Science from home - using documentaries to engage and inspire children with science

    Published: 09 May 2020


    In this blog, I am sharing some of my top picks for documentaries and TV programmes to support science learning at home. Although most of these have not been produced specifically for primary aged children, when given support with understanding and digesting the information, they can still be a valuable tool to support science learning. The documentaries described are by no means an exhaustive list as they are greatly affected by my passions, interests and viewing habits. (You can probably tell I am quite a fan of nature.)

    You may notice that I have not included any Coronavirus related programmes. Although there is a wide range of these available, I have personally decided to stick with the programmes that provide a welcome break from this topic, taking us to the far reaches of our solar system or into the amazing lives of animals.

    Documentaries can be a rich source of knowledge so after a brief commentary on each of the suggestions I have given some suggestions of how children can share and develop their understanding through writing.

    In our first weekly subject leader email, we recommended the David Attenborough documentaries and one of the suggested writing activities was to write to Sir David. Chloe, in Year 4 at Sandridge School in St Albans, did just this and I am pleased to say she received a reply. What an inspirational story to encourage us to write to our favourite scientists or heroes. Well done Chloe.








    Documentaries and TV programmes that could be used to develop primary science understanding:  

    Sir David Attenborough Box Sets

    After the story above, I had to start with the legendary naturalist and TV presenter Sir David Attenborough. I have used episodes and clips from his programmes regularly in the classroom and enjoyed watching the completely engaged faces of the pupils. I have often been asked to replay a clip numerous times as watching some of the magical moments once, is just not enough. One of those memorable clips that had to be watched more than once, was the heart - stopping race of the iguana trying to escape the snakes in Planet Earth II.

    There is now a wide range of fantastic Sir David Attenborough box sets to choose from and I was delighted to see how many are available on BBC iPlayer including; Blue Planet, Life, Planet Earth, Africa, Frozen Planet and Seven Worlds, One Planet. These are full of wonderful stories about amazing animals and their adaptations. Children can discover the prehistoric looking cassowary in the Australia episode of Seven Worlds, One Planet or the basilisk lizard running on water in the reptiles and amphibian’s episode of Life. The later led to an assembly full of children in fits of laughter and brimming with questions.

    After watching children could show their understanding through:

    • Writing about their favourite animal featured in the show
    • A letter to Sir David Attenborough about what they liked and questions they have
    • A letter to humans from an animal explaining how we are impacting their environment and what we should do

    (This last idea might be particularly useful for children who are affected by the serious but important messages about the human impact on the environment).

    The British Garden: Life and Death on Your Lawn

    This documentary, hosted by Chris Packham, focusses on the wildlife we find in our gardens and it is filmed here in Hertfordshire in Welwyn Garden City. It describes how the environment changes throughout the seasons and focusses on the challenges living things have to face. A wide range of science topics is covered including seasonal change, reproduction in plants and animals, predator-prey adaptations, habitats and types of animals. They even conducted a mini science experiment to find out whether snails have a homing instinct and the results are quite surprising!

    After watching, children could show their understanding through:

    • Creating a poster to show how the garden changes in the different seasons
    • Writing about the lifecycle of one of the animals featured
    • Drawing and writing about one of the animals including its adaptations
    • Writing an information leaflet about how to maintain a wildlife-friendly garden

    Natural World 2017-2018 Nature’s Miniature Miracles

    If you’ve not had enough of nature documentaries here is another one. It tells the story of the little creatures of our world covering a range of invertebrates, mammals, birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles and their struggles for survival. Children can learn about a range of incredible adaptations including; how hermit crabs come together for a big home swap, the pebble toad and its unusual way of escaping predators and the hummingbird which migrates from Alaska to Mexico.

    After watching, children could show their understanding through:          

    • Writing a letter from one of the small creatures to something bigger explaining why life is tough when you are small
    • Writing a fact file about their favourite small creature from the programme
    • Designing and making their own small creature with adaptations that help it survive in their own habitat

    Steve Backshall

    Steve Backshall is a presenter that children may be familiar with as he presents a range of CBBC shows for children including; Deadly 60, Deadly Dinosaurs, Shark Bites and Blue Planet Revisited: A Shark’s Tale (all available through iPlayer). Deadly 60 is great for introducing children to a wide range of habitats and the animals that live within them. The explanation of what makes them deadly focusses on the adaptations they have that make them good predators and help them survive which is great for developing key science understanding.

    Steve Backshall is also delivering weekly live lessons every Wednesday at 9.30 am through Facebook and his YouTube channel. Even if you can’t tune in live, you can watch these later. I have found them to be very inspirational and learnt lots about wildlife around the world but also right here on our doorsteps. He includes footage from wildlife cameras set up around his home and some episodes have featured games such as: guess what animal made this noise and guess what animal did this poo? It is a great way of introducing children to someone who is incredibly passionate about science and the animal world. He encourages children to be curious and keep asking questions.

    After watching children could show their understanding through:

    • Writing a list of questions they would like to send to Steve Backshall (these could then be sent via Facebook or his Youtube channel)
    • Drawing and writing about their own deadly creature that could be featured in Deadly 60 (I have had both Year 4 and Year 6 pupils who loved this project)
    • Writing about why we should appreciate sharks more and why they are not as scary as they seem




    Earth rise


    The Planets with Brian Cox

    I strongly recommend that everyone (even if Space is not normally your thing) tries at least one episode of this series as, not only is it fascinating, it is also beautiful. The cinematography is spectacular and the accompanying music make it a relaxing programme to enjoy. The science is detailed, sometimes covering cutting edge research, and the science of Space is incredibly abstract in terms of scale. This may make it more appropriate for older children and adults, however, I know there are many young space enthusiasts who may enjoy watching some parts of episodes which include numerous rocket launches, stunning images of the planets and moons and details about the satellites and space probes which have taken these images.

    The five episodes tell the story of the planets and the moons in our solar system covering their unique features, how they were formed and how they may have changed. It gives an idea of size and scale and is full of interesting facts that any budding space enthusiast will love, such as: a day on Mercury is longer than a year; and temperatures on the planet range from over 400 °C in the day to under -100 °C at night.

    After watching children could show their understanding through:

    • Making a fact file of their favourite facts from an episode
    • Drawing some of the planets and labelling with the information they have learnt
    • Pretending to be one of the satellites or probes in orbit around one of the planets and writing about what they see

    (They could even pretend to be Curiosity, the rover exploring Mars.)

    Taking it further: This video from the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory shows the steps scientists took to ensure their new Mars Robot, Curiosity, landed safely. Curiosity is a car-sized rover (robot) which continues to explore the surface of Mars, taking photos and samples and sending the information back to NASA. It is helping scientists learn about the planet including whether life ever existed there. It is even able to take selfies! To find out more check out the NASA mission page.


    Hubble space telescope


    Horizon 2020, Hubble: The Wonders of Space Revealed

    This documentary will probably appeal more to space enthusiasts but is worth mentioning as it was the Hubble telescopes 30th birthday on Friday 24th April. This telescope has been in orbit around the Earth for 30 years and it continues to help us find out more about Space. The documentary tells the story of the astronauts whose job it was to upgrade and maintain the telescope and shows the challenges working in Space can bring.

    The documentary may not be for everyone, but a fun activity for all is to look at the images Hubble took on your birthday using the NASA website.

    The documentaries described in this blog allow children to see and hear from passionate scientists, find out about cutting edge research and marvel at the awe and wonder of our world. Let’s make the most of this resource and enjoy some of these programmes while developing scientific understanding.

    You may also be interested to know that since the end of March, we have been releasing weekly subject leader emails to support schools with planning science home learning.

    You can still access these here:

    When deciding what to include in these emails, our key priorities were that the content should encourage our children to be curious and think scientifically about the world around them but also be easy to engage with. We decided to include documentaries as these are readily available and they can be a powerful tool for both supporting science teaching and learning, as well as, inspiring and engaging our children in real- life science.

    Please follow us and share science home learning with us on Twitter @Hflscience.

    Why not sign up to receive our regular subject leader emails which are full of resources and ideas to support science home learning.

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