch's book, The Tech-Wise Family.

3. Focus on what is going on and why. Physicist Richard Feynman liked to tell the story of going on walks with his father as a boy. His father never cared what the name of a bird was; his question was always, What is that bird doing? This question illustrates a deep approach to reflecting on creation. After, of course, prayerfully wondering at a phenomenon or creature, and thanking God for it, and praising Him for it, we should then nudge children past the simple phenomenon itself to wondering what is happening and why. Likewise, as kids get older and engage with scientific demonstrations, we must lead them to respond not by saying “Wow! Do it again,” but “Wow! Why does it do that?”

Now, Richard Feynman was quirky and a genius. His disregard for names is amusing, but of course it is better to include the names of the birds along with our conversations about what they are doing. (We know how young children are like vacuum cleaners for learning new names!) And when they are old enough, they should start using Birds of North America (You have a copy, right? No home is complete without it.) to learn about types of birds (warblers, woodpeckers, swallows, etc.) and identifying species within types.

4. Make everything as hands-on and physical as possible. In the elementary grades, virtually every creation encounter should be with the actual and physical first. Texts and printed images should come later, if they are needed at all. Of course, there are lots of images and videos of things that are hard to see in person (Antarctic penguins, nebulae, glaciers, tiger sharks, etc.), and these are fascinating to study. The point is, don’t turn to books to study things when you can arrange for an in-person encounter.

5. Do lots of observation, journaling, and sketching. These are the traditional and indispensable activities of Natural Philosophy. It's easy to combine disciplines in activities like these. In an activity to observe a plant and write the most creative possible description, children are immersed in creative writing as well as scientific observation. And if a sketch is involved too, you have an art lesson to boot. Check out this lovely website for great ideas on nature journaling.

6. Bring nature inside. Aquariums and terrariums take time and care, but they are worth it. You can check with pet stores for people available to provide care for your plants, animals, or fish while you are out of town. Microterrariums are now very popular, and there are lots of online resources to get you started. Obviously, let the children do all the work, which isn't really work at all, but simply fascinating exploration of how things grow and depend on each other in God's creation.