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 third grader learn?

Your third grader will be encouraged to form simple hypotheses (untested theories), make predictions, and gather data. As third graders gather information, their hypotheses are often based more on intuition than solid knowledge. Balancing a child’s personal observations with well-expressed scientific fundamentals will guide their understanding. Third-grade teachers introduce many of the following concepts:

  • Classification of animals: Vertebrates (with a backbone) and invertebrates (without a backbone) and the similarities and differences of animals.
  • The human body: The skeletal, muscular, and nervous systems.
  • Light and vision: Sunlight can create shadows, and light can be reflective. The color of light hitting an object affects how the object is seen. An object is seen when light traveling from the object enters the eye.
  • Astronomy and space: The properties of suns, moons, planets, and stars as well as their locations and movements.
  • Forces and motion: How and why objects move.

What types of science instruction will my third grader get?

Third graders split their time with experiments and time hitting the books. Teachers should encourage their students to design and conduct experiments to answer questions and to test their hypotheses. Third graders will learn to organize and analyze information they have collected through graphs, orally, or in writing. For example, students in third grade might conduct an experiment to determine the best conditions for plant growth by growing bean seeds and varying the amounts of light and water.

“In third grade students are better able to plan investigations that have multiple steps, rather than to simply get started and see what happens,” says Fred Stein, our science curriculum consultant.

Many third-grade teachers turn to the lives of famous scientists, like Nicolaus Copernicus and Alexander Graham Bell, for inspirational lessons.

Learning scientific skills

But more important than learning facts is your child’s ability to learn skills based on the scientific process, including the following:

  • Using the five senses to gather information
  • Using tools to extend the senses
  • Learning to ask questions that can be answered through investigation
  • Planning and carrying out investigations
  • Using measurement to make estimates or record data
  • Making predictions and seeing if they occur as expected
  • Basing conclusions on facts and observations
  • Looking for commonalities and differences in grouping objects or events

What to look for when you visit

  • Books about the seasons, plants, animals, and the earth; space, astronomy, and technology; and the human body
  • Books about scientists who’ve made major contribution to their fields
  • Materials that encourage hands-on experimentation (microscopes, 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
  • Guest experts from museums, zoos, and botanical gardens

Updated April 2010