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Learning about science

Our communities provide still more opportunities to learn science.

Almost all children enjoy a trip to the zoo. We can use zoos to encourage our child’s interest in the natural world and to introduce children to the many fascinating forms of life.

  • Guessing games can help your child understand structure and function. “Why do you think the seal has flippers?” (The seal uses flippers to swim through the water.) “Why do you think the gibbons have such long and muscular arms?” (Their arms help them swing through the trees.) “Why does the armadillo have a head that looks like it’s covered with armor, as well as a body that’s covered with small, bony plates?” (The armor and the small, bony plates protect it from being attacked by predators.) “Why is the snake the same brown color as the ground on which it spends most of its time?” (As snakes evolved, the brown ones didn’t get eaten as quickly.) As your children mature, they will understand more complex answers to these questions.
  • Children can learn about organization by seeing related animals. Have them compare the sizes, leg shapes, feet, ears, claws, feathers, or scales of various creatures. Ask them, “Does the lion look like a regular cat?” “How are they the same?” “Does the gorilla look like the baboon?”

Here are a few suggestions to help make your visit worthwhile:

Discuss expectations with your children ahead of time. What do they think they’ll find at the zoo? Very young or insecure children may go to the zoo with a more positive attitude if they are assured that it has food stands, water fountains, and bathrooms.

Don’t try to see everything in one visit. Zoos are such busy places that they can overwhelm youngsters, particularly preschoolers and those in primary grades.

Try to visit zoos at off times or hours (in winter, for example, or very early on a Saturday morning). This provides some peace and quiet and gives children unobstructed views of the animals.

Look for special exhibits and facilities for children, such as “family learning labs” or petting zoos. Here, children can touch and examine animals and engage in projects specially designed for them. For example, at the HERPlab (derived from the word herpetology) at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., visitors can learn about reptiles and amphibians by doing everything from assembling a turtle skeleton to locating the different parts of a snake.

Plan follow-up activities and projects. A child who particularly liked the flamingos and ducks may enjoy building a bird house for the back yard. One who liked the mud turtle may enjoy using a margarine tub as a base to a papier-mâonflex;ché turtle.

Museums are designed today to interest visitors of all ages. Science and technology museums, natural history museums, and children’s museums can be found in many middle-sized and smaller communities like Bettendorf, Iowa, and Worland, Wyoming, as well as in large metropolitan areas like Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York. Museums vary in quality. If possible, seek out those that provide opportunities for hands-on activities. Look for museums with:

  • Levers to pull;
  • Lights to switch on;
  • Buttons to push;
  • Animals to stroke; and
  • Experiments to do.

Natural history museums sometimes have hands-on rooms where children can stroke everything from lizards to Madagascan hissing cockroaches.

Many museums offer special science classes. Look for omnitheaters. These enable visitors to see movies on subjects ranging from space launches to rafting on the Amazon projected on a giant screen. The sounds and sights of the experience are extremely realistic.

If you are unfamiliar with museums in your area, consult a librarian, the Yellow Pages of your telephone book, a local guidebook, or the local newspapers, which often list special exhibits.

Many tips for visiting the zoo are also helpful when you visit museums or other community facilities. For example, don’t try to cover too much on one visit, and do try visiting at off hours when the crowds won’t seem overwhelming.

Planetariums have wonderful exhibits and activities for youngsters. There are about 1,000 planetariums in the United States, ranging from small ones that hold about 20 people to giant facilities with 300 or more seats. These facilities are particularly useful for children in urban areas, where metropolitan lights and pollution obstruct one’s view of the solar system. Inside planetariums, children often can:

  • Use telescopes to view the rings of Saturn;
  • See the “sky” with vivid clarity from inside the planetarium’s dome; and
  • Step on scales to learn what they would weigh on the moon or on Mars.

To find the nearest planetarium, call the astronomy or physics department at a local college, your local science museum, or the science curriculum specialist or science teachers in your school district.

Aquariums enable youngsters to see everything from starfish to electric eels. Children particularly enjoy feeding times. Call ahead to find out when the penguins, sharks, and other creatures get to eat. And check for special shows with sea lions and dolphins.

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