When I was a kid, we spent a lot of our weekends going “up north”, first to my grandparents lake cabin and later to our own cabin in the woods. Whenever he got a chance, my dad would take us out on the boat or into the woods for a drive. My dad’s always been one to take his time when he’s out in nature so we’d tool around slowly and he’d point out fish, trees, plants, birds, animals and the like. My brother and I enjoyed these adventures in part because we got to spend quality family time together but also because it was awesome to see a turtle dive from a log or a deer hiding behind the trees. For years we were fascinated by his ability to spot critters in unlikely places long before we could. And in our family, we all have a bit of a competitive side, so it wasn’t long before we’d try to spot things before he did. (Can you spot the critter being observed in the picture above?)
In science, as in life, the ability to be a careful observer, to see things that other people haven’t noticed before, is incredibly important. Observing leads to questions, questions lead to hypotheses, hypotheses lead to experiments, and pretty soon you’re doing science – maybe without even realizing it! What seemed like just good fun to us kids out looking for wildlife, was actually an exercise in developing our observational skills. For me, those skills led to a life of science.
Good observation skills are important in all areas of life. Whether my kids become scientists or musicians, doctors or writers, actors or businessmen, good observation skills will benefit them personally and professionally. They will help them think critically and make better decisions throughout their lives. It’s a no-brainer as a parent to want to help them develop those skills.
Most kids are instinctive observers. Lucky for me, our boys are no different. All I have to do is encourage them in their observations. Help them to learn what to look for and why to look for it. Help them spot the unusual. Show them what to do with what they observe.
Take for example the other day. We had our little wading pool out and filled with water. Rather than just play with the water in the pool, the boys wanted to take it to the next level. They walked the 25 or so feet from the sandbox to the pool, very carefully carrying shovelfuls of sand to dump in the water. No small feat for toddlers! Why? Since they can’t tell me in words just yet, I can only infer from what I see. And what I observed was their fascination with what the sand did when it hit the water. Unlike their toys, which tend to either float or sink, the sand dispersed first, making a spectacular design. Then it slowly sunk to the bottom. At which point it became far less interesting to them and off they went for another shovelful to do it again. After the sand came the potting soil from a nearby (thankfully flowerless) flower pot. Hmmm…I could see their little brains working – the soil didn’t respond the same way as the sand when it hit the water. Huh. Let’s try again. Hmm. Not getting the results we want. Let’s go back to the sand.
There they were, at 18 months, with no concept of science or observation but nevertheless conducting their own little experiments. When they’re older, we can talk about why sand and soil act differently when dumped in the water – maybe we’ll check out a few books from the library about water and physics (kid-friendly of course!) and set up a few more experiments to try. We can incorporate a little math (how long does it take the sand to sink to the bottom? The soil?), a little art (let’s draw a picture of what we see!) and a little writing (let’s tell a story about what we see to share with grandma and grandpa!). We’ll have fun with it. But for now, it’s enough for them to simply observe and take in all that they see.
I still have a long way to go in cultivating my own observation skills and I’m constantly seeking to improve. But I’ll always be grateful to my parents for starting me out early. Now it’s my turn to help my kids. They’re little citizen scientists right now. And although the data they’re collecting in their sand-soil-pool experiment might not be worthy of an official citizen science project, we hope we’re setting the stage for them to be ready when the time comes.