Lee Falin

Homeschool Science for Mortals

Where to Start Part 1- Reading

Never ending library - courtesy of Pixabay.com and Bonnybbx

One of the most overwhelming questions for parents who want to homeschool their children is “Where do I start?” On one hand, we are extremely fortunate that we’re surrounded by a seemingly never-ending flood of homeschool methods and materials. On the other hand, all of those choices can be quite overwhelming.

If you feel paralyzed with indecision, don’t be afraid that something is wrong with you. Several studies have shown that the more options people are given, the harder time they have choosing one. Here’s a secret that finally helped us out of the “which method do I use” dilemma: You don’t have to choose a method.

You’ve probably already figured out that there isn’t a single method that works best for every family. But in our experience, there isn’t even a single method that works for every child in a given family. In fact, we’ve found that for most of our kids, there isn’t even a single method that always works for that child.

Because of this, I think it’s a mistake to get too hung up on choosing  a single educational philosophy or curriculum. One of the reasons we homeschool is so that we can provide our children with the best resources the world has to offer. There are so many amazing resources out there, why ignore some of them just because they don’t fit into a particular educational method?

Since this is a blog about teaching science, you might wonder why I’m talking about subjects that aren’t science. First, the most popular question I get from other homeschooler parents, people thinking about homeschooling, and people who are just curious about homeschooling is some variation of: “Which curriculum do you use?”

Second, even though the things I’m discussing in this “Where to Start” series aren’t necessarily what you’d think of as “science”, they all serve as part of the foundation for science. So today I’m focusing on one of the first formal learning activities parents of young children tend to think of, teaching a child to read.

Learning to read

Despite the increasingly popular push to get kids into school earlier and earlier, I think it’s counterproductive to force very young kids into a rigorous learning schedule. When our kids were very young, we spend a lot of time reading to them, playing with them, taking them on nature walks, exploring fun places together, learning about letters and numbers, and just being together.

I’m not a social-psychologist, but I think it’s important to establish bonds of trust and mutual learning early on. It makes things a lot easier down the road.

When should a child learn to read? Whenever they’re ready and interested. We’ve learned the hard way that trying to force a child to learn to read by a certain age just to satisfy some “developmental milestone” is a mistake. It’s a miserable experience for everyone involved.

I spoke with Nicholas Day about developmental milestones just after he wrote the book “Baby Meets Word“. Here’s what he says about developmental milestones:

Most developmental milestones are the legacy of an earlier era of motor development research—when psychologists thought that all this was much more predictable than it actually is. But although the milestones are outmoded, they still stand. They don’t even wobble much. Developmental psychologists have pretty much discarded the concept of developmental milestones, but developmental milestones remain the only thing that most people know about developmental psychology.

No parent would have much reason to suspect that milestones are suspect. They are still prominently featured in child development textbooks and pediatricians’ offices. They’re around mostly because they never went away. No one advocates for milestones; they aren’t endorsed by the relevant medical journals or committees. Nonetheless, they continue to be the most common tool pediatricians use to track developmental progress.

So how do you know when a child is interested in reading? For us, it was once they could distinguish different letters from each other, knew their names (courtesy of the ABC song), and showed a strong interest in learning to read. That last item is key, and trumps everything else.

If your child wants to learn to read, it will be a wonderful and empowering experience for them. If you try to force them before they’re ready or interested, it’s going to be a much different experience.

Once your child knows how to read, an entire world of learning is open to them. I really believe that teaching a child to read is the best gift a parent can give a child.

The book my wife has used to teach all of our children to read is this 100 Easy Lessons to Teach your Child to Read. It’s simple, combines reading, comprehension, and writing, and it has worked for us 5 times in a row (it must work for a lot of other folks too, because it’s currently the number one bestseller in early childhood education):


(Never ending library image courtesy of Bonnybbx)

The Power of Introverts

Do you have a child that prefers quiet reading to boisterous play? Have a kid that would rather build with their Legos by themselves, than engage in a group project with a bunch of other kids? That’s okay, because there is power in being an introvert.

I always hated group projects in school. Even today, if a university course I’m teaching calls for a group project, I provide the option for students to work alone if they want to, because really, it’s okay to want to work alone.

Susan Cain gave a fantastic TED talk about the power of introverts. She also has a book on the same topic, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.

If you’re struggling to know how to best love your favorite introvert, here’s a comic by Roman Jones on the subject (Also available in book-form on the Kindle):

How to Live with Introverts



Homeschool Resource: DIY.org

DIY Logo

One concern I hear when suggesting that parents tailor science education to their own kid’s interests is how to make sure they expose their kids to a breadth of topics. What if you’ve got a kid with a latent talent for music or art but is never exposed to these topics because all they care about is motorcycles? What if they love art so much that they never learn about photosynthesis?

One of our goals is to provide our children with resources they can use to both discover and develop their talents.  Even though our methods might differ, I don’t think this is much different from what other parents want for their own children.

There are a ton of resources out there to help you accomplish this goal, and one of my purposes in writing this blog is to share the resources we’ve found particularly worthwhile and effective in our own family. One that I want to highlight today is DIY.org.

What is it

If you’re not familiar with DIY.org, imagine combining merit badges, Pinterest, and social networking for kids.

Kids create anonymous accounts on the site, and then set about to complete projects in dozens of possible skill areas. They have a huge variety of skills including entomology, sailing, web design, weaving,  entrepreneurship, and many more.

DIY.org Skill List In order to earn a skill badge, kids must complete a set of challenges associated with each skill. Each challenge has example videos from experts and professionals in that field, which explain one way to complete the challenge. There are also sample projects created by other kids showing different takes on the same thing. I love this aspect of the site, as it shows kids that there are often many ways to accomplish the same goal.

Once your kid finds a challenge that interests them, they work on it themselves. Once they’ve finished it, they upload a photo or video of what they’ve done to the DIY website. The site moderators then evaluate the submission for suitability and either mark the challenge as completed or let the submitter know why it didn’t pass.

To make the process easier, DIY even provides mobile apps that kids can use to upload their projects directly from a smart phone or tablet.

Get Social

DIY SocialAside from the feedback a project receives from the adult moderators, other kids can comment on it. Kids can also follow one another’s project feeds so they can keep up with what their friends are doing. Our kids follow the feeds of friends they know “in real life” as well as kids whose work they admire.

The kids really enjoy the social aspect as well. Just to give you an idea of the scale, one of my daughters has 2,800 “followers” on the site who watch and comment on her projects. (I have 52 followers on Twitter, so maybe it’s time for me to hire her as my social networking consultant.)

Kids can even create their own challenges for other kids to respond to. For example, one of our daughters recently created an art contest on the site, complete with virtual prizes. Dozens of kids entered, and she had a lot of fun interacting with them in the comments.

Safety First

As soon as you put “children” and “social networking” into the same sentence, some parents become justifiably concerned. If all the accounts are anonymous, what’s to stop some creepy cyberstalker from pretending he’s a six-year-old?

First, adult site moderators review all project submissions. Second, signing up for an account requires a parent/guardian email address. The parent has to approve the sign up, and then receives an email every time their child submits a project to the site.

There’s also a parent’s dashboard that you can use to see all of your children’s projects in one place, along with any social interactions and comments. If either a parents or kid sees a comment or account that looks creepy or suspicious, they can flag it for review by a moderator.

I use the dashboard mainly to browse through some of the cool things my kids do. I don’t have the time to keep up with the comments. Instead we take the “teach them correct principles and let them govern themselves” approach. Before allowing them on the site, we sat down with them and discussed internet safety. We also review those ideas with them periodically and occasionally spot check comments in their feeds.


DIY.org is a fantastic resource for parents looking to expose their kids to a greater breadth of knowledge. The social networking aspect, coupled with the thoughtful moderation and safety features, make the site a fun and safe place for kids to discover and develop their talents, while also finding and interacting with like-minded peers.

Tales From the Trenches: Tablecloth of Terror

Dining Room Table - courtesy of Pixabay and MirellaST

Tales From the Trenches is a weekly series of stories about real life experiences teaching science to small children. Some articles may not be suitable for adults.

It was a rainy afternoon in England. Over the past few days, our family had discussed Newton’s Laws of Motion in preparation for a trip to Woolsthorpe Manor, where the famous apple tree still stands.

We’d already watched a pretty bizarre video on Newton’s life, which for some reason featured Newton with green hair (linked below), so I knew I was going to need something good to top that. I settled on the old “Teach them about the first law of motion using a tablecloth” trick.

If you’re not familiar with that one, Newton’s first law of motion (also called the law of inertia), says that an object at rest will stay at rest until an outside force acts upon it. Newton’s first law of motion is the secret behind the trick where someone pulls a tablecloth out from under some dishes without knocking them all on the floor.

So, with the practiced hand of a stage magician, I pulled out a silk tablecloth and set it on our living room table. Then I carefully arranged a plate, glass, and fork on the cloth, while I explained to the kids that I was going to pull the tablecloth off the table without disturbing the dishes.

When I had finished, I looked up, expecting to find them greatly impressed, perhaps even a little awestruck at my confident audacity. Instead their looks ranged from incredulous to outright nervousness.

My oldest daughter suggested in a tone of voice calculated not to hurt my feelings that I might want to test the trick out with plastic dishes first. Her lack of faith was understandable since, being the oldest, she had been witness to the greatest number of failed science demonstrations. Her younger siblings, still carefree and innocent, expressed more confidence in me. Though they might have just been hoping to see me break the dishes.

Gripping the tablecloth tightly, I pretended to be nervous, but determined to go through with it. I took a few practice tugs. Someone else mentioned the wisdom of trying with plastic dishes first (possibly my wife).

I shook my head resolutely and warned them all that they should stand back, just in case. The kids cowered against their mother. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and pulled as hard as I could.

The tablecloth slid out from under the place setting effortlessly, everything went perfectly…except the fork. It was a bit too light maybe, or perhaps one of its tines got caught in the cloth. Whatever the cause, it flipped up into the air, and landed neatly on the plate, with a clatter as if I had planned it that way.

The nervous fear in my audience turned into amazed incredulity. They wanted to know how I did it, and especially how I got the fork to land on the plate. So I took that opportunity to explain the science behind the trick.

The Science

When Newton described the first law of motion, he put it this way:

Every body persists in its state of being at rest, or of uniform motion in a right line, unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed upon it.

That was a bit long-winded for your average high school science textbook, so over the years textbook authors have shortened it to:

An object at rest remains at rest, and an object in motion remains in motion until acted upon by an outside force.

Even that can sometimes be hard to fit into a text message, so most people just refer to it as:

The law of inertia.

The force of gravity is pulling down on the dishes, while the table pushes them back up. These opposing forces keep the dishes in a state of equilibrium. Newton’s first law of motion says that when things are at equilibrium, they don’t really want to change anything. Sort of like how you would really prefer to stay in bed, but eventually a toddler pulls on your arm enough times that you have to get up and make breakfast.

Since the tablecloth has such a small amount of friction, and since it slides out so quickly, the force that the cloth applies to the dishes isn’t enough to move them much. Part of the reason it’s better to use heavy plates instead of plastic ones, is that heavier objects have more momentum. This means they are more resistant to changes in their motion.

A few details if you want to try this at home

First, make sure you use a very smooth tablecloth. Silk is the best, but linen is a close second if you don’t have any silk handy. The important thing is that the cloth should have as little friction as possible. Friction is the arch-enemy of inertia.

Next, make sure you aren’t using the fine china for this sort of thing. Also, when you pull the tablecloth, you have to pull it in a straight line away from the table. Whatever you do, don’t pull up on the cloth.

If all else fails, you can always watch the Isaac Newton with green hair video:

Dining Room Table picture courtesy of MirellaST.

How to Tailor Science to Your Child’s Interests

Child Coloring - Courtesy of Pixabay.com and Jarmoluk

There’s no easier way to turn a kid off of science (or any other subject) than by trying to force them to learn something they have no interest in.

Leo Babauta (of Zen Habits fame) talks about this in one of his posts on unschooling:

If you have a job you hate, or a business that you don’t really believe in, it’s not only worse for your happiness, it’s worse for the world. You’re just doing it for money (or attention) and not because you care, not because you love it, not because it will make a difference.

Now shift this to education: why do kids go to school? Because they have to. Because it’s compulsory, because it’s expected, because everyone else does it, because they need to get the degree, because they need to get a job.

But if this is how you approach learning, that’s also how you’ll approach your job or business. You’ll do it because you have to, because you need the money, because everyone else does it.

Unschooling, and the smarter entrepreneurs, take another approach.

Unschoolers (ideally) learn because it’s something they’re interested in. Because it’s fun, or fascinating, or they care.

They do projects not because they’re forced to, but because they want to.

Helping your children want to learn science

So how do you help your kids want to learn science? You do it by teaching them the science behind what they’re already interested in.

For example, two of my daughters love to draw,  so I used that as an opportunity to talk about the science behind light, color, and perception. Because of their interests in art, we’ve watched educational videos from NASA on the electromagnetic spectrum, done chromatography experiments at the dinner table,  and talked a lot about Isaac Newton. (If you are fortunate enough to visit the UK, you can stop by Newton’s house and see some of the equipment he used in his studies on light.)

Now, lest you think that it’s all rainbows and butterflies around here, there have been tons of times I’ve tried to introduce a science topic only to be met with an unmistakable “not again…” look from one of the kids. Sometimes, they’re just not ready to learn, and that’s okay.  When that happens, you can either try to force them to sit and listen (which I’ve found never works out very well), or just carry on and see what happens.

Whenever I’ve been smart enough to take the second approach, I’ve found that those who are interested in the topic, (or just curious why I’m coloring on a napkin), will naturally gravitate in to see what’s going on.

Do you have experiences or advice for tailoring science to a child’s interests? If so, please share them in the comments.

(Image of Child Coloring courtesy of Jarmoluk)

« Older posts

© 2015 Lee Falin

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑