Supporting Parents to Support Science

Sep 11 2018

Authors: Breniel Lemley, Claire Christensen, and Cindy Hoisington

A survey of 1,400 parents and caregivers shows a need for families to support STEM learning at home, in schools, and in informal learning spaces. 

STEM education has become a national priority for students of all ages. Not only are jobs and careers becoming increasingly technology-oriented, but science literacy has also become a civic matter. Today’s students will need to wrestle with complex personal and family decisions (What issues are associated with genetically modified foods?) as well as national ones (Why and how should carbon emissions be regulated?). 

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Reports like The Roots of STEM Success emphasize the importance of the early years (ages 0–8) in developing the critical-thinking, problem-solving, and communication skills children will need as adults. They also emphasize the crucial role of both families and educators in supporting children’s early science experiences and interests at school, at home, and in the community; their motivation to learn science; and their science achievement later in school.

Our Work: A National Survey About Young Children and Science

 A recent study, What Parents Talk About When They Talk About Learning: A National Survey About Young Children and Science, offers some insights into how teachers and families can share responsibility for children’s science learning at home and in the community. The study was conducted by the EDC/SRI research team working on the CPB/PBS Ready to Learn Initiative, funded through the U.S. Department of Education. The researchers spoke with more than 1,400 parents and caregivers from diverse economic and education backgrounds with at least one 3- to 6-year-old child at home.

The key findings were:

  • Almost all parents wanted to be involved in their children’s learning, but many felt that science is less important to support at home than literacy and social skills.
  • Most parents were confident about their ability to teach their children literacy, math, and social skills, but fewer were confident about teaching science.
  • Asked about learning activities they do daily with their children, parents were most likely to report that they read with their children, involve them in chores, and work on math concepts. Far fewer parents reported doing science learning activities daily.
  • Seven of 10 parents said that knowing what young children need to learn about science and having ideas for engaging in science with everyday materials would help them do a lot more science.
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Tips for Educators: Communicating the Importance of Science                                                              

From these findings, we offer three important messages that educators can convey to families about science. 

1. Emphasize that science matters. 

The best way to deliver this message is to prioritize science in your curriculum and choose topics that children can explore both at home and at school.

  • Talk with families about the topics children are exploring at school (balls and ramps, for example), what they are doing (rolling balls on different surfaces and inclines), and why it’s important (builds a foundation for understanding abstract concepts like gravity, friction, and momentum).
  • Share ideas with families about how to support this learning at home (Notice, investigate, and talk with your children about slides and other ramps in the neighborhood).
  • Emphasize science as an active, collaborative, and creative process—wondering, exploring, figuring things out, and sharing ideas—that promotes children’s critical thinking.
  • Describe how doing science with children supports their language, literacy, and social skills development. For example, when parents investigate butterflies and other insects with their children, they can talk with them about how different insects look and behave, read books about insects together, and help their children draw and write about their observations. That’s all part of the scientific process! 
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2. Remind parents they don’t need to be science experts to support their children’s science learning.

Children ask lots of challenging questions (Why do leaves turn color? Why is the sky blue?). Parents (and teachers!) worry about not knowing the answers. Remind parents that questions like “Why does it rain?” are opportunities for conversation and exploration. Parents can respond by probing for their children’s ideas (What do you think?) and then doing some research together in a book or online about rain and other types of weather. Reassure parents that the most important thing is to join in their children’s explorations. Parents can help children make connections between different experiences (How have the plants in Grandma’s garden changed compared to last week? Does the sky today remind you of how it looked right before we had that big storm?). Remind parents that they are in the best position to support their children’s individual science interests in observing birds, collecting rocks, mixing paints, or digging for earthworms.

3. Highlight that science can be done anywhere, anytime.

Give parents ideas about using items they already have in and around their home to nurture their children’s exploration. They can explore size, shape, and weight with empty boxes, cardboard tubes, and plastic containers. They can discover how objects move using some balls, toy cars, and ramps made with shoeboxes and tape. They can investigate solids and liquids using water, flour, corn starch, baking soda, and other kitchen materials.Also communicate that parents can nurture their children’s natural curiosity about the world wherever they are by following their children’s lead. They can investigate and talk about the sights, sounds, smells, and textures of produce at the market; the shapes and sizes of buildings in the neighborhood; or the colors and shapes of the leaves on the trees at the park.

Recommended Resources

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In the 21st century, supporting what’s good for science and families is in the best interest of us all. Below are a few resources families and educators can draw from:

About the Authors

Breniel Lemley is an education research associate at SRI International studying the relationship between technology and learning.

Claire Christensen is an education researcher who studies media and learning at SRI International.

Cindy Hoisington is an early childhood and elementary science educator at Education Development Center in Waltham, MA.

This update is part of a four-part series on family engagement in STEM learning. Join the conversation by sharing this blog with your networks using #FamilySTEM.

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 Related STEM Series Resource

To learn more about how to support families' STEM learning, check out this video highlighting GFRP's research on family engagement in STEM.

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