Science isn’t just a body of knowledge — it’s a way of acquiring scientific concepts and principles, and the best elementary school programs get students interested in investigating the world around them. As children learn facts and vocabulary, they develop the ability to ask scientific questions, plan experiments to answer these questions, and develop reasonable explanations based on their observations.

Science standards vary widely from state to state and school to school, but the thinking skills taught by science are universal. Most elementary schoolers will get an introduction to sound, electricity, plants, animals, and the three states of matter (solid, liquid, and gas). The National Science Education Standards — the jumping-off place for many states — lists important topics and thinking skills for kindergarten through high school.

The topics below are examples taken from several states and therefore merely guidelines. To see how your child’s schoolwork compares, check out your state’s science standards.

What science concepts will my first-grader learn?

First-graders learn about the world around them through observations and experiments. They’ll be encouraged to use their five senses to observe and describe changes in objects they encounter. Expect first-grade teachers to introduce some or all of the following concepts:

Living things and their habitats: Living things need food, water, space, and shelter to survive. Plants and animals live in particular habitats.

  • Oceans and sea life: Waves, currents, coral reefs, sea animals, and sea plants.
  • The human body: The systems that make up the body — circulatory, muscular, skeletal, nervous, and digestive — and how to take care of the body.
  • Matter: Materials come in solid, liquid, and gas forms, and matter can change states.
  • Measurement: Temperature and how it is measured.
  • Introduction to electricity and magnetism: Electric currents and circuits. Learns how batteries work and the push and pull of magnets.
  • Sound: Vibrating objects produce sound, and sound travels.

What types of science instruction will my first-grader get?

First-grade teachers typically teach students to do experiments and record observations. A teacher might help the class understand that for electric circuits to work, there needs to be a circular path, from a battery to a light bulb and back to the battery. The teacher might ask students to find as many arrangements as they can to light a bulb with a battery and wires, and compile the class results. Throughout the experiments, children should be encouraged to observe, ask questions, and communicate changes that they notice.

First-grade science often includes a unit on the work and lives of famous scientists like Louis Pasteur and Thomas Edison.

Getting acquainted with the physical world

Parents can expect their first-grade scientists to learn about the physical world. To understand that air actually has a weight, they might compare the weights of a full and empty balloon on a balance. Likewise, a teacher might introduce life cycles by setting up an area where students watch caterpillars spin cocoons and become butterflies.

Emphasizing skills over facts

More important than the scientific facts at this stage is children’s ability to observe, ask questions, record, and communicate what they experience. For example, a first-grade teacher might introduce the concept that sound is caused by vibration by asking students to explore with rubber bands, tuning forks and other sound makers what they can see, hear, and feel.

“In first grade, students can be expected to record in words as well as drawings what they’ve done and what they think,” says Fred Stein, our science curriculum consultant.

What to look for when you visit

  • Books about the seasons, plants and animals, and the earth as well as the human body
  • Hands-on areas that encourage experimentation and might include water tables, models, and skeletons
  • Safety glasses, thermometers, magnifying glasses, mirrors, bar magnets, and rulers
  • Aquariums, gardens, or other areas that allow kids to learn about the life cycles of plants and animals
  • Posted examples of student work, including lists of observations, questions, or drawings
  • Guest experts from museums, zoos, and botanical gardens

Updated April 2010

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