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By Nina Filipekfreelance education writer

Five fun ways to turn children into budding science boffins

Tree and butterfly

Make observations of the animals living around your school

1. Sorting sets

The ability to sort collections of different things into sets is important, not only in science but in everything we do – ask the children to imagine shopping in a supermarket where items are randomly displayed, for example. Define a set as a collection of things that are alike in some way (stones or seeds, or things of one colour or material). Ask the children to collect and show a set in which they are interested. Then, give them a collection of objects to sort into sets using different criteria: rough and smooth, rigid and flexible, heavy and light, magnetic and non-magnetic, those that float and those that sink. How many different ways can they find of dividing a collection? Photograph the sets and then create your own ‘odd one out’ puzzles using collections of objects. Remember that there is often more than one way of answering (there may be only one green object in a group, but there may be only one flexible one, too!).

2. Adopt a tree

Study a tree in the playground. Choose a time when something interesting is happening (such as its first flower) and invite the children to make observation notes and drawings, and identify the tree using reference books or the internet. Take measurements and map out the canopy using strings and pegs.

Look out for insects or plants living on the tree. Take one of the observations and consider how this might develop scientific understanding (make predictions and test theories: which buds will open first, next, and last?). Observe the changes that happen to your tree over time and make comparisons in different seasons. Ask: How can we measure change and growth? The children could record changes in the tree’s shadow, or measure the amount of sky you can see through the tree. Or, try to estimate the number of leaves on the tree in different seasons.

3. Making concrete

Get the children to collect as many different kinds of rocks and stones as they can. Ask: How many different kinds have we collected? What differences can you see? Encourage the children to look for colours, patterns, shapes, crystals and fossils. Some of the rocks will have been formed before there was life on Earth (igneous rocks such as granite). Can they arrange the rock collection in order of hardness? They could test with their fingernail, a coin and a steel file. Get them to look at local buildings and try to identify the types of rock used and look also for man-made materials (brick and concrete). Back in the classroom, make concrete in margarine or ice-cream tubs (three parts sand to one part cement, plus water to make a cake-mixture consistency). Experiment by varying the amounts of sand, cement and water. Allow to dry for a couple of days and then carry out hardness tests. Which group made the best concrete? Experiment with different moulds to make fun garden ornaments in a link with design and technology.

4. Weather watchers

Set up a weather station, making your own equipment and giving groups of children different tasks. Show the children how to read a thermochromic thermometer or make your own. Put it outside in the shade and record the results each morning. You could also make a rain gauge from a plastic container and ask the children to measure the quantity of water fallen in millimetres at the same time each day. A simple anemometer is easy to make using paper cups, strips of cardboard, a pencil and a drawing pin, (see – note: the spelling error in anemometer is on purpose). Record the number of times the anemometer turns round in one minute. Try different times of the day and different locations – can the children find the windiest place in the school grounds? A windsock is also easy to make ( to find out wind direction. A simplified wind rose chart is a good way to display your results.

Cut out the weather forecast from one newspaper and alongside it, record the weather you actually had. How accurate was the weather forecast over the week?

5. Science magic

Start your science topic with a little bit of ‘science magic’. Children never fail to be impressed with the upside-down glass of water demonstration. For this, you will need a washing-up bowl (just in case!), a glass of water (full to the brim) and a rectangle of thin card (big enough to cover the rim of the glass). Hold the glass in one hand and place the card on top, pressing down gently to make sure that there is no air between the water and the card. Turn the glass upside down, still holding the card in place. Then, slowly take your hand away. The card should stay in place! Ask for explanations as to how this is possible. (Air is all around us and the pressure of the air pushing up against the card is greater than the pressure of the water pressing down on it.) Can the children come up with any science magic of their own? For example, give them some bowls of water and plastic tubing. Ask: Can you make the water flow upwards? (Siphons!)