Helping Your Child Learn Science
With activities for children in preschool through age 5
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Science in the Community — Activities

Our communities offer many opportunities and resources to help children learn science, including

    Science at Work
    Community Groups & Organizations  
    Other Community Resources  

To find out more about resources in your community: Check your local newspaper, a local guidebook or your telephone directory. Or, go online and search the Internet. (The Resources section has more information about science-related Web sites for children.) Other good sources of information and ideas might be your child's teacher, the school librarian or the children's librarian at your local public library. Before you pay a visit to a museum, planetarium, or the like, be sure to check the hours it's open and what cost—if any—is involved. Note that some places may charge entrance fees at certain times and grant free admission at other times.


Zoos are great places for you to encourage your child's interest in the natural world and to introduce him to exotic animals that he might not otherwise ever see. Here are a few suggestions to help make your visit to a zoo worthwhile:

Discuss expectations with your child. What does he think he'll find at the zoo? A very young or insecure child may go to the zoo with a more positive attitude if you assure him that it has food stands, water fountains and bathrooms.

Don't try to see everything in one visit. Zoos are such busy places that they can overwhelm children, particularly preschoolers and kindergarteners.

Try to visit zoos at off hours or times of the year (very early on a Saturday morning, for example, or in winter). Choosing less crowded times to visit will allow your child unobstructed views of the animals, as well as a more leisurely tour of the exhibits.

Look for special programs that are set up just for children, such as petting zoos, exploring local habitats and getting involved with conservation projects. Such programs provide children with hands-on opportunities that are otherwise prohibited by most zoos and allow families to learn about wildlife by getting involved in conservation efforts and exploring local habitats together.

As you tour the zoo, keep your child interested and focused. Try the following activities:

  • Play a guessing game. Guessing games can help your child understand form and function. You might, for example, ask questions such as the following:

    • Why do you think seals have flippers? (Seals use flippers to swim through the water.)
    • Why do you think these gibbons have such long, strong arms? (Their arms help them swing through the trees.)
    • Why does that armadillo have a head that looks like it's covered with armor? Why is its body covered with those bony plates? (The armor and the bony plates protect it from other animals that want to eat or kill it.)
    • Why is that snake the same brown color as the ground? (As snakes evolved, the brown ones didn't get eaten as quickly.)

  • Match the animals. Children can learn about organization by seeing related animals. Have them compare the sizes, leg shapes, feet, ears, claws, feathers or scales of various creatures. Ask them, "Does the lion look like a regular cat?" "How are they the same?" "Does the gorilla look like the baboon?" (Caution: Take time to read any signs that provide descriptions and classifications of animals and use this information in your discussions. Dolphins, for example, are not fish; they're mammals. Asking children to compare a dolphin to a shark might reinforce children's wrong ideas.)

    As your child gets older, he will understand more complex answers to these questions.

After the visit, have your child do follow-up activities and projects. A child who particularly liked the flamingos and ducks may enjoy building a birdhouse for the back yard. One who liked the mud turtle may enjoy using a margarine tub as a base for making a papier-mâché turtle.

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In museums, both you and your child can have fun and learn science together. Science and technology museums, natural history museums and children's museums can be found in many middle-sized and smaller communities, as well as in large cities.

Museums vary in quality. If possible, try to find museums that have special areas, exhibits and "hands-on" programs just for children. In these programs, children are often able to use scientific equipment that is far too expensive or specialized for their schools to own. Look for museums that have:

  • Levers to pull;
  • Lights to switch on;
  • Buttons to push;
  • Animals to stroke; and
  • Experiments to do.

Many museums offer special science classes. Look for IMAX theaters. These enable visitors to see giant-screen movies on subjects ranging from space launches to exploring the Antarctic.

Many of the tips for visiting the zoo are also helpful when you visit museums. For example, don't try to cover too much on one visit, and do try visiting at off hours when the crowds won't seem overwhelming.

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Planetariums have wonderful exhibits and activities for youngsters. There are over 1,000 planetariums in the United States, ranging from small ones that hold about 20 people to giant facilities with hundreds of seats. These facilities are particularly useful for children who live in urban areas, where city lights and air pollution obstruct the view of the sky.

Inside a planetarium, your child may be able to:

  • Use a telescope to view the rings of Saturn;
  • See details of the "sky" from inside the planetarium's dome; and
  • Step on scales to learn what she would weigh on the moon or on Mars.
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Aquariums enable youngsters to see all kinds of marine life, from starfish to sharks to electric eels, and to learn about their special habitats.

Your child may particularly enjoy feeding times. Before visiting an aquarium, call ahead to find out when the penguins, sharks and other creatures get to eat. Also check for special shows that feature sea lions and dolphins.

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A visit to a farm can be a wonderful trip for you and your child. If you don't know a farmer, ask for a referral from your county extension office, farm bureau or local agriculture office.

If you visit a dairy farm, encourage your child to ask questions about the cows and their care. What do they eat? Do they sleep? Where is their food kept? What happens to the milk when it leaves the farm? How does it get to the grocery store? Many dairy farmers will let your child try her hand at milking a cow; others will explain how the equipment is used and the way milk makes its way from the farm to the grocery shelf.

If you visit a farm that grows crops, encourage your child to look at the crops and ask questions about what she sees. What crops are grown? How are they planted? How are they harvested? What are they used for? How do they get to the grocery store? If your child grew up in a city, she may have no idea what corn, soybeans, potatoes or pumpkins look like as they grow in a field. Caution: Don't let your child eat vegetables of fruit unless they have been carefully washed—and the farmer has given permission!

On any kind of farm, farmers use special machines such as tractors, harvesters, balers and so forth. Encourage your child to ask about any machines that she sees, including what they're used for and how they work.

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Science at Work

Your child may recognize that many people use science to do their jobs—chemists, doctors, science teachers, computer technicians and engineers, for example. However, she may not realize that many other jobs also require science skills.

To show your child how important science is for many jobs, try to arrange for her to spend part of a day—or even an hour—with a park ranger, pharmacist, veterinarian, electrician, plumber, dry cleaner, cook, mechanic, architect, mason or anyone else whose job involves some kind of science.

Before any visit, encourage your child to read about the job so she'll be able to ask good questions. For example, she might ask a dry cleaner questions such as the following:

  • What chemicals do you use to clean clothes?
  • How are stains removed?
  • What happens to the chemicals after you use them?
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Community Science Groups and Organizations

Many communities have groups and organizations that include science programs as part of their services for children. Some may sponsor local summer science camps—focusing on areas that range from computers and technology to natural science to space. Check out, for example:

  • the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, or similar groups;
  • YMCAs and YWCAs;
  • 4-H groups;
  • Audubon; or
  • local colleges and universities.
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Other Community Resources

Botanical gardens, weather stations, hospital laboratories, sewage treatment plants, newspaper plants, recycling centers, and radio and television stations are only a few of the kinds of places in your community where your child can learn more about all kinds of science. Try the following:

Arrange a tour of a recycling center or landfill to show your child what happens to the community's trash. Before the visit, ask him to think about questions such as the following:

  • Where does the trash go when it leaves our home?
  • What happens to it?
  • How much trash does our community produce each year?
  • What kinds of materials are recycled?
  • What kinds of things can't be recycled?

As you tour the facility, have your child ask the questions; then compare his earlier thoughts to what he has learned.

Contact your local water department or sewage treatment center to arrange a tour of its facilities. Before the visit, ask your child to think about where the water comes from that he drinks and where it goes when it has been used. Is anything added to the water to make it safe to drink? Does all the water used in the community come from the same place? Does all the sewage in the community go to the same place? What happens to the sewage? Again, have him compare his earlier answers to what he learns on the tour.

Finally don't overlook your local public library as a rich resource for books and magazines on science; videos and DVDs; free Internet access; special programs—such as book talks—that relate to science; and much more.

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Last Modified: 04/29/2009