Physical science for students in grades 1 to 5, in resource-poor environments

By Allison Lide.  [Compiled by Jane Jackson in 2013]


[Background: Allison took 10 weeks of Leadership Modeling Workshops at ASU in 1995-97. She then worked for 6 weeks helping Larry Dukerich to develop Unit 7 on Energy in Mechanics, while waiting for her Peace Corps assignment.  In 2002 she co-founded the House of Flowers Montessori orphanage in Kabul, Afghanistan: see

Facebook: ]


Date: Wed, 27 Jun 2007

From: Allison Lide <>

Subject: Science ideas for Ghana


Dear Colleen, greetings from Lesotho! Jane Jackson sent me your email about your friend Jessica in Ghana and asked me if I had any ideas. I used to be a modeling physics teacher, in my previous life, which is how I know Jane. But then I joined the Peace Corps and taught middle school science in a village in Nepal and after that I put together science lessons in Afghanistan and now I am working in Lesotho, so I am used to the resource-poor environment issues! I am happy to share with you a few ideas off the top of my head, and if I can be of further help I would be more than happy.


  From my experience, especially with children that young (grades 1-5), they most need and enjoy science lessons that are exploratory and less analytical in nature. So if your friend is helping write curriculum, I would take the approach of identifying the basic physical science concepts (such as light, air, solutions, sound, etc) and then develop some simple activities that demonstrate the concepts or allow the children to explore those phenomena.


While it may not seem they have much to work with, they probably have things like salt, sugar, flour, candles, buckets, soap, matches, plates, cigarette wrappers (good for foil) etc, all of which can be used for some great science activities. In fact, if they make their own beer, one can probably find yeast, and maybe even vinegar, and you can also see what they use for health as well, like if the local health posts have hydrogen peroxide, etc.


  I am not familiar with Ghana and I donÕt know if itâs a national curriculum that your friend is working on, or if they can tailor the curriculum to match their schoolÕs environment, but make sure your friend really gets a true sense of what is available in peopleÕs homes and in the villages, because there is a lot more to work with than one might realize. I commend the effort to keep things relevant in the activities, though, because I remember in Nepal seeing activities in the kidsÕ science books that required ice, when the only place you could get ice was in the capital city! So keeping things simple is definitely the way to go.


 Some skills that I found that can be focused on at these ages are observation, description, following instructions, drawing, and even simple graphing for the older grades. I do not personally find a heavy emphasis on the scientific method very helpful, although the basics of isolation of variables is important for the older ones especially. But the main thing I focused on was giving the children new experiences and new ways to see their world. Coming from a rural environment, they have more skills than one might imagine and are often very imaginative and creative, and they enjoy activities deeply. And sometimes I donÕt even worry about the concepts -- just do the cool wild things that get them excited (like where you can burn a candle in a plate with a bit of water, then turn a glass over the candle and when it extinguishes, the water will be drawn up into the glass, or any chemical reactions, like baking soda + vinegar or H2O2 and a potato, etc.)


  One tip: It is probably best to avoid using food items for experiments or activities, unless you are in a well-off area where food is plentiful or you use very small amounts. Otherwise, stick to stones and grass and sand and plastic bags, etc.


  So here is a quick list of ideas that may in turn stimulate more ideas for your friend. I hope it helps! I know how much I enjoyed squeezing my brain in order to develop fun and science-rich activities for the kids, and how rewarding it was to do it with them, so I hope your friend enjoys it as much as well!


  Best of luck,

  Allison Lide


  Activity ideas: (These are mostly physical science, which can then be elaborated/expanded upon. Try to incorporate aspects of writing, describing, drawing or even graphing whenever possible. My experience is that children in these environments have a lot more patience than Western-educated children, and so you can do things like drawings of simple things, observations of clouds, plants, etc.)


   Make salt crystal paintings by making concentrated salt solution and then paintingâ it on the paper and allowing to dry (adding coloring if available, even some spices may work for coloring, like if there is turmeric or chili powder, etc). 

   Solubility experiments comparing salt, sugar, flour, dirt, etc.  

   Drops of water on paper, fabric, wood, etc, acting as tiny magnifying lenses. 

   With a pile of sticks or rocks, have children build the highest structure they can. Or versions of the classic bridge-building activity -- given a set of various materials, build the strongest structure possible.  

   Do they fly kites in Ghana? Could do something with designing the best-flying kites. Or paper airplanes. 

   Sensory development as well as observation skills: blindfold children and give them objects from the environment to identify by feel, sound, smell, etc. Put spices, etc. in small containers (can be film canisters if available, or even just wrapped up on fabric or paper) 

   Observations and experiments with a glass of water -- various refraction phenomena (paper under the glass which disappears when filled with water, bent stick, enlarged finger, lens effect when looking from the side of the glass, etc) 

   Taking things apart -- might be able to find a flashlight around -- take it apart and identify the components such as bulb, battery, wire, etc. 

   Floating and sinking experiments for little children -- a bucket of water, and they predict before testing. Can also do volume displacement activities, and making paper boats, etc. 

   Weighing -- I am sure that in the village there are scales that could be borrowed. Let the children experiment with estimating and weighing, etc. Making graphs, recording data, etc. 

   Bubbles -- soap is usually available, might have to experiment first with how to best make up a bubble solution. Then look for any kind of hollow grasses or reeds or a ballpoint pen casing that could be used to blow bubbles, or even just keeping the solution in a container and blowing into it and making a big mass of bubbles (because sometimes it is hard to get them to stay intact airborne. 

   If they have crayons and paper and some string, can make those spinning things to show mixing of colors (color red on one side and yellow on the other and make orange, etc) 

   Sound: Tie long string to a spoon and let it hang loosely. Press ends of string against inside the ear and bang the spoon against something to hear the resonance. Experiment with other sounds and with different media -- do you have access to drums or other instruments? Can put sand on the drum head and see the vibration. 

   For measurement and time and isolating variables, can do experiments with swings or pendulums (tie rocks to varying lengths of string).  

   Standard measurement: if you can find a plastic tape measure, cut it up into centimeter pieces and pass out to show a centimeter, Then find things in the environment (such as a kernel of corn or whatever if relevant) that are about 1 cm. Then 1 grain of salt or sugar is about 1 mm, etc. (for older children). When doing this, ask them how they or their parents measure things (they may use hand measurements, or forearm, or other more traditional systems that are not standardized).  

   Air: put a crumpled piece of paper in a cup and turn it over and push into a bucket of water to explore the idea of air pressure, air taking up space, etc.  

   Put water in a bucket, tie a rope to the bucket, and swing it around your head. Let kids have a try! 

   States of matter (good for younger grades) -- use candles as well as water to show phase changes, and even a little thermodynamics with older children, using steam to inflate a balloon which then shrinks upon cooling (balloon on a bottle -- if no balloons, could try using a condom! I must admit, I havenÕt tried it!)  

   If you can get H2O2, drop in a little piece of potato to generate oxygen and reignite a glowing match or stick.  

   Burn a candle in a jar or bucket until it goes out due to CO2.  

   IF the school has enough chalk and the kids use ink in their pens, can do ink chromatography by standing the piece of chalk in a small puddle of black ink (tie in with solubility)

  Have fun!!!