Working it out

Things are going well with Nurture Learning. I stopped doing science with Drama King and his friend on Mondays, but I feel lost without a current project (and many in the pipeline) so I started a group on Friday afternoons instead.

The Friday group started when I realised I wanted to ‘do’ science with Reptile Boy, so why not invite his friends round too? It has turned into more of a homeschooling science group, with a lovely family from Manly coming along with three children aged from 4 to 8 years old, although a couple of Reptile Boy’s friends from pre-school still attend as well.

Last term for ‘life science’, we did activities including:

  • sorting found items into living or biological, non-living, and human-made;
  • differences between, and features of, plants and animals;
  • a nature walk with creatures or plants to look out for

I think in future years I would not do this unit in the winter term! We missed quite a few sessions due to illness (various families) or just tiredness (on my part) and, besides, spring seems like a better season to study life and growth.

Over the holidays I ordered a few Creature Kits from Butterfly Skye. This term, one family will be watching their stick insect grow and hopefully lay eggs, and another family are watching beetle larvae which will pupate and then metamorphosise into beetles. Our family ordered antlions, which were not so successful, and so we are waiting for replacements… Next week the group is doing a bush walk in Kur-rin-gai Wildflower Garden, and I am sure we will all learn a lot from the rangers.

This term we are also learning about Earth and Space science. We started off with a walk around the solar system (copyright Guy Ottewell), using everyday objects to represent the Sun and the planets, and positioning them along Manly Beach to show how far the planets are from the Sun and each other. The exercise was probably not appropriate for the younger children, but certainly taught me about the vast scales involved in astronomy and space science. We have been learning about gravity, day and night, and the seasons, and the older children will be preparing presentations about one planet each before we move on to learning about rocks and minerals (one of my favourite subjects to cover, with children or adults, because it is so hands-on).

I was using a framework from Bernie Nebel’s Building Foundations of Scientific Understanding (BFSU), and I still like the way he approaches teaching science, but I have ended up modifying my approach significantly since last term. He plans a lot of discussion, and yet several of the younger children learn far better when they can make something with their hands as well as talking and listening.

I think the new structure of my classes will be to start with a hands-on activity, and a challenge (e.g. for Gravity, I challenged them to build a structure that stood up, and one that fell down, and to explain to me why this happened). Following the challenge I will read them a story that illustrates some key scientific concepts, and then we can move on to paper-based activities (drawing, writing, or cutting and pasting) for those who want to do them. Those who don’t, can play. The discussion can happen during all of these activities, including the play, and hopefully afterwards with parents, carers and friends.

I feel very pleased with today’s session, which followed this kind of approach. The younger children loved being the Earth or the Sun, and moving around or shining a torch on the globe. I read a great story about telling time without a clock. Then Reptile Boy rushed outside to look at his shadow again (because we did this last week) so we drew around shadows with chalk, to compare them with his shadow later on in the day.

Then the younger children played while I challenged the older children to identify the true reason for the seasons, and the myth. (Many people think the seasons occur because of distance from the Sun, whereas it is really due to axial tilt.)

I have been struggling a little with working out what my role is in the group, and how I can be the ‘expert’ while still encouraging the children to move towards self-directed learning, which is my goal. I think I have worked out an approach that I feel comfortable with. I had great feedback from today’s session and I hope I carry on delivering sessions that engage and inspire all the children.

New beginnings: sticks, hubcaps and bright lights

Leading science sessions in Marrickville was tougher than I had expected. I am glad I took the opportunity when offered, and I have learned a lot for next time. This term I decided to scale back, but nevertheless I couldn’t resist setting up another small group in Manly. It’s aimed at pre-school to about Year 2 but it’s ended up being skewed towards the younger end.

We’ve started off with some fun sessions which involved plenty of sticks brought in from outside. What is it with little kids and sticks? In my family, any walk along the Esplanade usually results in at least one stick being brandished dangerously close to stranger’s heads and later stuffed into the back of Princess’s pram.

For our beginning science sessions I welcomed sticks: the children were asked to bring in between 5 and 10 items to sort into three categories: living or biological (hence the sticks); natural but non-biological (e.g. rocks) and human-made (e.g. a hubcap, which one child found on the way to our apartment). Each child has had at least one turn to present their collection and decide which box to put each item in. They brought along some beautiful items. The children have largely been very patient while their friends were talking and sorting.


Last session we did a cutting and pasting activity where the children made little folders and sorted pictures into the relevant category. We added on a table for Plant Kingdom and Animal Kingdom and talked about the characteristics of plants and animals.


I’m still learning the best way to offer these activities. Next time I run these classes, I would add each cutting and pasting session after the relevant activity, to reinforce what they have already learned, and so they don’t get too confused with different categories. But I hadn’t even designed the folders at the start of term! I also need to include differentiation to maintain interest for the one older child in our group.

It was lovely to hear the conversations the children had as they were cutting and sticking. They stayed focussed for a very long time, especially given their age. One child was sad that he didn’t have time for playing before leaving. In previous sessions we have had about 45 mins doing directed activities and 45 mins free play. I think it is important that they get that free time – and clearly they do too! These classes are a work in progress and I am happy to see what works and make changes as we go. We are looking forward to a guided visit to Kur-rin-gai Wildflower Garden later in the term, and I hope we can buy a ‘creature kit’ soon, to observe firsthand the life-cycle of insects such as butterflies.


Despite illnesses attacking both our families, Drama King and his friend are still just about carrying on with their little science club. These are both Year 3 age who have been working together for about two years, and we are all very comfortable with each other’s interests and abilities. For this term’s topic of Electricity, I got out a kit complete with mini lightbulbs (globes) and wires with crocodile clips. Inspired by a recent article on MindShift, I deliberately gave them very few instructions before letting them experiment with the equipment. Both children found the crocodile clips tough to open and close but persevered. The first circuit they built had the batteries in different alignment. Eventually, and with some gentle help, they were able to build complete, working circuits, and then work out how different arrangements (e.g. series or parallel circuits) affected the brightness of the lights.

Our next session will be making batteries out of food (lemons, pickled cucumbers etc.). We’re going to go on to do various activities with static electricity and we might also get hold of some switches and buzzers and send messages to each other in Morse Code. There’s so much scope, but, as always, I will follow their interests.