By: Cindy Hoisington
As an early childhood teacher, I often engaged my young preschoolers in science experiences. Whenever I could, I provided opportunities for them to explore, observe, and think about the world around them. They followed the insects they found on the playground; investigated with goop and other mixtures; designed and built structures using cardboard and paper cups; and created organized collections from the seeds, twigs, and leaves they found on our neighborhood walks.
I saw how science appealed to the children’s natural curiosity and how they benefitted physically, cognitively, and socially from their playful explorations. But what really excited me about engaging young children in science were the sometimes topsy-turvy but somehow logical ideas they came up with to explain how the world worked. “Our block buildings fall down because we’re not wearing hard hats!” “Shadows are bigger outside because the sun is bigger than a flashlight!” “It’s the shaking leaves on the trees that make the wind blow!”
As children shared these early scientific ideas with me over time, I came to understand two things. First, science and young children are “a natural fit.” Three, four, and five year-olds have the emerging capacity to think abstractly, to reason, and to wrestle with scientific ideas. And second, young children are not miniature versions of adult scientists or older science students. Young children engage with science ideas and practices within a unique developmental and experiential context that needs to be acknowledged and respected.
As a professional developer who now works with preschool teachers, these two ideas continue to guide my thinking about science in the early years. For this reason I enthusiastically welcomed NAEYC’s endorsement of the Position Statement on Early Childhood Science Education recently adopted by the National Science Teachers’ Association (NSTA). The mutual support of the NSTA and NAEYC means that those of us who are passionate about science and young children can be confident that the statement reflects an approach that is firmly rooted in both science education research and developmentally appropriate practice.
However, the position statement also makes it clear that providing young children with the types of high-quality science experiences that address these two perspectives is no small task. It incorporates the idea that children need sustained and varied opportunities for inquiry-based, direct, experiential learning over time and across formal and informal settings. Children also require the support of knowledgeable adults who intentionally prepare the environment, structure children’s experiences, support their play, and focus their observations.
The statement calls for knowledgeable educators who understand and can support children’s learning of science content and science and engineering practices that align with NGSS; who incorporate these practices into children’s daily experiences and use science as a purposeful context for integrating meaningful language, literacy, and mathematics skills and concepts.
So, what does all of this mean for you and the role you play related to children’s science learning? For me, as an instructor and coach for early childhood teachers, the position statement is an accessible tool I can use to help teachers think about children’s capacity for doing and learning science. It can help me communicate the importance of maintaining play and exploration at the center of the preschool curriculum. It can help me motivate teachers to become advocates for the time, space, and materials children need to build conceptual understanding. It can help me excite teachers about interpreting children’s science ideas and using them as launching pads for on-going investigations. And finally, the position statement can help me reinforce to teachers the critical role they play, not in answering children’s science questions, but in fostering children’s abilities to reason, reflect, and generate increasingly sophisticated theories about the world around them.