As all of us dive into our devices more and more, we continually lose our sense of 3 dimensional space and geography. Children today spend about half as much time outdoors as they did years ago. Some studies in the UK show that children spend less time outside than prisoners. However you look at it, spending time outside is important for personal health, being part of a community that truly lives together and for making important decisions.
Being outside is about space-the 3 dimensional kind. You can't have an outside 3D spatial experience staring into a tablet. And, being aware about spatial things is one of the strongest predictors of STEM achievement (ask us if you want more research supporting this conclusion). This result is probably because much of science and math happens in the context of 3 dimensions (x, y, z). Despite our addiction to tablets, companies making maps or self-driving cars still think about life and safety in our 3 dimensional world.
Ok then, let's get outside with the following 5 STEM activities.
1. Map and compass.
Learning how to use and play with a map and compass it the most natural way to engage with the space around us. Resist using a GPS device because it does not provide the same spatial experience.
Don't be afraid of learning this yourself. Every time I use a compass I have to re-orient myself to the tools.
Check out these two websites for some fun games and how-to's on using a compass.http://blog.eurekatent.com/3-games-teach-kids-use-compass/
Or, simply get map (use a topographic map if you can) of a short hike. Use it to plan out the hike with your kids by using the scale to measure distance and elevation. Then while on the hike periodically try to figure out where you are.
2. Settling sediment in water.
Everyone loves a video and this is a fun one on filtering water:
Water quality is a big issue in the world today. In developed countries we are lucky to have good water, but our aging infrastructure means this will be a more pressing issue in the future. The main factor in preparing water is understanding sediment in water and removing it.
I like this step-by-step from Instructables. This activity is fun because you can collect some muddy water or make your own. Skipping the bleach step is one way to simplify this a bit.
You will be amazed by what "alum" does to settle out the dirt. Note that this process is similar to what they do at water treatment plants and is a common concept in geology.
3. Flower and Plant Identification
The key here is to do what you want and keep it simple. One way is to search the Internet for common wildflowers or plants in your area. Then, head outside to see if you can find them using common patterns like leaf shape. Or you could buy (or borrow from the library) a book of plants and flowers in your area. Take these resources out on your adventures.
I also found pictures of plants, flowers, leave shapes online which could be used just about anywhere. The point is, head out there, and be playful with discovery plants.
Huh? The concept of density is ever-present in our lives and deals with basic concepts of physics in a fun, exploratory way. As you may know, density (D) is equal to mass (M) divided by volume (V), D=M/V. The concept of density explains how a steel ship floats and how humans float in salt water. Whenever I encounter volume and mass together there is a density story to be told.
I really like these 2 simple hands-on density activities as a way to start.
The first activity mixes oil and water together to show that one liquid is more dense than the other and sinks. This process also happens with air and is why some cities get so smoggy. The second activity shows that 2 cans of soda with the same volume can sink OR float. Why is that if they are the same size (or same volume)?
If you want a good laugh, read this fun cartoon story about Archimedes and his "Eureka" moment.
5. Stare at the Stars!
Pick a clear night to simply lie on your back and stare at the stars. The rest will come naturally.
6. Bonus Activity: Build something, anything.
Build a birdhouse, a water dam in the gutter, a fort, a rope swing or little fairy houses. Building things is basically a problem solving process that requires planning, execution, and working in space. Kids are excited and proud of building something substantial. Search the Internet for countless options or just ask your child what they want to build whether it makes sense to you or not.
Whatever you do outside stay curious. Science and engineering are all about asking question like "why" or "how". For example, why does the road go uphill here? Or, why are the plants different near the stream than up on the hill? The simple act of asking the question and thinking about an answer is the best thing you can do to encourage your kid's (and your own ;) playful learning.
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