It can often be a challenge for parents who want to help their children with homework — not only because the kids may not want their help, but also because they may not be able to understand what the assignment actually is. This is common in math, where some parents have no clue about new ways of computing that are being taught.

It’s even worse, it turns out, in science. A study asked parents about their children and science — and this post explains what was discovered. The study, “What Parents Talk About When They Talk About Learning: A National Survey About Young Children and Science,” was conducted by EDC and SRI International and commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education’s Ready To Learn initiative, led by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and PBS.

This was written by Shelley Pasnik, vice president of Education Development Center, a global education and health nonprofit.

By Shelley Pasnik

Nine out of 10 parents say they do learning activities every day with their young children, but only about half of parents say these activities include science. Many parents say they don’t have the confidence or the tools to help their young children learn science. That’s what we found after speaking with hundreds of parents across the country.

This is a missed opportunity. Early science experiences are key to children developing the important thinking and reasoning skills they will later use to become creative problem solvers. Previous research has demonstrated that parents are crucial when it comes to early learning experiences, but little is known about how parents of young children approach learning science.

That is, until now. Our findings are included in a study conducted by Education Development Center and SRI International, “What Parents Talk About When They Talk About Learning: A National Survey of Young Children and Science.” In this study, my colleagues and I sought to find out what parents think about themselves, their young children and science, and we wanted to hear from parents in their own words.

We conducted a telephone (cellphone and landline) survey of a nationally representative sample of more than 1,400 parents and had long in-person interviews and home visits with several dozen families, asking them about their attitudes, beliefs and practices related to early science learning. About two-thirds of the parents interviewed live in households where the income is less than $50,000. Everyone had to have at least one 3- to 6-year-old in their care.

Here’s some of what we found:

  • Nearly all parents, regardless of income or education level, think it is important to help their young children learn, especially social skills, literacy and mathematics. What’s more, parents are active participants, with 94 percent engaging in learning activities such as reading stories or doing puzzles with their children on a daily basis.
  • Most parents (7 out of 10) say they are confident about their ability to teach their young children literacy, math and social skills. Fewer parents (5 out of 10) are confident about science. Only about half of parents engage in science activities, like exploring science outdoors or through everyday activities like cooking.
  • To do more science, parents want ideas and resources to build their knowledge and confidence. Seven of 10 parents say that knowing what young children need to learn and having ideas for using everyday materials would help them do a lot more science.
  • Many families say they use science media weekly or more — particularly videos or TV shows about science, yet parents may be missing opportunities to deepen the impacts of these experiences because while they say they are likely to monitor their kids’ media use, parents say they are less likely to help children connect the learning to their daily lives.

All children, even as young as preschoolers, have the ability to engage in the building blocks of scientific inquiry: asking questions, generating explanations, revising predictions based on observations. And all parents, regardless of income and level of education, have the capacity to support their young children’s science learning.

And they need not become scientists to do so. Everyday explorations, whether at a public park, in a backyard or at a kitchen sink, are important pathways to young children’s scientific thinking and creative problem solving. Science exploration is an occasion for slowing down, for asking questions, for letting wonder take over. Family science can be as simple as playing in the dirt, a child and grown-up exploring what they see, touch and smell together.

Family science also doesn’t require parents to have all of the answers. The point is to explore together. A mom, for instance, can help her son notice how dirt and mud are different from one another, calling attention to the movement of twigs, weeds and leaves and why some get stuck more easily than others. A dad can express his own curiosity about why birds and cats leave different tracks or take note of his daughter’s delight when a light wind churns up dust.

The preschool years are the best time to take advantage of children’s natural curiosity and learning about the world. When parents feel confident about their abilities to support their children’s learning, they are more likely to dig in themselves.