Beyond The Magic School Bus: best science resources for pre-schoolers

Children are born true scientists. They spontaneously experiment and experience and re-experience again. They select, combine, and test, seeking to find order in their experiences – “which is the mostest? which is the leastest?” They smell, taste, bite, and touch-test for hardness, softness, springiness, roughness, smoothness, coldness, warmness: they heft, shake, punch, squeeze, push, crush, rub, and try to pull things apart.

R. Buckminster Fuller

My friend Sara has a budding scientist in the house, and she asked me how to continue feeding her preschooler’s burgeoning science enthusiasm–fueled in no small part by his love for The Magic School Bus books. Well–you can’t do better than to start with letting Ms. Frizzle be your preschooler’s guide. Cinder was three and Flora five or six months when we started reading Joanna Cole’s marvellous books together, and I don’t think we’ve ever stopped. Flora’s reading them on her own now–I’m reading them again to Ender–and even Cinder will drop what he’s doing for a while to peek over my shoulder when I’m magic school-bussing with Ender and sigh and say, “I used to love those books.”

I think if all you did in the preschool/early school years for science is groove on The Magic School Bus–the books, the television series (available on DVD if you still own a drive, iTunes for download if you don’t), the chapter books as they get older, the games on the Scholastic website–your kids would get a fabulous grounding in science–and develop a love and affinity for it to boot. But yes, there are other resources. Bulging bookshelves and ever-proliferating websites of resources. Here are the five best ones, at least according to Cinder, Flora and Ender.

The Magic School Bus (TV series)

1. The Magic School Bus. A word about the books: the original books, written by Joanne Cole and illustrated by Bruce Degen, are much more meaty and detailed than the books based on the television episodes. (Here’s a great video interview with Cole, by the way, as well as links to her other books.) But read both. The original books cover more ground; the tv-based books are shorter and punchier. Both are fun. The DVDs are marvellous. Watch them together, rewatch them and rewatch them. And when you’re ready for some hands-on follow up, get some Magic School bus science kits. You can do it subscription-style through The Magic School Bus Science Club (The Homeschool Buyers’ Co-op often has group-buy discounts on these), or you can pick up individual kits for a testdrive through Amazon or many toy/educational stores.

Note about science kits and ages The Magic School Bus kits, like most science kits, claim they are targeted at 5-12 year olds. You will not find a 12 year old interested in doing these activities. My 10 year-old is bored to tears. But 4-7–the perfect age. Yes, they will need your help with pretty much every step. But they will love the process and the result.

Cover of "See Inside Science"

2. Usborne Books’ See Inside series. These are sturdy (and accordingly expensive) flap books. I recommend them as much for their content as for their sturdiness: they are the only flap books in our library to have made it intact down to the third child. Our favourites are See under the ground, See inside your body, and See inside science. Additional titles include See under the sea, See inside your head, See inside the world of dinosaurs, See inside Planet Earth, See inside recycling and rubbish, See inside inventions, See inside how things work (as I’m compiling this list, I’m thinking–hey, we don’t have that one! I should go get it!). The series isn’t just about science–there’s also See inside famous buildings, See inside castles (an awesome, awesome book), See inside Ancient Egypt and See inside Ancient Rome, and, for the princess in your life, See inside fairyland. Lovely, lovely books, and such fun to explore and re-explore. (“Hey, Ender! Want to read a book with Mama?”)

Cover of "The Big Bug Search (Great Searc...

3. More Usborne books. While you’re checking out the Usborne See Inside series… Usborne books just rock. On the science-for-young-children front, check out The Great Search Series–we have them all, but The Big Bug Search is the best test-drive of whether your children will love this series. The 1001 Things To Spot series is intended for even young children (2+)–it’s good as well, but if it’s a question of one or the other for your budget, go straight to The Great Search books. They will enthrall your family for longer.

When you’re done with those, go on to the experiment books and the encyclopedias and the “First Book Of…” series.  And then… well. You get the picture. Usborne books. They rock.

Cover of "Stunning Science Of Everything&...

4. The Stunning Science of Everything, by Nick Arnold, illustrated by Tony De Saulles, the original Horrible Science team. Yes, I get that your three-year-old isn’t ready for the Horrible Science series (the best book series ever, if you’re an 8-10 year old boy or grossness-loving girl). But they will probably love this condensed, hard-cover, full-colour look at the science of, well, everything. Each topic is presented in a two-page spread, with comics, goofy characters, as well as big info. Cinder and Flora read and re-read this book for years. It still gets pulled out.

5. The Uncover It series from Silver Dolphin Books. These are great books with a three-dimensional model inside. Our favourites are Uncover: T Rex and Uncover: Tarantula. There’s also Uncover: The Human Body, Shark, Tiger, Dog, Horse (hmmm, Flora’s really into horses now, maybe I should get that one?). When I look at them with Ender, we don’t do much reading–we mostly look at the model, lift up parts, and I occasionally manage to name something before he turns the page. As Flora and Cinder got older, we’d read more and more of each page. Or, they’d pull the book off the shelf and just spend time looking at the model. You’ll get a lot of use of these books if you get them for your preschooler.

Tip: Because of the models, these books are pricey new. Scour used book stores for them. They’re recommended for ages 8+, which means well-meaning friends and relatives buy them as gifts for too-cool-for-school 10 and 12 year-olds. And then, you can pick them up for $5 at Fair’s Fair. (Usborne books end up in used bookstores much less frequently, alas.)


1. To stock your kitchen with baking soda, vinegar, corn starch, cheap salt, and either food colouring or powdered tempera paint. There are oodles of science-experiments-for-children books out; what it boils down to for the under-six crowd is a) Exploding Volcanoes, b) Oobleck, c) Growing Crystals. Also d) mixing random stuff together to see what happens (keep the ingredients down to vinegar, baking soda, salt, and powdered tempera paint and you won’t blow up the house, although they will make a mess). Your preschooler will do these experiments over and over and over and over again.  The other 97 experiments in the 101 Best Science Experiments Ever Book? Maybe you’ll do another three or four of them once each. And then back again to vinegar and baking soda…

2. A box (Flora has a fish tackle box; Ender an old lunch box) your kid can collect cool stuff in. Rocks, feathers, shells, bones (score!). They’re gonna do it anyway, especially after they read the Magic School Bus book about rocks, so give them a place for it so they can begin their museum. (Egg cartons make great tiny sorters/display cases.)

3. A library card, so you can take out the Magic School Bus books you don’t own, and the various science experiment books you don’t want to bother buying, because none of them are really worth it. (I’m happy to be proven wrong here, by the way: if you find the ultimate science experiment book for kids, please let me know, K?) Also, most libraries have really stellar nature documentary collections. Show those to your preschooler instead of Blue’s Clues or Dora. (Cinder and Flora recommend: BBC’s Planet Earth, The Blue Planet, and Walking with Dinosaurs.)

4. A local science centre membership if you can swing it. If you can’t–stay on top of what programmes your public library offers. Ours puts on at least a couple of Mad Science workshops (free!) a year, as well as presentations from the area humane societies, wildlife conservation and rehabilitation folks, rock enthusiasts, rocket enthusiasts, and others.

Happy exploring!

Cinder & Flora agree: Get thee to Boneville

What is it: Only the best graphic novel of all time. Jeff Smith’s Bone is… well. It just is. It’s so good. On every level. The art. The story. The jokes. The serious bits. The balance of the serious with the funny, the profound with the irreverent. Even the subplot lines that peter out or come out of nowhere work.

How good is it, really: We read and reread the entire series for months, and no one ever got bored of it–not even the mother reading it for the seventieth time. Flora counts these as the first books she’s read on her own. She sleeps with the entire stack beside her bed. When she wakes up in the night to pee or grab a drink, she sometimes reads a page or two by flashlight. When we go on trips, I have to negotiate with her to only take one or two of them with her (I know I’m eventually going to break down and get the whole collection in e-form so they can always be with her on the iPad).

Why is it so good: God, if I knew that, I’d produce something with all the same ingredients. It just is. It’s brilliant. I think perhaps it’s so brilliant because it wasn’t intended for children: it was simply the story Jeff Smith wanted to tell. And so did. It works for both Flora and Cinder because it’s both visual and an incredibly story, it’s got great girl characters and great boy characters, it’s got young people and old people, it’s got fighting and a touch of romance, it’s got Phone Bone, and Smiley and Bartleby…

Recommended ages: Flora and Cinder were 7 and 9 when we started reading it. Sean and I were 37. In our circle of friends, we’ve got five and six year olds devouring it, and teenagers. I expect this will be Ender’s first reader.

Need more? Think I’m overstating my case? Just Google Jeff Smith’s Bone. Or go, to Jeff’s site at www.

Look, Scholastic says it’s educational to boot.

The 621-and-counting reviews of  the first volume of Bone on Good Reads are here.

Now, get thee to your bookseller of choice. (Test drive them at the library if you like, but if your family loves them as much as ours did, you will need to own them.)

Burned Buyers’ Tip:Do get the colour versions, not the original black and whites. Triple-check that you’re getting the colour versions. It’s worth it. Don’t get the “entire massive series in one book” version. It’s too bulky. Plus, only one family member can read it at a time. Do get the Tall Tales extra book.  Give The Handbook a skip, though, unless you absolutely must appease a fanatic.

English: Jeff mimicking himself sitting in fro...

English: Jeff mimicking himself sitting in front of the poster in Barcelona. 2010 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)