Teaching science to your child can sound kind of daunting. Don't be put off by memories of high school physics, though—science for little kids should be fun!
Science activities for toddlers and preschoolers are all about exploration and supporting the natural curiosity within each child. Children are born curious. All we have to do is provide the tools to explore the world around them, and encourage them to ask questions and follow their interests.
While science for little kids is all about fun, there is no reason to dumb it down. Feel free to use real scientific terminology wherever you can (kids are surprisingly receptive to it), and introduce the scientific method by asking kids for their hypothesis before you do an experiment together: What do they think will happen? Why?
Whether you're interested in STEM-based projects to do at home or just need ideas for helping kids explore their world, these activities can help your family incorporate science education into your everyday life.
Here are 9 easy science activities and experiments to do with preschoolers and toddlers.
1. Observe a life cycle
Butterflies are fascinating to children, and not only because they're beautiful. The process of transforming from a caterpillar to a butterfly can seem pretty magical.
Butterfly kits let your child watch the process of a life cycle up close. For toddlers, just observing the caterpillar, looking closely at the chrysalis and watching the beautiful butterflies that (eventually) emerge is enough. For preschoolers, you may want to prompt them to draw what they see at each stage, or to write a few words about the process.
Take this activity a step further by creating a butterfly garden in your backyard, or finding a local butterfly garden where you can release the butterflies.
2. Create a habitat
Is your child fascinated by roly polies, ladybugs or snails? Creating an insect habitat, whether in a bug box or just a corner of your backyard, is a great way to stoke that interest.
What do ladybugs eat? Where do they like to sleep? These kinds of questions can really inspire a child to think like a scientist and are super easy to answer, either though a trip to the library or a quick Google search.
3. Sink + float
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This is the simplest possible experiment, but that doesn't make it any less fun. Fill a container (or the bathtub) with water, gather some objects, and ask your child which objects they think will sink, and which they think will float.
Then let them experiment! A toddler will most likely just play in the water with the objects, and you can point out that some sink to the bottom and some float on top.
For a preschooler, you may want to encourage them to categorize which items sink and which float. They can make a list, or simply divide the objects into two piles. Then you can compare the categories and talk about why some things sink and others float.
You can do "sink and float" again and again with different themes. Try using objects you find in nature or using items from the kitchen.
4. Build a marble run
Using simple materials such as paper towel tubes, cardboard, yarn, tape and glue, challenge your preschooler to make a ramp for a marble to go down. (Toddlers can do a version of this experiment using a rubber ball in place of a marble.) Your child can experiment to see what slopes and what materials make the marble travel the fastest!
5. Watch the weather
Observing the weather is something even young toddlers enjoy. Talk to them about the vocabulary for different types of weather and invite them to help you check the weather before getting dressed each day. If they enjoy this, try setting up a weather station they can be in charge of, and let them play mini meteorologist.
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If your goal is to ignite your child's curiosity in science and the world around them, anything outer space-related is a pretty good bet.
Try reading a book about space (this one is great!) to inspire some real-world stargazing. You can invest in a telescope if they're really into it, or you can also enjoy a special stargazing time with your child using no equipment other than a blanket for the backyard—and maybe a cozy snack or some hot cocoa.
Look up into the night sky together and talk about what you see. You don't need to be a NASA scientist or know the names for all the constellations: The moon and the big dipper are plenty fascinating for a little kid.
With regular stargazing sessions, your child will start to notice things like the phases of the moon, the movement of the moon across the sky, and the way that stars form "pictures" in the sky. They might even see a shooting star! That is the kind of experience that will not only spark their interest in science, but that will stay with them as a special memory forever.
7. Study animals
Have you ever known a 3-year-old who can name every player on the Yankees, or can rattle off the names of more dinosaurs than you've ever heard of? Young children can absorb so many words—why not put that skill to good use?
This science activity comes straight from the Montessori classroom and encourages young children's desire to absorb precise and rich language.
Choose an animal they're interested in and help them learn the scientific names for the body parts. It's extra fun to choose an animal your child has real life experience with, like a dog or a squirrel. You can use the Montessori parts of an animal puzzle and labels, or simply use a drawing or photograph of the animal and label the parts for your child.
8. Experiment with ice
Fill two ice cube trays, one with water and one with salt water. Put them in the freezer (or outside, if it's cold enough where you live!) and observe to see which freezes faster.
Freeze some small toys (like these Toob animals) in ice and ask your child for ideas on how to get them out.
There are tons of easy experiments you can do with ice whether it's winter or summer—in winter, watch things freeze outside, and in summer you can watch them melt!
9. Make a rainbow
Few scientific activities are simpler than making a rainbow with a prism and sunny window, which really does bring the science of rainbows alive for children. Place the prism in a basket by a window, along with a book about rainbows (and maybe rainbow-colored crayons and paper) to inspire your child to explore independently.
10. Catalog a collection
Does your child collect little bits and bobs everywhere? Do they come home with pockets full of rocks or feathers?
Instead of lamenting the small piles of pebbles you find all over your house, show your child how to organize their collection in a scientific way. Help them come up with a system of sorting their treasures however they like (size? color? type?) and provide a certain spot in the house or backyard where the objects belong.
11. Plant a seed
For toddlers and preschoolers, something as simple as planting a seed is a perfect scientific activity. To increase their interest, choose a seed or pit from something you're eating, like an apple, avocado or peach. Choose something that grows in your area and invite your child to help you plant the seed. They will be fascinated watching it sprout and grow.
12. Read science books together
There are so many wonderful science books out there for kids. Books like Ada Twist, Scientist, What Do You Do With an idea? and The Most Magnificent Thing celebrate children's curiosity and introduce the scientific method.
Whatever kind of scientific activity you choose to do, just remember to let your child lead the way. It might not turn out how you expect, but the goal is really just to encourage your child to explore with curiosity.