Ultimate Writing Challenge: Science Writing for Kids

1 November 2012 by Matt Shipman, posted in Uncategorized

Photo: adassel/stock.xchng

If you’d really like to challenge yourself as a writer, I suggest writing about science for kids. Specifically, try to explain a basic science concept to children under the age of eight. I tried it recently and learned a few things along the way.

I’m writing about this here because getting people excited about science is a lot easier if you catch their interest as children – and because science communication includes science communication for kids.

I’ve thought of myself as a professional explainer for years. Whether writing about environmental policy as a reporter or writing about nanomaterials as a PIO, my job was to explain complicated issues in language that non-experts could understand. This did not prepare me for writing to an audience of kids.

Me and two-thirds of my target audience.

And I spend a lot of time with kids. I have three of them, all of whom are young enough to still think I’m fun to spend time with. They ask me questions about the natural world on a daily basis. This also didn’t prepare me to write about science for kids. Why not?

For one thing, I couldn’t use pictures, the way I do when sitting on the sofa with my kids. I also can’t engage in a back-and-forth conversation, with them asking additional questions to help me fine-tune my answers until their curiosity is assuaged. Instead, I was trying to answer a very specific science question using only words – no illustrations – and where I had to try to anticipate any additional questions a kid might ask.

I had come up with the idea of answering science questions for kids after talking to an editor at a regional, family-oriented magazine called Carolina Parent. They would ask moms and dads what science questions their kids had, and I would write up answers to the questions. In return, I would receive the grand sum of zero dollars. (These are the lengths I will go to in order to write about science.)

My first question came in: “What is wind?” Short answer: the movement of air in the atmosphere. But that leaves the obvious follow-up questions: What is the atmosphere? And why does the air move?

I started hitting major obstacles right away. I had to explain “molecules,” which entailed having to explain “elements.” Then there was “pressure,” which meant addressing the concept of “mass.” This explanation was supposed to be short. Instead it was turning into a multi-page essay, with the end nowhere in sight.

This taught me my first lesson: don’t feel the need to explain everything. I already knew that – I tell it to researchers all the time, in reference to news releases. But I had to learn that lesson again in the context of writing for kids. My six-year-old is pretty bright, but she doesn’t understand molecules yet. And frankly, she doesn’t need to. So my one-sentence explanation of molecules is sufficient to satisfy her, in the context of explaining wind.

My second lesson was that I needed to include visual examples, even if the piece didn’t include any pictures. So I wrote about smushing Jello on a plate to explain high pressure systems. Even without a picture, most kids know exactly what smushing Jello is like.

All in all, explaining wind to a child is one of the most challenging things I’ve ever had to do. You can make very few assumptions about what the child already knows, and you have to make difficult decisions about what merits in-depth explanation and what you can gloss over.

You can read my attempt to explain wind to kids here. I’d appreciate your feedback. I also want to hear from anyone who has engaged in science communication efforts specifically aimed at children. What worked? What didn’t? I really want to know – because I’m planning on tackling science questions from kids again.


13 Responses to “Ultimate Writing Challenge: Science Writing for Kids”

  1. Darren Rye Reply | Permalink

    Would one method not be to replicate a conversation you have/had with your child? Children read stories a lot which are "He said, she said" in structure, so a "He asked, so I said" structure of science explanation should work. It also appears more friendly on a page than paragraphs of text.

    Just an idea.

  2. Matt Shipman Reply | Permalink

    That could work. But it would have to be a purely hypothetical conversation, since (at least with my kids), the questions are often framed in terms that no one else would understand. For example, a question may refer to "that thing at Grandma's house" or "that thing we saw at the park yesterday." As a result, you'd have to "translate" it into language that could be understood by all readers. And, if "that thing we saw at Grandma's house" was the frog in a horse's hoof (for example), you're simply adding another layer of explanation.

  3. Darren Reply | Permalink

    Of course, in fact I meant to mention the hypothetical idea. You can then direct the conversation the way you want to go to get the point across, come back to ideas mentioned earlier that need explaining. Only thing you wouldn't be able to do is set up an idea that you plan to use in a bigger explanation. Not without each one of the answers becoming a mini piece in itself.

    I was lucky enough to have a Dad who was similarly minded to me when I grew up, and thus someone to ask questions of. If he didn't know the answer, chances are he wanted to know and just hadn't thought of it, he taught me to use encyclopedias and the internet, he took things apart to show me how they worked etc.

    It'd be great to provide that sort of "service" to kids whose parents don't/won't/can't/stuggle to answer questions.

  4. Darren Reply | Permalink

    He's not managed to answer why I'm so bad at raCAPTCHAs though.

  5. Sabine Reply | Permalink

    Your explanations are great! But there is one thing I would like to mention: I once heard a talk on science education for kids, and the speaker claimed it was too focused on results. I think I agree with him. By pretending we know how everything in the world works, kids grow up to think that our knowledge is pretty complete. So, maybe you should suggest to them to try out experiments and investigate themselves, and lead them to the answer by them trying out stuff. I am still thinking about what the best way to do this as well. What do you think?

  6. Matt Shipman Reply | Permalink

    I think it's important to be honest with kids. Sometimes that means saying "I don't know" or "Nobody knows -- people are still trying to figure that out." And I think it is always worthwhile to encourage (safe) science experiments. :) But it really depends on the question. There are some questions that science really does have good answers for (e.g., "Why is the sky blue?") -- and some that are incredibly complex and/or contain a great deal of uncertainty (e.g., "What color was a stegosaurus?"). One question that I was asked by my oldest daughter was "How big is a blue whale?" I came up with a fun way of answering that one, and wrote about it here: http://www.prettyswellblog.com/2012/07/09/how-big-is-a-blue-whale/

  7. Khalil A. Cassimally Reply | Permalink

    Always thought that a great story for children would be one which subtly describes the scientific method through a detective story. But as you said, writing for kids is hard ;)

  8. Matt Shipman Reply | Permalink

    I like it. "The Case of the Missing Cookies." Who stole the cookies from the cookie jar? It'll be a real page-turner. :)

  9. Andrew Reply | Permalink

    Great piece. I've found that you can actually explain incredibly complicated concepts to kids, so long as you take an unmerciful axe to any jargon. Same as with adults really. The only difference from explaining things to adults is that your definition of "jargon" has to be incredibly broad. In the current example it would include things like "high pressure air"; in my experience you're better off avoiding it and referring only to the cold heavy air that presses down on the warmer lighter air. Kids can relate to warm/cold/heavy/light; talking about pressure only adds a layer of abstraction which is useful shorthand once the concepts are settled, but not before. You work like anything to get the concepts in place, and the names (which is what technical terms amount to - labels for complex concepts) can come at the end, if at all. They're less important.

    But I agree that it's a heck of a lot easier when you can draw pictures too.

  10. Ann Reply | Permalink

    What a lovely blog on science communication, Matt! I came here from your post on the 'basics of' and linked to this one next. As I science communicator for adults and child I have found that both audience love when you can relate anything back to them (i.e., make it personal). For instance, I explained 'wind' to a 5 year old years ago. I explained that the earth breathes all the time just people and all living things and once in a while we notice the wind get stronger and stronger and we see leaves blow around when there is pressure, just like we notice the flame of birthday candles move when we put pressure on our own breath as we blow the candles out. Keep up the great work!

  11. Kudzu Reply | Permalink

    Oddly enough I have explained wind to a child before. it also included the phrase 'moving air' and I had to explain that air was a thing. (If you blow up a balloon you put air into it, just like you put water into a water balloon.) and I said that the sun's heat moved air around like it moved all the water from puddles after rain.

    I think the most important thing is to be face-to-face with a child, they'll often not get something and need to have it reworded or re-explained. This of course can be a problem when writing.

    (I have also explained molecules and atoms as the smallest bit of something you can get. A good demonstration is getting some sugar or salt and grinding it up, when it's a powder I explain that that tiny tiny bit you can't even see on the tip of my finger is a molecule of sugar, you can't grind it up any further, try, it's still just powder. This isn't entirely accurate, but these are young children we're talking about.)

  12. Matt Shipman Reply | Permalink

    Oh, that's good stuff. I'm totally stealing that explanation of molecules. :)

  13. R. Lynn Gilliland Reply | Permalink

    I just want to say I'm glad to hear someone as the same passion as I. I'm a retired electrical engineer, with a long time interest in science education, and since retirement, I've been writing human interest articles for several local articles, with some success. Yet my three or four stabs at explaining science to children has shown me how difficult it is. I've tried fire, time, and electrical theories; and have been amazed at how really bad my explanations are - but I'm learning, and it's become a new passion for me. I'm going to keep at it, and I'd like to hear of any insights you might have.

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