Nurturing Curiosity Through Hands-On Science Activities
By Shelley Butler

From a child’s point of view, science means discovery, surprise, and fun. Science is perfect for all the actively involved, naturally curious, hands-on learners who strive to know what, when, where, how, and why. Science is accomplished in large and small ways by people who may not even realize they are doing it, according to Ingrid Chalufour and Karen Worth in Discovering Nature with Young Children (2003). When you move a plant into or out of the sun to see under which conditions it will grow better, or when you compare two objects and predict which one will work better for your purpose, you are doing science.

Everyone is born with the potential to benefit from science. Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligence Theory says that we all have nine areas of intelligence working together in varying strengths. One of these, naturalist intelligence, is the potential to comprehend, identify, and classify patterns in the natural world, and to use this ability in a productive way. Another, logical-mathematical intelligence, is the potential to discover patterns, reason, and think logically. Together, these intelligences create the potential for success in science.           

While young children may not be ready for the likes of the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab, they are more than ready to get in the science habit of finding out. Make it an everyday occurrence to encourage children to wonder, observe, predict, describe, document, and share. Soon, the scientific approach may become a habit that will serve children well for an entire lifetime, no matter what they become. Who knows, you may just inspire children “to reach out further than they thought they could reach before,” something that Gene Cernan, the last human being to walk on the moon, says is vital. Begin inspiring the children in your care with these wonderful and field-tested science activities.


Chemistry Creation

A favorite science activity of Kristi Kelthly, Lincoln Park Co-op, Seattle


What You Need:

  • Powders: salt, sugar, baking soda
  • Liquids: vinegar, water, club soda
  • Containers for each powder and liquid
  • Eye droppers, small spoons, and small cups
  • White “lab” coats, safety glasses, and rubber gloves


What You Do:

1.      Place each liquid and powder in separate containers.

2.      Ask children to wear lab coats, safety glasses and rubber gloves (just like real scientists).

3.      Explain that you are going to mix powders with liquids and liquids with powders to see what happens. It’s acceptable to mix more than one powder with a liquid – there are no right or wrong mixtures.

4.      Give the children small portion cups. Ask each child to choose what they would like to mix together, but before mixing, ask each child to make a prediction about what will happen.

5.      After mixing, ask each child to describe the results.


Preschool Quadrat

Adapted from the author’s workshop, “How to Help Your Child Get a Green Thumb—All Year Round”


What You Need:

  • Eight foot piece of rope
  • Tweezers
  • Magnifying glass
  • Large tray


How to Prepare:

Pick an area outside with grass, weeds, bugs, sticks, etc. and mark the area using the rope. If you don’t have access to an outside area, choose a sandbox or area on the floor. When inside, you will need to add items to the sandbox or floor for the “scientists” to discover.


What to Do:

1.      Explain what a quadrat is (a square or rectangular area marked off as a sampling unit). The roped-off area is a quadrat. Ask the children to predict what and how many things they might find inside the quadrat. Document their predictions.

2.      Show how to safely use tweezers and supervise as children take turns discovering, identifying, and removing things from the quadrat and placing them on the tray.

3.      After making their discoveries, let the children take turns observing and describing different items with a magnifying glass. Together, count how many different things were found and record the number. Compare the results with their predictions.


Tree Homes

A science unit exploring trees, from Sunshine teacher Marisol Cedillo, University of Texas Child Care Center, Austin, TX 


What You Need:

  • One large, medium, and small box
  • Strong tape
  • Knife or scissors
  • Paper towel tubes, streamers, and real leaves
  • Construction paper, white paper, and crayons
  • Stuffed animals


How to Prepare:

  • Cut holes in the middle of each box. Stack the boxes and tape together to make a tree house.


What You Do: (This activity should be done over several days)

1.      Talk about trees and what kinds of animals live in trees, i.e., birds, insects, monkeys, etc.

2.      Ask children to bring stuffed or toy animals from home to put in the tree house.

3.      Help the children decorate the tree using streamers, construction paper, and paper towel tubes for branches.

4.      Take a nature walk to collect real leaves and tree rubbings. Place paper on the tree trunk and rub the crayon on the paper to get a rubbing of a tree trunk. When you get back to the classroom, further decorate the tree house with the real leaves and rubbings.

5.      Ask children to bring in items from home that come from trees: fruit, nuts, paper, etc.


Plants and Light (for more advanced scientists)

From “Learning Partners: Let’s Do Science!” by the U.S. Department of Education


What You Need:

  • Construction paper
  • Paper clips
  • Scissors
  • Leaves from plants and trees


What You Do:

  1. Cut three paper shapes about two inches large. Circles and triangles work well, but you can use other shapes, too.
  2. Clip these shapes with paper clips to three leaves of either an indoor or an outdoor plant, being careful not to tear the leaves.
  3. Keep one piece of paper on the leaf for one day, a second on for two days, and the third on for one week.
  4. Watch to see what happens to the leaves. Do they change color? What effect does the lack of light have on them? What effect does the length of time the leaves are covered have on them?


Floating Fruit

From Melissa Browning, Milwaukee, WI in The Giant Encyclopedia of Science Activities for Children Ages 3 to 6


What You Need:

  • Half of a grapefruit and orange, hollowed out
  • Items to use as units of measure, such as bean counters
  • Large bowl of water


What You Do:

1.      Place the fruit halves in the water. Ask the children to predict how many of the counters the fruit “boat” might hold before it sinks and whether the way the counters are placed inside will matter.

2.      Give the counters to children and let them experiment. Compare their predictions with what happens.



Jumping Into Science with Irresistible Books

Even the most reluctant scientist is likely to be captivated by these enticing new books for children:

In Front of the Ant: Walking With Beetles and Other Insects by Ryuichi Kuwahara and Satoshi Kuribayashi (Photographer), Kane/Miller 2004. Brilliant photographs magically capture the world from an ants-eye point of view. After reading, invite children to crawl on the ground to observe and describe their world from the bottom up.

What Do You Do With a Tail Like This? by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page, Houghton Mifflin, 2003. A Caldecott Honor Book, this guessing game invites children to test their powers of observation on animal noses, tails, and more. After reading, encourage children to think about what they do with their feet, noses, mouths, eyes, and compare with the animals in the book.

Baby Genius: Four Seasons, DK, 2004. For the younger budding scientist (ages 18 months to three years), this exceptional board book explores the colors, smells, textures life, and clothes of the seasons, including a side-by-side comparison of a tree through the seasons. Before turning the page to each season, ask children to predict what might be included. After reading, talk about the current season and invite children to bring in items of the season to share and compare.


Great Resources for More Hands-On Science

Don’t stop here! Be sure to check out these great resources for teaching science to young children:

Discovering Nature with Young Children by Ingrid Chalufour and Karen Worth, The Young Scientist Series, Redleaf Press, 2003. A curriculum for three-to-five-year olds that incorporates learning about living things in everyday ways using many materials already in the classroom. 

The Giant Encyclopedia of Science Activities for Children 3 to 6: More Than 600 Science Activities Written by Teachers for Teachers by Kathy Charmer, Gryphon House, 1998. Easy-to-follow instructions for a giant variety of uncomplicated A-Z activities for school AND home. Call Gryphon House at 800-638-0928 or visit their website, for more information.

“Helping Your Child Learn Science” (Publication ID: EK0732P) is a FREE resource of information and activities to help parents introduce science to young children at home from the U.S. Department of Education. Order by calling 1-877-4-ED-PUBS (1-877-576-7734), or visit

Mudpies to Magnets: A Preschool Science Curriculum by Robert A. Williams, et al, Gryphon House, 1987. Now considered a classic of preschool science, this accessible volume includes a wide variety of fun activities, and while the title may imply school, the activities are equally appropriate for home. 

Science is Simple: Over 250 Activities for Preschoolers by Peggy Ashbrook, Gryphon House, 2003. A treasury of science units in which the activities build on knowledge learned, with clear directions that could just as well be done at home as in school.


Shelley Butler is co-author with Deb Kratz of The Field Guide to Parenting. For more information or to contact the author, please visit her web site: