When the science fair pamphlet came home in my oldest son’s (let’s call him Offspring) backpack, I felt a tingle of excitement run through my body. I love science. It was one of my favorite subjects in school, and I often wonder if I should have been a science teacher. I also love to begin projects, and a science fair project sounded like a lot of fun. So after barely glancing at the requirements to make sure he was old enough to participate, I enthusiastically asked Offspring if he wanted to participate in the science fair. The response was his so-very-typical unenthusiastic “Sure.”
Glancing at the pamphlet again, the requirements stated that the child must take primary responsibility for the research with parents guiding them but not “doing it for the child”. And it dawned on me—my kiddo is a kindergartner. 5 years old. Suddenly, a crushing sense of panic set in. How does a 5 year old do research? And even if he can look up information, how in the world will Offspring come up with a finished product that’s sufficient to be shown at a K-4 science fair?
For about as long as it takes to say “helicopter parent”, I soothed my anxiety by considering the product-centered approach that is typical of parents of public school kids, with the goal of making sure Offspring had an awesome project to share at the fair. Then my brain kicked in and I realized–I did not want to focus on the outcome, the product, and the way his project will look to everyone else. It is a common outcome of public schooling to develop children who over focus on performance and on what everyone else thinks. As a natural minded mother who feels that I am an educational partner with the school, these are not the lessons I wanted my child to learn!
I decided that Offspring, however young and inexperienced, could learn some valuable lessons from the process of doing a project for a science fair. Instead of worrying and thinking about what the final product will look like, I needed to be a guide and helper, and encourage my son to focus on the process. As an example, Offspring’s science fair topic came from his own curiosity; my only involvement was to take advantage of a teachable moment. One day Offspring came home asking about tornados. I showed him some online videos about tornados and answered his questions. One thing led to another, and eventually he was asking about how tornados and hurricanes were different. Because he just kept asking questions, it hit me—maybe this was a good science fair project! So I asked him if he’d like to find out more answers about tornados and hurricanes, and then share that for his science fair display. This time, Offspring responded with an enthusiastic “SURE!”
So now Offspring is preparing for the science fair. He has already learned how to search for and find books at our local library, and we are reading those books with him. He is using sticky notes to mark information he thinks should be included in the display. Once we’ve read all the books, we’ll figure out how he wants to display the information, and if he wants to make a model to go with it. The key difference I see between this process method and the product-centered approach is that I ask a lot of questions instead of telling a lot of knowledge. This sort of thing is common practice for homeschooling parents, but for those of you with children in public schools, it can take some practice to purposefully withhold information and let the child figure things out. It’s easier and less time-consuming to just give children the answers, but they learn far more from finding the answers on their own, with structured guidance. One of the many benefits to this approach is that my son is making the choices, so he’s going to “own” his project—it will be his effort, his decisions, and his learning experience.
The science fair is in at the end of this week, and I submitted the registration paper last week with faith that Offspring will have a final product to show on Friday. But in my heart, I know that the real value of my son’s project will be the knowledge he gains from the process. The nature of learning is what is gained by doing and by creating, not by having a polished final product.
Article by Kathie Smith
Kathie Smith is a professional doula, childbirth educator-in-training, and has a master's degree in educational psychology. She is the only female in her household so far, with a husband and two boys who keep life interesting. Kathie enjoys reading and writing about parenting, education, birth, and early childhood. She is also an avid scrapbooker and crochet fanatic.
Kathie has written 3 awesome articles for Natural Family Today.
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