As parents and caregivers, we don’t need special training in science or engineering to help our child develop inquiry skills. Young kids love to experiment, explore, and figure out how the world works – and that is the heart of thinking like a scientist!

The Ruff Ruffman Show builds on this innate curiosity. Ruff and his friends engage in inquiry when they ask questions and observe, brainstorm and make predictions, and experiment and reflect on what they learn – just like our children! Here are several simple ways we can encourage our kids to think like scientists.

Let’s Observe
Observation is a bedrock skill for scientists: it’s the art of paying attention and noticing little details. Kids of all ages can build their
observation skills with simple activities such as

Nature Walk: Go on a nature walk near your home or in a local park – and slow down the pace! Stop to dig in the dirt and turn over a rock. Look for evidence of creature activity: tracks, droppings, nests, feathers, webs, holes, webs, cracked acorns, mounds, etc.
Five Senses: When you are on a walk, in a car or bus, in a store, or on the playground, play the “five senses game.”
What do you see?

What do you hear?

What do you smell?

What could you taste?

What textures can you feel?

Let’s Ask Questions
Kids’ questions are evidence of their deep curiosity. A one-year-old child’s first question is usually: “What’s that?” as they seek to name their world. As children get older, they starting asking “Why?” and “What will happen if . . . ?” A great response — especially if their questions are taxing your knowledge or patience – is simply, “Let’s find out!”

As adults, we can model asking questions and wondering out loud. This invites children to share in our inquiry and help us find answers. Even our everyday, seemingly mundane questions can be an opportunity to engage our kids in discovery and problem-solving. Here are a few questions I’ve explored with my five-year-old this week.

  • What’s the weather going to be like today? We walked outside, looked at the sky, and then looked at hourly pictures on a weather app. This led to an unexpected conversation about the phrase “heat index,” which she saw on the screen.
  • How am I going to reach the paper that fell behind the cabinet? When reaching didn’t work, she put double stick tape on a chopstick and snagged it. My problem inspired her to invent a solution!
  • What kind of snake just slithered behind that bush? We compared our memories of size and markings, and then visited an online identification site. It was a harmless garter snake (phew!).
  • What can I make with these five ingredients in the fridge? Answer: A sausage, carrot and broccoli omelet topped with a dollop of sour cream. Not a bad lunch.

Let’s Explore Cause and Effect
Science isn’t as much about success and failure as it is about cause and effect: “When I do this, what will happen?” Every “effect” or result can teach us something – even if it’s not the result we expected!

You don’t need science equipment to explore cause and effect. You just need to ask the question: “What will happen if . . . ?”

  • What will happen if we change the angle of the car ramp?
  • What will happen if we add more eggs to the pancake batter?
  • What will happen if we build the sandcastle closer to the waves?
  • What will happen if we plant one seed in the sun and one seed in the shade?
  • What will happen if we add a paper clip to the nose of the paper airplane?

Before experimenting to find the answer, take a moment to make a prediction about what might happen. Will the paperclip make the airplane fly further or take a nosedive? Will the ramp increase the speed of the cars? Which seed will sprout first?

Let’s Record Our Findings
Scientists take notes; they record data about their questions, their observations, and the results of their experiments and observations.

Turn a spiral notebook into a “science journal”: a dedicated space for children to record their observations. Younger kids can start by simply drawing pictures. As they get older, they can add labels and written observations.

Their science investigation notebook can be used to:

  • Record questions: Kids can keep a “curiosity list” of questions they have and topics they want to explore.
  • Record numbers: How high was their tallest block tower? How many ants were eating the marshmallow on the sidewalk? How many seconds did it take the car to go down the ramp? How high did the bean seed grow this week?
  • Sketch: Take the journal outside sketch a leaf, a bug, a rock, a web, a nest, or the phases of the moon.
  • Reflect on Investigations: What did they try? What did they think would happen? What actually happened?

As your children explore their world, a few words of encouragement from adults go a long way. Let them see your excitement and interest in their ideas. And if they are noisy and messy as they investigate and experiment, remember these wise words from Mister Rogers, “For children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.”