Summer Science Clubs: Avoiding summer “brain-mush” syndrome for kids

by Stephanie Chasteen on July 4, 2010

This is a post geared more towards parents than teachers because, after all, parents are the ultimate teachers, right?  It’s summer, and kids get to turn their brains off for three months.  Well, mostly.  Connie “The Science Club Mom” shares her experiences on how to do some fun science projects for kids as part of a geeky-cool science club over the summer.

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If your child is a fan of the cartoon “Phineas and Ferb,” then you’ve probably heard the show’s theme song and its siren song calling, “There’s 104 days of summer vacation, and school comes along just to end iiiiiiiiit…”

In a related vein, at my daughter’s school’s year-end awards ceremony, the (somewhat crotchety) gym teacher “Mr. Downer” announced (much to the kids’ dismay) that all the parents had agreed that there would be no TV or videogames that summer. Only reading and outdoor play. I got his point but was silently thinking, “Bite me.”

Still, “Mr. Downer’s” point is a fair one. What’s a hard-working, well-intentioned-yet-pressed-for-time parent to do to keep their kids’ learning going over the summer? Some of our kids will go to camp over the summer. Others will ship off to distant relatives’ homes for July. (Atlanta! Chicago! Jamaica!) There will be beach trips and pool trips and days spent at amusement parks. But what about reading? Learning those multiplication tables and double-digit subtraction? Is the time right for teaching Susie and Johnny the Great Authors? Didn’t I once read something, somewhere, about a “Shakespeare for kids” audiobook?

One thought is to form a summer science club for your child(ren), his/her friends, neighborhood kids, and anyone else who might want to tag along. A quick Internet search of “kids’ science books” brought up a wealth of reading material, including The Everything Kids’ Science Experiments Book by Tom Robinson (2008), which we used last summer. We also bought Neil Ardley’s (1993) 101 Great Science Experiments: A Step-by-Step Guide and (my daughter’s pick) My Big Science Book by Simon Mugford (2003). Want to make white carnations change color? Build a turbine out of bendy-straws and toothpicks? Make something called “magic milk”? These books will tell you how to do it. There are also plenty of other science experiment books as well. I also picked up You Can Be a Woman Marine Biologist by Florence McAlary and Judith Love Cohen (2001) since I’m trying to convince my girly-girl daughter that growing up to be a scientist is more interesting and practical than, say, a princess.  [[Note from Stephanie: Also consider all the books from the Exploratorium, such as “Exploratopia” or “Science snacks” or their websites for easy at-home activities such as Science Explorer or Science Snacks]].

The one down side (to me) of planning engaging science experiments from scratch is that you have to assemble all the materials yourself, which can entail a bit of running around. Who wants to spend an entire Saturday morning driving to five different stores to buy coated wire, batteries, small light bulbs, molding clay, food coloring, wire strippers, bulb-holders, thread spools, and poster paint? (For the record, “magic milk” probably only requires the purchase of food coloring, since you likely already have milk, liquid dish soap, and plates in your home.) So for the tired, overworked, and otherwise lazy among us, there are the pre-packaged science kits. For Christmas 2009, Santa brought my daughter the Scientific Explorer’s Mind Blowing Science Kit for Young Scientists, and we’ve done a number of the experiments from that, including making color-changing volcanoes. The nice thing about kits like these is that they provide you with many of the harder-to-locate items, such as polyacrylamide crystals and red cabbage juice. (When was the last time you picked those up from your local grocery store?) I’m also a fan of the Ein-O-Science line of science-in-a-box kits for about $8 each.

A handmade rocket

Ah, but have I mislead you? I started off discussing summer science bridge activities and instead lead you into a review of products that can be used for in-the-house science. What about the summer? What about the outdoors? Nature? The sun? Summer brings great opportunities for doing outdoor experiments. I’ve bought various Steve Spangler items including an air-burst rocket ($32.95; requires a bicycle-pump); solar bags ($12.95; they also sell string to go with these, but you can use any old string from your house, including kite string which works just fine); the solar race car ($10.95; they have other little solar robots too);  and sun sensitive paper ($6.95 for a pack of 15 sheets; they also sell sun sensitive fabric, but I haven’t tried it yet). The solar bags and rocket were especially fun, and can tie in with a science-related discussion (“What makes the rocket fall to Earth?” And “What makes the solar bags rise? Answer: Once the bags are filled with air, sealed off, and placed in the sun, the air molecules inside them begin to move around, causing the bags to rise.”)

To return to the original point of this posting, as parents we have to keep the learning going over the summer. But it doesn’t have to be dreadful. A little planning + purchases of key items + a bunch of kids = learning disguised as fun. The kids might even forget about the TV (for a little while).

Connie_The_Science_Club_Mom is a content writer for Online Schools and Online MBA who gives advice on the pursuit of education and living a healthy life. In her free time she enjoys planning science experiments and trips for her girls’ science club.  Email her directly at scienceclubmom (at) aol (dot) com.  Image courtesy of Connie.

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