Want scientifically literate students? Start with their parents.

Parents of young children often hear tricky questions: “Why does rain come down instead of up?” “Why can’t the dog jump in the tree like the cat can?” “Why does the ball bounce?” These questions, shared by parents in a national study focused on early science learning, are born of children’s innate curiosity about the inner workings of their environment. They provide tremendous opportunities for children to build a foundational understanding of science concepts and inquiry, and a base from which to develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

Parents and caregivers are in a unique position to help their children build on this natural interest in science. Every day provides multiple opportunities to explore, connect, and extend children’s questions about science. Research has demonstrated that many parents play a key role in helping children develop early literacy and mathematics skills, but, unfortunately, a large number of parents and caregivers do not feel prepared to help their budding scientists.

Evidence from a new study suggests that developing scientific literacy in young children may begin with building the confidence and knowledge of parents. The report, “What Parents Talk About When They Talk About Learning: A National Survey About Young Children and Science,” was conducted by EDC and SRI International and commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education’s Ready To Learn initiative, led by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and PBS.

Drawing on a nationally representative phone survey of 1,400 parents and in-person interviews with 65 parents, all with children ages 3 to 6 years old, we found that many parents view children’s learning about science much differently than they do learning in other domains like reading and mathematics. Nearly every surveyed parent reported that they engaged in learning activities with their children like reading or exploring mathematics concepts every day. However, far fewer parents reported daily engagement in science activities, such as building, exploring science in the outdoors, or other everyday activities.

One reason for this lack of science activity appears to be that many parents do not feel they have the requisite scientific expertise. Only half of surveyed parents reported that they were “very confident” in their ability to support their children’s science learning, while three quarters of parents reported being “very confident” in their ability to support their children’s early literacy and mathematics skills. This confidence gap was particularly large for families with lower incomes and lower levels of education.

Interviews with parents indicate many think that helping their young children learn science entails having the right answers. Children’s questions sometimes stretched parents’ understanding of science concepts, and they expressed concerns about providing inaccurate or incomplete information. As one parent explained, “I have common sense, but I just don’t know how to get it and break it down to her most of the time.”

Seven out of 10 surveyed parents reported that being provided with ideas for doing science activities with everyday materials would help them do “a lot” more science at home. Yet, even when they do have ideas, parents told us that science activities can feel overwhelming. Parents described many challenges to engaging their children with science, including inadequate access to transportation and difficulties finding affordable resources. One parent we interviewed explained why it was difficult for her to do science activities with her child: “We’re super stressed for time, too. So, I can’t go and make her something that’s going to take, you know, 20 minutes to set up and 30 minutes to do, and then an hour to clean it off of everything.”

Digital media may provide one opportunity to help parents support their children’s science learning. Videos, apps, and online games are increasingly accessible, and a growing body of research suggests educational media can have positive impacts on children’s learning in literacy and math. For example, a recent study found that providing parents with an app designed to increase interactions between their children around math resulted in increased mathematics learning—especially for the children of parents who felt most anxious about math.

Unfortunately, the results of our survey suggest science-related media, although used often by families, is not yet meeting their needs. Two-thirds of parents reported that their child watched science-related TV or videos at least once a week. Yet relatively few parents believed that watching these videos helped their child learn a lot about science, and our interviews suggest that many parents tended to view their children’s science media activities as entertainment rather than as opportunities for learning.

Policymakers, educators, and creators of educational media each have a role to play in preparing parents to support children’s exploration of science concepts and practices. All can give parents the message that they don’t have to be scientists or know the “right answer” to help their children learn science. Each can remind parents that science is a process of asking and answering questions and parents can build on children’s curiosity through looking for answers together.

Parents also need models for fun and engaging ways to explore science together with their children, especially through everyday activities. (See here, here, and here for ideas about simple ways for parents and children to explore science together.) Early-childhood educators can help parents to integrate ideas related to a classroom project during family routines, such as by identifying shapes while at the playground or comparing the sounds produced by different sized pots and spoons. Media producers can provide examples of how families can talk about and do science during every day routines in ways that do not require additional time or materials, such as measuring and mixing ingredients while preparing meals.

With encouragement and the right supports, parents can build on their children’s natural curiosity, laying the groundwork for a more scientifically literate population. We know parents want to help their children succeed in school—we just need to help them find ways to connect the dots to science.