Promoting Children’s Science Learning One Step at a Time
Felicia likes doing science activities with her preschoolers, but she doesn’t always feel confident about what she is teaching or how she is teaching it. The state science standards she uses as a guide have been revised and updated, and some of the concepts (unity and diversity of life; energy, forces, and motion) seem sophisticated for preschool. Additionally, children aren’t always interested in the science experiments she uses to teach important concepts. Sometimes they just shrug when she asks for their predictions, or they want her to do the activities instead of them. Alternatively, the children always love it when she puts out simple items they can explore on their own like magnets and a variety of small objects, pieces of cove molding and marbles, or a bucket of ice with scoops and containers. She wishes she could find more engaging lessons that address her state science standards and don’t require special materials or a lot of time to set up. Most of all, Felicia wishes she felt more comfortable and confident about teaching science and answering children’s science questions in ways they can understand.
First of all, Felicia needs to know she is not alone. Two new studies, one focused on preschool teachers and another on parents of 3- to 6-year-olds, suggest that many adults lack confidence in supporting children’s science learning. In particular, they wonder about what science young children should be learning, how to answer children’s science questions, and how to support science learning with everyday materials.
Here are five ideas from both studies that will help early childhood educators support science learning in the classroom and communicate with families about how to support children’s science learning at home.
1. Provide opportunities for children to unleash their inner scientist.
All adults who work with and/or have children know that children are born curious and compelled to investigate everything in the world around them using all their senses. Although we expect and want young children to be curious, we often do not recognize the important role curiosity plays in learning. Curiosity motivates children to learn and try new things and is a fundamental scientific attitude. The most important thing adults can do to promote children’s science learning is to nurture their curiosity. This means creating safe environments for curious hands: providing objects, materials, living things, and experiences that are responsive to children’s interests, and supporting their explorations even when they are messy, noisy, or inconvenient. Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist and director of Hayden Planetarium, says it best in the video “Let Kids Be Kids.” Although letting children break eggs on the kitchen floor may be a stretch, try saying yes to children’s curiosity-driven explorations more often.
2. Listen to and acknowledge children’s science questions and ideas.
As adults, we tend to want to explain concepts to children even when we are not sure of the answers ourselves. Consider responding to some of children’s questions (How does it rain? Why do birds sing? Where do clouds come from?) by asking them what they think. Don’t be afraid to say you don’t know the answer. Maybe you can do some research together in a book or online. More important, “listen” for the questions that children do not put into words. Children’s actions—like digging in the dirt, filling and dumping water between different-size containers, pushing a line of toy cars—can give us clues to what they are wondering: Does anything live in the dirt? Why does the water fill some containers and spill over others? How can I make all the cars move together in a straight line? These questions often lend themselves to direct investigation and conversation more easily than children’s verbal questions do.
3. Shift your focus from explaining concepts to facilitating science inquiry.
Children’s early explorations naturally bring them into contact with key science concepts. For example, when children play with blocks, water, and playdough, they are introduced to the physical science concept that the properties of objects and materials (e.g., soft, hard, squishy, sticky) can be observed and described. When they mix different colors of paints or investigate ice cubes, they begin to think and learn about how materials can change when they are mixed, heated, or cooled. Instead of explaining these concepts through books or by doing experiments that guide children to a particular outcome (measuring specific amounts of flour and water to make “cloud dough,” for example), try providing the materials (a bowl of flour, a bowl of water, an empty bowl, and a spoon) and watching what children do with them. As they work, talk with them about what they are doing (You added more flour to the mixture!), what they are noticing (How did the mixture change as a result?), and thinking about (Why do you think that happened?).
4. Take advantage of the science potential of everyday materials and experiences.
As adults we sometimes think that doing and learning science requires specialized equipment, kits, or tools such as goggles and test tubes. We often don’t recognize the potential that everyday materials like blocks and water offer for science inquiry and learning. When children build structures with different types of blocks and building materials, for example, they experience how the properties of the blocks (e.g., their size, shape, weight, texture, hardness) contribute to the strength and stability of their structures. When children build different types of structures such as towers, barns, and castles, they experience how forces (e.g., gravity, compression, tension) influence whether their buildings stand or topple. We can facilitate this learning by encouraging children to draw their buildings; measure and compare different structures; and talk about what they made, how they made it, and why they made it that way. And in general, take note of the types of play that children are drawn to. If children are engaged and persistent, chances are good the activity has some science learning potential!
5. Seek out high-quality science and STEM resources.
There are huge numbers of resources online that are billed as science and STEM activities and materials. Evaluating them can be challenging. Look for quality resources that have been vetted by early childhood science educators and researchers, such as those found on the Peep and the Big Wide World sites for educators, parents, and children and the newly developed PBS Ready to Learn media resources for children. Another valuable resource is the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) position statement on early childhood science education (endorsed by NAEYC). NSTA also has a site devoted to science resources for parents. The NAEYC Early Childhood Science Interest Forum (ECSIF) is a diverse group of passionate science educators who are available for discussing any topic related to EC science with fellow parents and educators. You can find contact information for the forum here. To learn how to join a forum through your NAEYC member profile, please visit the HELLO support page.
As we move further into the 21st century, quality science education for all children is an increasing national priority. Preschoolers of today will need to be proficient in science and technology in order to take on the technical jobs and careers of tomorrow and to make informed decisions on personal and global science issues. By expanding their knowledge, skills, and confidence in teaching science one step at a time, preschool educators will be equipped to promote quality science learning in the classroom and to support families’ at-home science experiences as well.
Alexandra Adair is a member of the EDC/SRI research team working on the CPB/PBS Ready to Learn Initiative, which is funded through the US Department of Education.
Cindy Hoisington is an EC science educator and Project Director at the Education Development Center where she designs and develops STEM professional learning, curriculum, and resources for educators and families aimed at enriching the quality of children’s early science and language experiences with a focus on multilingual learners.