A while back, a friend asked about science kits for kids. I don’t have kids, and probably have no qualifications to answer the question except that I remember some of the things that got me interested in science as a kid. In any case, I sent off the following response, and feedback has been good enough that I decided to publish it.
We’re looking for science kits for summer education for our kids, ages 5-10.
I don’t have specific kits to recommend, but here are things I remember from ages 8-11 that worked for me:
Telescope. If you can get away from the light pollution, looking at stars, planets, comets, etc., can be a lot of fun. Get Starry Night for your Mac laptop and a telescope that’s beefy enough to see the Galilean satellites, but don’t buy something “too good.” Having a fairly crappy telescope ended up serving as incentive to learn how to grind my own mirror as a teenager. Get books that explain basic astonromy for reading on cloudy nights. Having an excuse to stay up well past my bedtime for special celestial events helped make this a winner initially.
A vegetable garden. Make germinating the seeds an “experiment” and plant various things. Don’t stress too much on the weeding for the younger kids, but when their plants start getting choked by the weeds, you can explain how plants need enough room, sunlight and water to grow. I had my own section of garden beginning when I was 8. Growing up in the midwest, there were plenty of educational materials available from 4-H and the county extension service for nearly free. Seeds are pretty darned cheap.
Model rocketry - building and painting and flying the rockets was a blast. I’ve got a friend who’s recently started doing this with his kids (6 and 11) and they’re really digging it. If you’re worried about flames, there are also the pressurized water rockets, but they’re not as appealing to a budding pyromaniac. I got to be my own launch-officer the summer I turned 10, and didn’t burn myself with model rocketry (minor burns - no ER trip required) until I was 15 and mixing my own propellant, so even in the 70s, Estes did a pretty good job on safety. I think I started building rockets at 8 or 9, but it might have been earlier. I remember watching the Apollo 11 landing when I was almost 5, and was pretty excited about it, so I had an early interest.
A pile of lumber, a hammer, a ladder, some nails and a tree. I built my first treehouse before I was 11. About the only help I got from the parents was dad helping to haul stuff to the construction site and a couple explanations of why things fell apart. I can’t think of a better way to learn a bit of engineering. Requires some space, so it’s not practical for everyone. I fell out of the tree at least once, but didn’t break any bones.
Beyond that, most of the “kits” didn’t really wind me up. There was a booklet I had (I think it was published by Highlights magazine) that had a bunch of pretty simple experiments you could do that was good for one summer. It mostly taught basic physics. The lever is your friend, especially when you live on a farm. We also had a block & tackle that I remember using to rearrange the scenery periodically. I wasn’t a strong kid, and really liked the idea of mechanical advantage.
I think I was lucky in that I spent this age living on a farm, where we had enough space to do things like set off model rockets without much worry. On the other hand, none of my parents (divorced, so there were multiple sets) were very involved once the goods were brought home. I basically just got handed a book or a box of parts and left to my own devices, so there were plenty of things that were a little too complex and got shelved until I dug it out later.