I grew up in a pretty tight-knit neighborhood. Kids wandered the streets freely, making new friends and getting to know the neighbors. One day, for some reason, I wandered into the house of a neighbor I seldom talked to. I think I wanted to play with his dog or something. He didn’t have kids of his own, and didn’t exactly know what to do with the 8 year old who had firmly planted herself in his living room.
So, he started talking about physics.
He recited a simple version of Newton’s laws to me, and had me repeat them back until I had them memorized.
Once I had them down, he asked me think about them.
He demonstrated the concepts with things like his spinning office chair, playing catch with me, and rolling his dog’s toy across the room. As each object slowed down or stopped, he challenged me to think of the forces that were causing it to stop. He introduced me to the idea that forces like gravity and friction can act on everything, all the time.
When I asked about objects in space, he explained how once things got moving, they would actually stay moving forever until they encountered another force, like the gravity of a planet or hit an asteroid.
Looking back on that day, I realized the significance of that strange interaction. Most adults I encountered didn’t really talk to me about anything important. They would ask me about my friends and my hobbies in that high-pitched, patronizing voice which adults so often use with kids.
But my neighbor talked to me like an adult, and introduced an “adult” physics concept with the full expectation that I could understand it. And I did understand it. Later on, when I started learning about the laws of motion in school, I remembered his demonstration and explanation. It was easier to learn about the subject in school because I had been exposed to it before.
When I think about the subjects I excelled at in school, it was almost entirely the subjects that adults had actually bothered to talk with me about. My father was a biologist, and regularly talked to me about his work. I always had A’s in biology. My mother was an educational consultant, and specialized in developing early reading skills. She regularly read to me, and talked about the literature with me. By mid elementary school, I was testing at a college reading level.
But for subjects like math, which weren’t really mentioned at home, I struggled. Sure, with enough homework help I could keep on top of the material. But I didn’t understand and excel at it the way I did with Biology and Language Arts.
I ended up marrying a man who is an absolute genius with math, physics and engineering. When I asked him how he came to understand the subjects so well, he recounted to me how his grandfather would always quiz him with math problems and logic riddles. His father runs a contracting company, and involved my husband in projects like building their house by hand. His mother works as a technical clothing designer, which involves visualizing 2D patterns as 3D structures. He was exposed to lots of 3D design and engineering as a child, and consequently excelled in those areas. However, he also had a harder time in the subjects that weren’t stressed in his house, like Language Arts.
I base a lot of my educational techniques on this theory: that early, matter-of-fact exposure to advanced subjects will make them much easier to learn. And so far, it’s proved successful.
Chemistry isn’t usually taught until high school, but after introducing them to the concept of atoms, molecules, and different elements, I now have some of my third grade students drawing (and completely understanding) Lewis dot structures and building structures for basic chemical compounds.
Schools don’t even touch on circuitry until high school physics, but some of my 1st graders can tell me all about how switches can open and close a circuit, and how the filament in a light bulb is the part where electrons have to work really hard to get through, so they get really hot and produce light (much like you would get hot running through a sand pit).
Kids are naturally curious, and they’re almost always full of questions about how the world works. So when they ask, do your best to answer them as fully as possible. The goal should be to have them memorize random facts, but for them to develop an understanding of the way the world works.
Even something like learning that everything physical is matter, and that matter is made of tiny particles called atoms that interact to form molecules (much the way that different kinds of Lego pieces come together to form structures) will set the scaffolding for understanding all kinds of advanced scientific concepts.
If you need to look something up before answering, that’s great. Talk your kid through what you’re searching, and how you found the right article on Wikipedia. Then explain the answer to them. The process of research is an important part of learning, which many people unfortunately like to sweep under the rug.
If your child asks you why the sky is blue, look it up. Then explain to them how light is made of all the colors of a rainbow. To make your explanation more effective, pair it with a demonstration or experiment. You can demonstrate it with a prism, a shiny crystal, or by using a garden hose to make a rainbow. Then talk about how the stuff our atmosphere is made of makes some of the blue wavelengths bounce around, but not the other colors. It’s OK if they don’t understand it completely. Maybe the only thing they absorbed was that light has many colors in it. But it’s still a great start.
Obviously, kids’ questions can be kind of endless and you’re not going to have the time to do an experiment for everything they ask about. But even answering one question per week with an experiment can have a tremendous positive impact on your child’s approach to schoolwork and life.
Almost every lesson I give my students will work in some early exposure to advanced concepts. You can read my other blog posts to learn about the lessons I give to my students, and see some of the techniques I use to teach them advanced math and science. My students vary in age significantly, but these lessons can be taught to kids in a large age range, with some minor modifications for vocabulary and content. Even a high school student will benefit from exposure to college and graduate level concepts. So you can feel free to modify lessons as needed to fit your child’s age and educational needs. And of course, you can always feel free to email questions about anything to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Learning to frame every question as a learning opportunity can be difficult, and it takes a lot of practice. But know that every time you can challenge your child to think about the world in a new way, you’re making a positive impact on their educational future.