How to be your child’s first science teacher
Published on: 22 September 2021 Author: Alom Shaha
Alom Shaha is a physics teacher and author of the children's books Mr Shaha’s Recipes for Wonder and Mr Shaha’s Marvellous Machines. Here's how he believes families can foster curiosity and wonder in their children, and a love of science and the world around them.
Illustration from Mr Shaha’s Recipes for Wonder by Alom Shaha (illustrated by Emily Robertson)
I am a science teacher, but my first love is literature.
I was first taught how to read by my father, a Bangladeshi immigrant whose education hadn’t gone beyond secondary level but had included learning how to read and write English. His relatively firm grasp of the language of his new home set him apart from many of our neighbours, and they often turned to him when they needed forms to be filled in, or official documents to be read. Like many immigrants, he believed education was the key to a better life for his children. He gave me a headstart by getting hold of a children’s “ABC” book and teaching me how to recognise the letters of the alphabet, as well as the sounds they made and how they came together to make words.
Although my father and I did not go on to have the best of relationships, I’ve always been grateful to him for those hours he spent with me in my early childhood. I have no doubt that the fact he chose to spend this time with me, in this way, helped me form a positive attitude towards reading, and indeed learning in general. There’s an overwhelming body of research which supports this.
Science: Something that enriches our lives
It’s now widely accepted that one of the best things a parent can do for a child is to read to them from a young age. According to the social scientists Barrie Wade and Maggie Moore, parents who introduce their babies to books give them a headstart in school, and an advantage over their peers throughout primary school.
One of the findings which I find both surprising and encouraging is that, according to research by Eirini Flouri and Ann Buchanan, reading to your child can help compensate for disadvantages related to social class, family size, and level of parental education. This certainly seems to have been the case for me.
It’s not just the letters of the alphabet that most children first learn with the help of their parents, but also mathematics through counting, music through nursery rhymes and songs, and visual art through drawing and painting. It seems clear to me that, whether they think of themselves in this way or not, most parents are their children’s first teachers in these subjects.
However, fewer parents have the knowledge, confidence, or inclination to engage their children with science in the same playful, informal ways.
Compared with reading to them, there’s much less research on the benefits of parents doing “science” with their children. Despite this, there is convincing evidence that suggests parents with positive attitudes toward science help ensure their children do better at science in school. But this is not why I’m writing about “how to be your child’s first science teacher”.
It’s not just about academic success or keeping their career options open, I think parents should be their children’s first science teacher because they should see science in the same way they should see art, music, and literature – a cultural activity which enriches all of our lives.
Becoming your child's "Wondersmith"
So, how should parents go about becoming their children’s “first science teacher”? Perhaps teacher is the wrong word and a better one might be “Wondersmith”: someone who can foster wonder in both senses of the word, encouraging children to feel amazement and admiration for the natural world, as well as getting them to ask questions to learn more about it.
This was the idea at the heart of my first book on this theme, Mr Shaha’s Recipes for Wonder, in which I curated a set of “science” activities for parents to do with their children, alongside some simple instructions to help develop scientific skills like observation, prediction, and how to identify variables and conduct a fair test. I wanted a clear focus on the approach to doing the activities rather than on recreating a particular phenomenon and providing its explanation. I wrote explicit guidance for parents to take ownership of their children’s science learning and nurture a deeper engagement with science.
Instead of just providing instructions for carrying out experiments, I wrote the book to help parents to prompt their children to look more closely at what’s happening, to ask questions, and to discover the answers for themselves. The emphasis in my books is on how to stimulate children's curiosity and encourage them to start thinking like scientists and engineers.
The power of "I don't know"
One of the main tips in the book for any parent who might lack confidence or expertise in science is to embrace what I call the “power of 'I don’t know'”. I want parents to know that, not only is it OK to say 'I don't know', but that it can be turned into a positive opportunity for discovery and learning by simply adding the words, “How can we find out?'.
This relates to what I believe is the key to getting the most out of any activity with your children, science or otherwise: simply talk to them as you’re doing it.
By casually asking questions about what’s going on, what you’re seeing, what you’re about to do, and so on, you can ensure that children are "minds on” as well as “hands on”. It’s this process of talking about things, asking questions and trying to work out the answers for themselves that I believe will best help children to develop their scientific thinking skills.
I believe that giving children the opportunity to engage with science from a young age opens up their possibilities to flourish as adults because science is one of the best intellectual toolkits we have for looking at and making sense of the world. That’s why it's too important for parents to leave their children’s science education until they are at school, and why as many parents as possible should be their children's first science teacher.