Let me tell you about my grandson Elliott.
I spent the day with him yesterday, and here is a partial list of his achievements:
• rolling from side to side
• taking the top piece (cherry light) off a stacking police car puzzle and looking through the hole that allows it to sit on top of the car
• removing his socks from his feet and chewing on them (the socks)
• whacking himself with a wooden hammer he was trying to whack some pegs with
• sticking out his tongue while trying to swallow food.
You can see the boy has potential. For an eight month old, he is doing the exact right things to develop this pure potential, while appearing (from the outside) to be messing around and doing nothing much productive. I credit his mother, my lovely older daughter Bethany.
When Bethany was small, I gave her an important job: painting the trees. All three of my children had this job during their preschool days; tongue-in-cheek, they accuse me of being an abusive parent because of this job. The job: take a coffee can full of water and a paintbrush outside. Paint all the trees with water so that they change color. When you have finished (and the first trees are dry), start over.
I believe that this, too, helped develop the potential of a child in my care.
Nowadays, I spend most of my days on my own, working in the barn. Recent work includes a series of four books called Science Fair Winners (Bug Science, Crime Scene Science, Junkyard Science, and Experiments to Do on Your Family) from National Geographic. They are designed to take a child's personal interest and build it into a science project with connections to research actually happening in the field. Some of the stuff is fairly high level and somewhat complicated, involving such phenomena as people's response to litter, conflict resolution, sibling recognition based on shared DNA, and so on.
But now I've been asked to take science projects a little younger, and to take them out of the school and lab setting, with a book called Try This at Home. For me, it's an opportunity to bridge the gap between at home trial and error activities (like baby Elliott trying to get the hammer in the right position to whack the pegs), exploration of easily observed natural phenomena (like little Bethany trying to get all the trees to stay that nice dark wet color), and the science fair-y explorations of middle schoolers.
What SHOULD kids try at home? As you can imagine, my view on this is somewhat idiosyncratic. I take a somewhat Montessori approach to young childhood, because I see the power of play-as-work to help a child figure out how the world works through her own experience. An hour of play at the sink is worth five books on the subject of splashing -- but a book on splashing has the power to inspire that play.
And so, I hit the books and the internet and some friendly scientists and teachers and parents to find ways to inspire kids to play and observe and notice things for themselves. It's going to be messy. We're going to be using a lot of food coloring, because it helps you see what's happening when, for example, a rose pulls water from a vase, or salt water separates from fresh, or water beads absorb 300 times their weight. There will be explosions and bubbles and foam and broken eggs and jelly bones.
May heaven help me, I have to supply and set up all 50 experiments and activities
so they can be photographed in my kitchen or here in the barn or outside in the yard. Before this happens, I have to make sure all the experiments and projects meet expectations, so I'm trying them at home myself. I'm stocking up on baby food jars, rubber gloves, Ivory soap, batteries and magnets. I'm making a big mess and learning things I didn't expect about the world. Best of all, I'm going to invite the kids -- and grandkid -- over to play with science with me.