the Experts: Science and Nature Toys
By Jodi M. Webb
May 1, 2003
want to encourage a child to explore science, you first have to
abandon a few traditional ideas you may have about scientific learning.
Ask most people what a science toy is, and you’ll get the
obvious answers: microscopes, magnifying glasses, and prisms.
But Michael Elsohn Ross, a naturalist at Yosemite National Park
and author of over a dozen children’s books about science
and nature, doesn’t want parents to overlook toys that don’t
necessarily scream “science.”
For Yourself: More Than 100 Experiments for Science Fairs
toy can end up being used for scientific exploration,” says
Ross, “whether it be Silly Putty, toy gliders, balloons, mini-cars,
or action figures.”
can learn to turn the toy box into a science lab with Vicki Cobb’s
book See For Yourself: More Than 100 Experiments for Science
Fairs and Projects. The chapter “Inspirations from
the Toy Store” makes use of metal slinkies, ping-pong balls,
toy slime, glow bracelets and more to give fun demonstrations of
the laws of science.
from re-thinking science toys, retailers are also reexamining the
audience for science toys. Although some people think of science
as a “boy thing,” Joseph Mistishen, owner of three Nature
and Discovery Stores in Pennsylvania, sees girls developing
an increasing interest in science toys. “Toys are fun, but
working on science—that’s really fun,” says Mitishen.
“You learn through doing.”
whose book Sandbox Scientists is a guide for scientists
from ages two to eight, points out that children are explorers from
infancy. Long before their day includes a regular science class,
children are questioning and experimenting with their environment.
Remember the countless times children drop unwanted strained peas
on the kitchen floor? A future Isaac Newton in the making, perhaps.
“Children learn more about the science process, rather than
a body of facts,” explains Ross. “Later, when they are
formally introduced to big ideas such as buoyancy or aerodynamics,
their early experiments give them real life experience to add validity
to the laws of nature.”
When shopping for quality science and nature toys, don’t allow
yourself to be fooled by impressive claims or packaging, Mistishen
says. “For example, a line of chemistry sets boasted ‘500
Experiments You Can Do,’” says author Vicki Cobb. “Unfortunately,
the booklet was so badly written that the kid couldn’t do
the first experiment, let alone the 499 to follow.”
Mistishen admits that sometimes products don’t live up to
their promises, but he often opens a sample to show curious customers.
Ross recommends comparison shopping—not just for price, but
also for durability since science toys are usually used repeatedly
and under less than ideal conditions. “A plastic 2-power magnifying
lens may cost a few dollars less than a 5- power Bausch and Lomb
lens,” says Ross, “but it is easily damaged and its
magnifying powers are barely noticeable.”
So, like a true scientist, be skeptical and follow your hunches
when strolling the science toys aisle.