Curricula like the Apologia science materials are really popular for homeschooling families, from their very early Astronomy book by Jeannie Fulbright to their Advanced high-school level courses, but there are some really fascinating science opportunities that you can do on your own, and are arguably some of the best opportunities for learning science in a living, concrete way.
Everything I cover here in this article is something we’ve done in my 16 years of homeschooling with four children. The best thing about these ideas is the relationships they develop with each other, with the world, and with issues that go well beyond the remit of scientific study.
Let’s take a recent example. I breed a rare dog called Toy Manchester Terriers (aka English Toy Terriers in every other country but the US).
My son who was 9 at the time went along to one of the visits where stud dog and breeding mama were left in the yard to do their “business”. He said to me, “Good thing people don’t have babies this way,” prompting me to ask what he meant.
“Well,” he said, “people have babies just by kissing,” leading me to clarify that, no, in fact, humans make babies more or less the same way as the dogs were doing.
He looked at me with a shocked face, “You mean, you and Dad …??!!!!!” I said, “Yes,” and he said, “What??? How many times???”
“Clearly, at least four,” I said.
There was a moment of processing. The look of horror passed by, he shrugged, then went off to do something else.
Chalk one up for our first low-key “birds and bees” conversation!
Breeding animals holds a whole host of life lessons beyond sexual reproduction: we have bred many types of fish in the past to see how animals deliver and care for their young. Did you know, for example, that a beautiful little guppy known as “endlers live bearers” just pop out tiny little fry while swimming around, that a convinct cichlid moves its babies around in its mouth, and that gouramis create a sort of nest on the surface of the water made of bubbles?
Apart from life cycle studies, we’ve also learned about compatibility of species, about the correct biome to provide, and we even did a long-term genetic study with the bristlenose algae eaters. We had a common brown one and an albino, and over the years, we bred them till all the babies were albino, and then another couple of years in breeding them all back to common brown again.
Keeping fish is an excellent hobby for biology as well as chemistry, because you have to spend many weeks in getting the aquarium water populated by helpful bacteria so any fish waste is processed rather than turning the water toxic. In addition, you need to keep testing the water each week and making sure it stays balanced by sensible water changes and also factoring in the feeding regime, the temperature, the population of fish in it, and all kinds of variable that have naturally bad consequences if you neglect the husbandry of your lab experiment!
Of course, you don’t need to have pets to observe life cycles and natural consequences: do you have a pond or a submerged dish tub in your yard for frogs? Are there nearby trees where birds are nesting? Have you tried one of those caterpillar-to-butterfly kits, an ant farm, stick insects, or ladybugs?
What I love about all these options is that your commitment to them is longer than an hour’s worth of cutting something up and poking around its insides.
Finally, there’s the whole concept of death. It’s a very sad topic, but with animals, it happens quite frequently. We have had some very heart-wrenching times with all our animals, and we’ve learned that, even with the best of care, we can’t save everything and keep them alive forever.
This is the true meaning of life cycle: all that birth and growth will inevitably come to an end. The children have learned about the toughest decisions, but they’ve also rejoiced in the gentle closings of some of their most-beloved pets like our 23-year-old cockatiel, Virgil.
Considering the long-lasting impact of all these experiences, it may be the best lesson to learn of all: science isn’t about experiments, but about the way the world works all around us. Bringing the subject into the concrete is, in my opinion, one of the top advantages that homeschoolers have over their traditionally-schooled counterparts, so I urge you to get out into nature and notice the birds and insects; block off a square yard in your yard and observe it year in and year out, season after season; get a pet even if it’s pill bugs or worms.
Bring some wonder back into a subject that belongs in the world more than it does in a book.
Kat has degrees in English from both the US and the UK, and taught in UK secondary schools. Fun fact: secondary school teachers have to teach classes of ALL the grades each year, so instead of having 4 or 5 sets of 6th graders, they have one set in each of the 7 years. More evidence of British inefficiency!!! Kat now uses this vast experience and expertise to teach online courses in English for high school homeschoolers all over the world. You can read more of her work on her family blog at boyschooling.blogspot.com.