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Scientifically gifted

Presents and activities to spark children's interest in science needn't cost a packet.

When I was a child, I always wanted a real chemistry set, the kind I could use to blow stuff up, make stink bombs or poison my enemies. It's possibly testament to my parents' wisdom that I never received one, but it's more likely because it was just hard to get things like that in 1970s New Zealand. Lots of great science toys are available now, but you don't need expensive chemistry sets, tele­scopes and microscopes to get children interested in science.

Earlier this year, Professor Sir Paul Callaghan said, "If you want to give a child a gift that will inspire them in science, give them a compass." With Christmas almost here and the summer holidays about to start, I asked some other New Zealand scientists and science educators to tell me about their favourite gifts and activities to inspire children's interest in science.

Hamish Campbell, GNS Science palaeontologist and Te Papa geologist, says his children have all received a gift of a hand lens over the years. This small magnifying glass, usually with 10x magnification, can be folded and carried in a pocket. For older children, Campbell recommends a compass and a GPS, but cautions, "You have to show them how to use it - it's no good giving them something static if they don't know what to do with it."

As for summertime activities, Campbell says get the children exploring the garden or the local park. "With the lovely weather lately we've been out exploring our garden and we've found Paryphantas." These native land snails are carnivorous and lay eggs. "Now the kids have developed an interest in what's in the garden and that might take them to Te Papa to see how diverse the New Zealand bug fauna is." Even Campbell's cat's getting involved. "The cat yesterday brought in a cave weta. And the kids were right onto it, able to see the difference easily between a cave weta and a tree weta."

Steve Wratten, professor of ecology at Lincoln University, recommends a good book on New Zealand birds with scientifically accurate illustrations (not photos), along with some literature on garden bird counts and how to do them, and perhaps a CD of New Zealand bird calls. "That package, with help from an adult with decent binoculars, can fire up a kid for life." And to inspire a love of gardening, Wratten recommends a good children's gardening kit.

Alison Campbell, biology lecturer at Waikato University, recommends gifts like Lego, and Lego Technic for older kids, but says one of her children's favourite gifts was an ant farm. Her favourite summertime activity is a trip to the beach.

"Swot up beforehand on the sort of animal life the kids might find and have fun looking. As children, my brothers and sister and I amassed a huge collection of shells and skeletons and rocks and it's that sort of inquisitive and acquisitive nature study that can hook a lot of kids into ­science when they start asking the what, how, why, where sort of questions."

For simple at-home activities Campbell also recommends leaf rubbings and collecting and pressing flowers as "a good way to get started on talking about plants".

Gillian Turner, physics lecturer at Victoria University, recommends taking the family camping. "Night by night, watch the moon go through its phases, look at the stars and the Milky Way and watch out for shooting stars. Spend a holiday by the sea and notice how the tides get later day by day, and how the height of the tides changes with the phases of the moon.

"Wherever you are, indulge in learning something new about New Zealand's unique natural history, whether it's geology, wildlife or trees and plants. Buy the kids a guidebook for Christmas and get exploring." Turner is also tempted by some solar-powered gadgets - dancing sunflowers, robots and helicopters - which are "great for demonstrating the whole concept of energy from the sun being transformed into other types of energy".

Robert Holt, research scientist at IRL, has inspired his four children with gifts of Lego Technic, a build-it-yourself crystal radio set and - yes - chemistry sets. "Chemistry experiments can open a child's eyes to see the world in new ways, to appreciate that almost everything we have and consume was subject to chemistry at some stage. There are a lot of colourful and/or fizzing experiments that can be done safely at home in a suitable washable area."

He also recommends electronic construction kits and mathematical puzzles, like the Rubik's Cube. "Developing the young human brain by training its amazing ability to solve puzzles and find patterns is a good foundation for any budding scientist."

Chris Astall, senior lecturer at the University of Canterbury's College of Education, likes to get children interested in science by mucking about in the kitchen. "Get a small shallow dish, about 10-15cm wide, put in four or five M&M lollies, equally spaced, then fill it up with water. But first ask the children what they think will happen. What actually happens is fantastic."

Another of his favourites involves a two-litre jar filled with cornflour and enough water to mix it to the texture of a very thick custard. "You very, very slowly put your hand all the way into the cornflour mix. Then you pull your hand out very quickly and your hand is stuck. Then let the child start asking questions and investigating. What would happen if I put more water in? What would happen if I warmed the water up before I put it in? That is where the ­science learning ­happens."

Aliki Weststrate, education co-ordinator at the Royal Society of New Zealand, says one of the simplest and perhaps overlooked places to go for inspiration is the local library. "Children can be drawn into subjects such as the natural world, astronomy, flight, machines and chemistry. Let them choose the books, but try to include some activity books in the mix so they not only read about science but do science as well."

And if the weather's not great, the computer can be a great learning tool. "To encourage my son's love of computers, but to steer him away from mindless computer games, we've created a blog using www.wordpress.org. This has got him taking photos, loading them and then writing about them, too.

"Children are natural scientists," says Weststrate. "They are intensely curious and willing to test the unknown. It's quite easy to encourage this natural curiosity by giving them fun, practical gifts or activities that broaden their knowledge and awareness of science."

I'm inspired. I'm looking forward to taking my kids out exploring the garden, the beach and the night sky this summer, but right now I'm off to buy my daughter a chemistry set.