“Science can be introduced to children well or poorly. If poorly, children can be turned away from science; they can develop a lifelong antipathy; they will be in a far worse condition than if they had never been introduced to science at all.” Isaac Asimov (1920-1992)
We live in an age of technological marvels: we can take a photo on a camping trip, then send it half-way round the world to a friend in the blink of an eye; we have access to mind-bogglingly large storehouses of information at the press of a button; we can see the inside of a living human body without cutting it open or harming it in any way. Most of us, even if we are not scientists by profession, are aware of the amazing impact that science has upon our everyday lives.
Children are naturally inquisitive, and it makes sense for us as parents to trade on this feature in encouraging their interest in how and why the world around them works — for what is science but the formal exploration of this? The trick here, as far as I can see, is to provide the tools to the child with which he can make his or her own investigations (with an eye to personal and community safety, of course) and let things go from there.
It is rather an insult to term a good science activity a “toy”; we try not to use that term. By definition, a toy is a plaything, whereas a science activity promotes investigation, thinking skills, and imagination. It is an open-ended process that invites the child to experiment, to find things out for him or herself, and to understand even the most simple or basic processes at work in the natural world.
So, the best-designed science activities for children, in our opinion, are those that provide a reliable result coupled with a sensible and comprehensible explanation of what is going on. One of our favourite suppliers of science materials is a new-ish little company called SmartLab, whose products fit these criteria quite exactly. It would appear that the product designers have looked first at what sorts of activities appeal to children, and worked backwards from this to design projects that will capture their interest and expand their knowledge.
For example, in the “You Build It” series, SmartLab offers a Voice Changer, a nifty hand-held gizmo that allows the user to modulate his or her voice in any of four ways: squeaky, robotic, scary, or booming. Before getting to the assembly instructions, however, the kid-friendly instruction manual leads the child through the basic physics of sound — the idea of sound as vibration, the characteristics of that vibration such as frequency and pitch, and the ways in which these attributes apply to the human voice. The book then goes on to explain the basic workings of the Voice Changer in just enough detail to satisfy a beginner in electronics: the concepts of binary code, the difference between analog and digital modes, and the process by which the electronic signal gets changed back into audible sound waves.
What a kit like this does is to allow the child to be the author of his own experience. The information is there, accessible and comprehensible to anyone with a basic degree of literacy. It is up to the child to make as much or as little of it as he or she wishes. The concepts are explained clearly but without condescension, at an age-appropriate level, and the kits leave the door open for further investigation — and what that makes the child . . . is a scientist.