Materials for elementary science?

I’m starting a new position as a first grade teacher in a few weeks. When I toured the classroom I’ll be in, I saw very few science-related materials. I want to emphasize science with my students, so what should I start to gather up?  —J., Georgia

There are many schools in which science, especially in the younger grades, is seen as an extra or something to do after the tests are over. It’s good that you want your students to study the world around them through science investigations, building on their energy, enthusiasm and curiosity.

I would ask the school for a copy of the science curriculum. The activities there could be your guide for what materials you’ll need. Also ask the principal or department chairperson if there is a central storage area for science materials in the school. Perhaps what you need is there. And ask about the school’s science budget and the policy for reimbursing teachers who spend their own money on classroom materials.

The best-case scenario is the school having a well-planned curriculum and adequate materials for implementing the lessons in it. The worst case is the school has neither.

If the school does not have a detailed curriculum guide, look at your state science standards for guidance on what students should be learning or exploring at this level. If you need ideas for specific lessons and investigations, refer to NSTA’s Science & Children journal. You can access and search the issues online as an NSTA member.

Science teaching at the elementary level does not necessarily require a lot of expensive materials or equipment. As you look at the activities in your curriculum or the issues of Science & Children, you’ll see that many of them use everyday materials. Students can investigate plant growth, examine rock samples or insects, observe bird or insect behavior, study mechanics and motion, explore magnetism, and collect weather data with simple and inexpensive materials. (For more science-on-a-shoestring ideas, you can also refer to the NSTA publication The Frugal Science Teacher, PreK-5.)

In the February 2015 issue of Science & Children, Cindy Hoisington and Jeff Winokur list some ideas for a “science toolkit” in their article Tools of Science Inquiry That Support Life Science Investigations.* These simple materials can help young students make measurements, record observations, and describe plants and animals:

  • Hand lenses
  • Bug boxes
  • Terraria, which can be made from glass or clear plastic containers
  • Large craft sticks for digging or exploring in dirt
  • Field guides designed for younger students
  • Measuring tools: rulers, meter sticks, measuring cups and spoons of different sizes
  • Tools for recording and representing: clipboards (pieces of heavy cardboard with binder clips, colored pencils, chart paper, and markers)
  • Trowels or small plastic shovels

To their suggestions, for a science classroom I would add

  • Eye protection (I hope your school has these already)
  • Objects to examine, sort, and manipulate: rocks, shells, cones, pictures, bones, and so on
  • Plastic cups for measuring, starting seeds
  • Binoculars
  • Student notebooks
  • Sticky notes

Expanding this list for physical and earth science investigations, students could use

  • Marbles
  • Magnets
  • Small rolling cars
  • Blocks (for building ramps, sorting, measuring)
  • Maps—of your state and the country
  • Easy-to-read thermometers
  • Paper clips and rubber bands

As you collect materials for you toolkit, you need to organize and store the materials:

  • Plastic boxes of different sizes for storage
  • Boxes or trays for each team of students
  • Small clear vials for objects that you don’t want students to touch directly (e.g., samples of different kinds of soil or sand
  • Sealable plastic bags
  • Plastic sheet protectors as an alternative to laminating handouts or pictures

And don’t forget to add science-related books to your classroom library. Check out books from your school library or begin your own collection at yard sales or library book sales.

 As Hoisington and Winokur note, the most important tools are our senses. They write, “And the ultimate tools for making meaning from your science observations is your own curious and thinking brain!”

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 *The article is available to NSTA members by accessing the digital version of the journal.

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