Safer Science in Montessori Elementary
This article appears in the Winter 2020 issue of MontessoriPublic — Print Edition.
Real science experiments include being smart about safety
Did you have science experiments in your training? Do you shy away from them because of the complexity, or the preparation, or the mess? Or perhaps you’ve thought about the risk of some of the chemicals involved. (We’ll come back to that!)
But the science experiments are an intrinsic part of our Cosmic Education presentations, allowing the children to get “hands-on” with the scientific principles demonstrated in the Great Stories and Key Lessons. And they can help reconnect distracted or disengaged children back to the classroom and prepare them for independent exploration and work in all subject areas. In fact, they perform a similar function to the Exercises of Practical Life in the Casa dei Bambini.
In From Childhood to Adolescence, Montessori noted that the experiments “are similar to those of practical life,” and the importance of Practical Life cannot be overstated. Montessori pointed out that such activities “coordinate the mind and fix the attention in a simple manner. They are a necessary preparation for subsequent constructive work.” Montessori also compares science experiments to the “Silence Game” of the Casa, saying:
Calm and attention are required. The psychological effect produced on the children at this age may be compared to the that of the silence lesson on the younger children. The younger children severely restrict their movements, while the older ones must measure their movements and must therefore pay concentrated attention to them.
So the science experiments, like Practical Life activities and the Silence Game, can help children to focus their attention and to concentrate, and as an outcome children may re-acquire the ability to work. They have in this way prepared themselves for the elementary guide’s other (non-science) presentations, and for the independent work that follows them. The best part (if you ask the children)? Those “preparations” were fun!
However, science experiments have many purposes beyond this important, personally empowering effect. When they are first presented, they provide an image for a story or for a presentation, and so they are an important part of our storytelling toolkit. Paper pieces sprinkled on water, for example, enable the children to imagine how atoms form the many complex substances that make up our universe.
When the children are older, this same experiment may be examined in order to identify the scientific principle that it illustrates—in this case, surface tension of water. Later, we can return to the demonstration to explore the mechanism of surface tension, leading to the idea of hydrogen bonding. From these explorations, the children can extend their studies further, engaging in deeper and more sophisticated studies of the fields of chemistry and physics.
Perhaps you already incorporate science experiments into your class. (The experiments were likely a part of your training, so why wouldn’t you?) However, have you taken a look at them lately, in the context of current knowledge about the chemicals involved, and the regulations and policies that might govern their use in an elementary classroom? Many of the substances that were a part of early Montessori elementary trainings we now know present real hazards. They may be one or more of the following: toxic, corrosive, carcinogenic, mutagenic, or teratogenic.
Mercury was used in the training that I received, for example, and we now know how dangerous that metal is. Schools have been evacuated just because a mercury thermometer was broken, and the cleanup of a mercury spill at an Arizona school cost a reported $800,000!
We also used ammonium dichromate for the volcano demonstration. How can you tell if such a chemical is safe to use, or what precautions one might take when using it? As it happens, the international science community has developed a standard for Safety Data Sheets (SDS) to detail occupational safety and health information for just about any chemical you will encounter. Google “ammonium dichromate SDS” (or any other chemicals from your training) and take a look at the result. Are your palms feeling a little sweaty? There are many materials that I stopped using decades ago, and I think that now you’ll understand why.
I would strongly urge you to review an SDS for each of the chemicals that you use in your classroom. (Fisher Scientific has a good free database of these sheets.) Note their dangers, and the safety precautions recommended for each. If your school district has a Laboratory Safety Handbook, or a policy statement, refer to this document also. The limits to the reagents that may be used, and the conditions under which they may be used, are becoming more stringent year by year.
This doesn’t mean that you can no longer include “experiments” in your class! It just means that some of the experiments need to be replaced by safer alternatives. (You can download my own collection of Safer Experiments for free, at montessorimentoronline.com). YouTube is also a great resource if you just can’t let go of those unacceptable demonstrations—the sugar and sulfuric acid experiment can be observed without the danger of inhaling sulfuric acid vapor or sulfur oxide fumes, for example. The children can then follow up with safer experiments that illustrate the same principle.
Remember when you heard about Practical Life for the first time? One thing that was probably emphasized was that these activities should be real. The same is true of the elementary experiments, and even with these precautions, the work can be very real. Real apparatus should be used, and real laboratory conditions should be maintained (even though we’re only using safer materials such as sugar and vinegar).
By implementing laboratory conditions, we are preparing the children for later life, when the chemicals at high school will be more dangerous. Laboratory safety will be a habit for our Montessori children. The bonus in the Montessori elementary is that when the children know that they are conducting experiments in the same way that high school and college students do, the whole activity is more attractive: “This is real science, and we’re working just the way that high school students and real scientists work!”
So set up a laboratory area (near a water source preferably) in your classroom. Prepare your classroom environment properly for experiments. For example:
- Store the chemicals in clearly labeled scientific-looking containers. Use containers that hold only enough of each reagent for two or three repetitions of the experiment. Each substance is less likely to be used to excess, and you have some control over how often the experiment is performed each day.
- Have a table reserved for experiments, or if this is impossible, have a set-up that includes a water and stain-resistant covering for the designated table.
- Have special science area clean-up materials available.
And insist on good laboratory safety practices such as:
- Special aprons (or even lab coats) and eye, skin, and breathing protection that must be used for science experiments, as applicable. Make it part of the instructions.
- Never touch your face when conducting an experiment.
- Always wash your hands when the experiment and clean-up have been completed.
- Never use food preparation equipment for science experiments, and if this happens by accident, keep that piece of equipment permanently in the science area.
Local district handbooks and policies can guide you so that the safety of the children is optimized. On no occasion should you stray from these requirements. The safety of the children is your top priority at all times.
By introducing (safer) science experiments into your Montessori classroom, you are bringing an important aspect of Cosmic Education to life for your children. You are also, as a side benefit, enabling the future scientists in your classroom to explore their interests and their gifts. And most of all, you are offering children in your class a chance to rediscover their own unique path towards optimal self-construction.