Enquiry, observation and experimentation are essential skills for scientists. A sense of fun and the ability to play are invaluable too. STEM toys for toddlers and primary school children can be great resources for learning. Yet it’s always great to get back to basics and discover how raw materials found in nature or at home can make for creative learning and adventure.
Help kids gradually develop confidence in their inner Einstein this fall, by taking an unhurried approach to science activities over the autumn break.
1. Nature Walk
With dusk coming earlier, this is the perfect opportunity to take a walk that begins in daylight and ends at night. Choose somewhere you know well, feel safe in and which will be easy to navigate in the dark. Then pack plenty of snacks, a flask of hot drink and torches, and set out with no agenda. Give each child a bag for interesting finds, and let them lead the way. During your walk, collect leaves, acorns, sticks, moss, lichen, seeds, pine cones and other nature items – remember to only to take a small sample from places where they are plentiful. When it’s time to rest, get the little ones to tune into their senses with a little mindfulness. Sit or stand quietly. Ask the kids to notice what’s around them. Listen as they develop their sensory resources.
2. Nature Table
Use treasures you collect from a nature walk – or a scavenger hunt in your garden or local park – to make a nature table at home. Clear a space on a table or shelf, ideally at kids’ height. Lay all your treasures on the floor, and then invite the children to sort and categorise the items. For instance, counting how many objects you have of the same kind, organising them by colour, shape, length, or weight. Now give them free reign to arrange their collections on the nature table. Ask why they have chosen to group particular things together, and what they like about the way they have displayed their treasures. Need inspiration? Here are some brilliant examples of Montessori nature tables.
3. Sensory Game
Natural objects make good sensory toys. Find natural items from outdoors and around the home which are tactile and not too fragile. Place them in a bag. Invite children to take it in turns to place their hand in the bag, feel for an object and try and guess what it is. You can help them develop their language and word power, too, by asking them to describe how it feels. Ask questions such as: Does it feel rough? Smooth? Prickly? Light? Heavy?
4. Leaf Chromatography
As sunlight dwindles in autumn, trees stop producing green chlorophyll for photosynthesis – the process by which they turn carbon dioxide into oxygen and sugar. As this happens, the leaves turn from green to red and gold, and eventually fall to the ground. With the help of some rubbing alcohol and strips of paper, help your kids separate the pigments of leaves and produce simple colour profiles with leaf chromatography.
Engage your kids in citizen science with cool technology that can help kids connect with nature while enabling them to contribute to real scientific data. At eBird, for instance, you can submit data on when, where and what birds you see. Why not make a bird feeder or construct a bird box during half term, and login over the year to record the birds you see visiting your backyard?
6. Bulb Planting
Little hands love getting messy. Planting bulbs, indoors and out, is an easy autumn project that can take you through the winter and into spring. Plant crocuses, snowdrops, daffodils and tulips outside for spring, or hyacinths and hippeastrums inside for flowers at Christmas. Children can create a bulb growth chart to record the development of their bulbs. Which bulbs grow fastest? What happens if you change the growing conditions?
7. Rotting Pumpkin
If you carve a pumpkin for Halloween, don’t throw it away. Watch it rot. Ask the kids to think about the decomposition process – how long do they think it will take the pumpkins to rot? Will different sizes of pumpkins decompose at different rates? Will pumpkins fade faster indoors in the warmth or outdoors in the cold? Encourage children to take daily observations and record them in a pumpkin diary, drawing, labelling and making notes about what they see.
8. Fake Blood
Why do we have blood? Where is it made? How does it travel around the body? What happens when you cut yourself? These are all questions you can explore and research together with the help of anatomy books from the library or online resources. Now, make your own fake blood: mix together four dessert spoons of golden syrup, 10 to 20 drops of red food colouring, one or two drops of blue food colouring and a couple of pinches of cocoa powder. Add flour to thicken the blood and make it more viscous. Go for extra gore with these fake scabs.
9. Marshmallow Construction
Did you know marshmallows can be healthy? Have a go at making some at home. But, before they disappear, build with them using toothpicks. If you’ve got a stash of sweets from trick or treating, get constructing with different types of sweets. What’s the tallest tower you can make? Can you build a bridge for toy cars?
10. Fly a Kite
Autumn winds are great for flying kites – a brilliant way to learn about aerodynamics first hand. While you’re waiting for a windy day, make your own kite. Take one basic design. Give it a Halloween theme – a bat, ghost or scary face, perhaps? Once you’ve tested your basic design, try some modifications. Draw pictures of your designs, showing both the original design and the new ones. Be sure to record which kite flies best.
Tip: Don’t plan these activities too much. Just get what you need together and let the learning unfold. Simplify where you need to for little ones, draw in more detail for older kids. For more information on age-appropriate activities for Montessori education we like this overview of the science curriculum.
Jessica Adams is a writer, yoga teacher and mother of two. She has over nine years’ experience of raising boys and a lifelong love of learning, play and creativity.