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.
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.