Science Culture

Tuck In Your Kids with Science Bedtime Stories

When I’m putting my 3.5-year-old to bed every night, we have some down time where we just hang out on her bed together. One night I looked at her and asked, “Want me to tell you a science story?” She said, “Yes!”

May 1, 2015

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As a science communicator and a mom, I’m always looking for ways my young children can encounter science in their everyday lives. Instead of thinking of science as something they have to seek out or have special skills to do, I’d like them to see it as something that happens in all aspects of life. Recently my older daughter and I found an especially fun way to link science to the everyday, and it all happened while she was in her monkey ballerina pajamas.

When I’m putting my 3.5-year-old to bed every night, we have some down time where we just hang out on her bed together. One night I looked at her and asked, “Want me to tell you a science story?” She said, “Yes!”

For our first science story I decided to give her a basic, personal introduction to cells. I told her,

Inside of you right now there are billions and billions of cells, all working together to make up you. And each cell is so teeny-tiny that you can’t even see it. The cells grow and divide and make more and more cells all the time. There are cells in your skin and your bones and your heart. [“And my muscles?” she chimed in. “Yes, your muscles too,” I said. “They’re in every part of you.”]

And cells have a lot going on inside of them as well. They have a nucleus [I said this as nu-cle-us so she could repeat it, which she did], which is kind of like your brain. It keeps all the information for the cell to grow and build more cells. And there’s also a mitochondria. [Mi-to-chon-dri-a, I said, and yes, she repeated that as well]. That’s where the cell makes all of its energy.

And you? You started out as just one cell! And that cell split up and made more and more cells, until it made you into a whole person!

For a young child a story of this sort isn’t meant to cover all the details, of course; it focuses instead on a basic concept and links it to something about the child’s own familiar world.

My daughter seemed truly fascinated. She peppered me with questions, which in typical child fashion weren’t completely on topic. (“What’s inside my finger?” “What’s inside my nails?”) Perhaps best of all, she asked if I could tell her another science story the next night.

For some families such stories are a longstanding tradition. When I discussed the idea with some of my science-writer colleagues, several had had this experience as children with their own parents. But many of my peers expressed surprise (and delight) at the idea. And when I posted about it on Twitter and Facebook, the response was immediate and enthusiastic. All of this suggests to me that it would be useful to have some conversations about making science stories at bedtime a more mainstream idea.

Hence, this post to get the conversation started—or restarted. A recent blog post for PBS Newshour took up the topic and provided some great tips on how to make science bedtime stories work better for kids. As parents we’re used to reading books to our children at bedtime, but here it seems like the old tradition of oral storytelling, without any pictures or media, could be more effective. A personalized, one-on-one narrative—where the topic connects directly to the child, and the child has your undivided focus—really could be key in making it stick.

A post on NPR’s blog the Two-Way talks about doing math problems at bedtime but mentions science as well. Among the basic tenets the post shares: If you make math or science a cozy ritual at bedtime, then perhaps kids won’t ever find those topics pointless or uninteresting. And engaging kids in the story, whether by sparking questions or puzzling through problems, makes it more fun.

Do you tell science stories like these to your kids? Let us know what topics you’ve chosen and any approaches you’ve found effective. Add your stories in the comments section; we’ll also share updates on Twitter (@AmSciMag) with #BedtimeScience.

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