The whys and hows of attracting young children to science in South Africa

This is an article I wrote for the New Age on behalf of Pint of Science South Africa:


“Why?” It’s the question that drives parents insane. “Why do leaves turn yellow?” “Because the weather is changing.” “Why?” “Because our part of the earth is moving further away from the sun.” “Why?” And it goes on. This inquisitive nature may drive parents to distraction, but the constant search for answers and the never-ending streams of “why” are the very things that should be nurtured in young children in order for the next generation of inventors and scientists to blossom. And indeed we need them to blossom, since they will go on to develop and build South Africa’s future. A future that will require science, be it for desalination, researching cures, or solving problems we haven’t yet dreamed of.

So why are the whys important? Would Isaac Newton have discovered gravity if he hadn’t questioned why an apple should fall? Would Christiaan Barnard have been able to perform the world’s first human heart transplant if he hadn’t been curious about how the human body worked?

From babies trying to put everything into their mouths to see what they taste or feel like, to the older child questioning how things work, humans are naturally curious. Curiosity is what drove humans to want to explore the skies, and today South Africa is a leader in astronomy. Curiosity is what we need to encourage in children too in order to attract them to science. And the best way to encourage this is through play.

Play is the highest form of research, as Albert Einstein once said. Play is one of the ways in which children learn about and interact with the world around them, testing its laws and its limits.

Three main groups of people are important to encouraging that helpful kind of play which cultivates a child’s inquisitiveness. Firstly, the parents or caregivers, whose attitude is crucial to fostering curiosity and interest in science. Secondly, teachers. A good teacher can be the difference between a child loving or hating science – regardless of the child’s natural propensity for it. And lastly, organisations such as aquariums, national parks, and science centres play a significant role in exposing children to new creatures and concepts, thus broadening their horizons.

Parents can turn small things around the house into wonderful lessons. As the kettle boils, why is there steam? You mean that’s actually water? What are the little droplets that form against the cold tiles of the wall? Young children are easily awed at new revelations, and it’s at this questioning stage of their lives that you need to foster this characteristic – and enjoy it as a parent too. Yes, it can be frustrating to deal with an endless stream of questions. But by turning it into a game and entering into the joy of understanding alongside your child, you are taking an important step in nurturing a love of science.

Teachers are uniquely placed to introduce children to new things that they may not encounter at home. Lessons about science can be boring – just a list of facts – or they can be exciting and engaging. To learn what a plant needs for it to grow, you could simply explain it to the class with a diagram on the board. Or you could grow plants in the classroom. Children then have the chance to watch how plants grow under various conditions, and the teacher can explain with tangible examples. To attract children to science, teachers need to rethink lessons in ways that allow children to actively engage, making it more fun both for child and teacher. And after all having fun is the best way to learn!

Science and conservation organisations are an important flagship for science in the public eye, and are a wonderful way to expose children to science. A visit to a science centre, filled with games and experiments for children, along with helpful adults to explain and demonstrate things, makes a fun and educational outing. From warped mirrors to chemistry experiments, science centres are filled with interactive and interesting things that get children excited about science. Aquariums and national parks, while at the same time carrying out important research and conservation work, provide an amazing opportunity for children to learn more about animals and the environment. Whether it’s an encounter with a lion that is more than double the size of them, or a tiny Knysna sea horse, there is much to capture the young child’s heart.

For science is not just the chemistry kits that may come to mind at first – it also encompasses looking after our world, including the incredible creatures that we share it with. And South Africa is certainly blessed with diverse flora and fauna, which we need to preserve. From Fynbos, unique to the Cape, to the Coelocanth, which forms an important part of the fossil record and amazingly is still around today, there is much to be proud of in this country.  It is important that we share these wonders with our children.

So whether your child will be the next Einstein, or a small business owner who takes pains to preserve the environment because of an understanding of the natural world, I urge you to encourage your child to be inquisitive. Indulge those endless streams of “why”. For if there’s one thing that scientists and children have in common, it’s that they’re always asking why.


Pint of Science is a global charity event run every year, where scientists take to the pubs to talk to people about science in a relaxed setting, over a pint of beer. We are passionate about sharing science with people – and appreciate the importance of fostering a love of science from an early age. This year’s Pint of Science ZA will take place from May 14th – 16th in Cape Town.



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