Nuturing the Genius Within: Science Activities That Inspire Inquisitive Play

by Suzanne Sherman

Albert Einstein performed poorly in school as a child, yet he went on to become one of the greatest scientific thinkers of the twentieth century. Einstein had an imaginative intelligence, and his independent and creative approach to the world was driven in part by a love of play.

Children are natural Einsteins. They share with scientists an inquisitive motivation to try and test the world. As they play, children gain an intuitive sense of the laws that govern the universe, often without knowing that they are learning at all. A girl playing soccer gains an understanding of Newton’s laws of motion just by interacting with the ball. She knows, for instance, how to apply force to send the ball into motion, how to make it go farther, and how to keep it close. She also knows, intuitively, that a soccer ball rolling through grass will not go as far as a soccer ball rolling on cement. Her active participation in the world around her is as important to her learning of science as knowing the facts and the names of scientific concepts.

An intuitive understanding of concepts in physical, chemical, and life science can be fostered--and a sense of curiosity nurtured--by scaffolding a child’s learning during directed hands-on play. Just as with scientists, if children are given the opportunity to predict actions and see the results of those actions, their conceptions of the world will become more accurate. Hands-on science activities that allow children to learn through play will motivate them to continue to explore the concepts they discover, and their level of confidence in science will skyrocket if they are allowed to test their own ideas and produce their own results.

Books with engaging science activities can help foster an interest in science. Because many of the books below contain simple activities and easy-to-obtain materials, they may be used in the classroom, after school, or at home. Many classic activities appear in more than one book. When choosing titles, look for books that have activities of the appropriate length and contain extras such as helpful illustrations or photographs, as well as science content that explains how the activity works.

Books for Younger Students

Ashbrook, Peggy. Science Is Simple: Over 250 Activities for Preschoolers. Illus. by Marie Ferrante-Doyle. 2003. 256p. Gryphon, paper, $16.95 (0-87659-272-8).

 Preschool–Gr. 2. This complete guide to science includes information for families, stepped-out ideas, questions to ask children as they interact with materials, and books that correlate with each subject. Children will learn to think like scientists as they engage in favorite activities such as observing insects and playing with water. Some activities require considerable adult help.

Falk, John H., and Kristi S. Rosenberg. Bite-Sized Science: Activities for Children in 15 Minutes or Less. Illus. by Bonnie Matthews. 1999. 128p. Chicago Review, paper, $12.95 (1-55652-348-3).

 Preschool–Gr. 1. Science is everywhere, and this book is perfect for introducing young children to that idea. Household materials and everyday events form the basis for engaging science lessons that encourage children to explore the world through their five senses.

The Giant Encyclopedia of Science Activities for Children 3 to 6. Edited by Kathy Charner. Illus. by Rebecca Grace Jones. 1998. 592p. Gryphon, paper, $29.95 (0-87659-193-4).

 Preschool–Gr. 2. Organized by themes such as nature, colors, and music, the activities in this easy-to-use book were all written by teachers and call for simple materials. This title is an excellent resource in help-ing younger children develop critical science skills, including observing, predicting, ordering, and sorting.

Moomaw, Sally, and Brenda Hieronymus. More Than  Magnets: Exploring the Wonders of Science in Preschool and Kindergarten. 1997. 320p. Redleaf, paper, $24.95

 Preschool–K. This book guides the creation of “science displays” that feature materials children can interact with. The open-ended inquiry approach to the activities will stimulate children’s curiosity. Subject areas covered include science in art, music, and cooking.

Tolley, Kimberley. The Art and Science Connection: Hands-on Activities for Primary Students. 1994. 160p. Pearson/Modern Curriculum, paper, $24.50 (0-201-45545-5).

 K–Gr. 3. This theme-based book is full of creative activities that use art to introduce science concepts. It also includes additional resource listings.

Williams, Robert A., and others. Mudpies to Magnets: A Preschool Science Curriculum. Illus. by Laurel J. Sweetman. 1987. 160p. Gryphon, $14.95 (0-87659-112-8).

 Preschool–Gr. 1. More than just an activity book, this title is a manual for helping young children learn science, containing essential tips on how to help children get the most from these enjoyable activities, from conducting a nature scavenger hunt to creating a balancing toy. Also see the authors’ excellent follow-up, More Mudpies to Magnets: Science for Young Children (Gryphon, 1990).

Books for Older Students

Angliss, Sarah, and others. Hands-on Science. Illus. by David Le Jars. 2002. 160p. Kingfisher, paper, $10.95 (0-7534-5440-8).

 Gr. 3–6. More than 120 tried-and-true hands-on activities call for simple materials and explore electricity and magnets, sound, light, and the forces of motion, among other subjects. The directions and explanations are clear, concise, and accurate.

Bosak, Susan V. Science Is . . . A Source Book of Fascinating Facts, Projects and Activities. 2000. 515p. Scholastic, o.p.

 Gr. 3–8. Though out of print, this title is worthwhile. Packed with fun activities, interesting tidbits of information, and quotes from scientists, this book is creative, practical, insightful, and clearly written. It is an excellent resource for elementary- and middle-school children. Subjects covered include weather, matter and energy, and living creatures.

Churchill, E. Richard, and others. 365 Simple Science Experiments with Everyday Materials. Illus. by Frances Zweifel. 1997. 320p. Sterling, paper, $12.95 (0-8069-1789-X).

 Gr. 3–6. This source book is packed with easy activities featuring step-by-step instructions and explanations of basic science concepts. Classic science experiments about water, wind, and temperature are simplified, concisely explained, and accompanied by Zweifel’s clear illustrations.

Cobb, Vicki. See for Yourself: More Than 100 Experiments for Science Fairs and Projects. Illus. by Dave Klug. 2001. 192p. Scholastic Reference, $16.95 (0-439-09010-5).

 Gr. 3–8. A great resource for science fair projects, this book contains real experiments that reinforce students’ lab skills and inspire scientific thinking. Included in this book are several good human-body activities, which can be difficult to find, and novel experiments.

Frauenfelder, Mark. Mad Professor: Concoct Extremely Weird Science Projects. 2002. 80p. Chronicle, $14.95 (0-8118-3554-5).

 Gr. 6–8. Written by a former editor of Wired magazine, this is a truly imaginative science activity book. The laminated pages feature quirky characters and creative activities that will challenge and inspire young minds. Recipes for robot food, a volcano, and edible geology, as well as a list of safety tips, are included.

Kenda, Margaret, and Phyllis S. Williams. Science Wizardry for Kids. Illus. by Tim Robinson. 1992. 320p. Barron’s, paper, $15.95

 Gr. 3–6. The Betty Crocker’s Cookbook of science activities, this title features clear, understandable directions and plainly stated goals for each project. The experiments range from those that take only a few minutes to more elaborate projects. This excellent resource for the classroom or home includes safety tips, a glossary, and an index.

Robinson, Tom. The Everything Kids’ Science Experiments Book. 2001. 144p. Adams Media, paper, $6.95 (1-58062-557-6).

 Gr. 4–8. The activities in this accessible book, written by a high-school science and math teacher, help children answer questions such as Can a magnet ever be turned off? and Do toilets always flush in the same direction? Facts, quotes, jokes, and follow-up questions add to the fun and learning.

Stepans, Joseph. Targeting Students’ Science Misconceptions: Physical Science Using the Conceptual Change Model. 1996. 240p. Idea Factory, paper, $24.95 (1-885041-12-8).

 Gr. 6–10. It can be difficult to practically apply knowledge extracted from research in the classroom or home. This book makes it simple, by using a researched method of changing students’ misconceptions about the world with well-planned activities. The background information provided for the teacher is a valuable source for quick yet accurate understanding.

Thomas, John E., and Danita Thomas. Kid Concoctions and Contraptions: A New Wacky and Zany Collection of Concoctions and Contraptions. Illus. by Robb Durr. 2001. 80p. Kid Concoctions, paper, $14.95 (0-9661088-8-4).

 Gr. 3–6. Along with those in The Ultimate Book of Kid Concoctions, below, these recipes for toy-store items such as Shrinky Dinks are wonderful for inquiry-based learning and building models of scientific concepts. This is a solid science club resource.

Thomas, John E., and Danita Thomas. The Ultimate Book of Kid Concoctions. Illus. by Robb Durr. 1998. 80p. Kid Concoctions, paper, $14.95 (0-9661088-0-9).

 Gr. 3–6. In the spectrum between sheer fun and serious science, this book lies more on the fun side. Any child will feel like a mad scientist engaging in these crafty projects that use very simple materials. Also see the authors’ The Ultimate Book of Kid Concoctions 2 (Kid Concoctions, 2000).

The Usborne Big Book of Experiments. Edited by Alistair Smith. 1996. 96p. EDC, paper, $14.95 (0-7460-2288-3).

 Gr. 5–8. Helpful illustrations surround these wide-ranging activities, from quick and simple to more difficult experiments requiring adult supervision. Kids will feel empowered as they make their very own motor.

VanCleave, Janice. Janice VanCleave’s 201 Awesome, Magical, Bizarre, and Incredible Experiments. 1994. 128p. Wiley, paper, $12.95 (0-471-31011-5).

 Gr. 3–6. VanCleave’s series of activity books make science accessible to every child and cover every imaginable subject. Though not as useful for its explanations of the science involved as some of the other volumes listed here, this book is an excellent source of ideas for quick and easy ways to reinforce concepts in science.

Wyatt, Valerie. The Science Book for Girls and Other Intelligent Beings. Illus. by Pat Cupples. 1993. 80p. Kids Can, paper, $8.95 (1-55074-113-6).

 Gr. 5–8. A girl is introduced to the wonders of science by her fairy godmother, Nora, in this enchanting blend of story and science. Girls who like science will love this book, with its simple activities and explanations of everyday science concepts. Also see The Math Book for Girls and Other Beings Who Count (Kids Can, 2000) and The Technology Book for Girls and Other Advanced Beings (Kids Can, 2001).

Suzanne Sherman is a science editor for an educational publisher and a former activity developer for the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.