Patterns: a crosscutting concept

Children notice patterns in nature in small moments as they play in natural areas and find a new kind of leaf, or suddenly realize one morning that they are leaving for school before the sun comes up. Did that happen recently with any of your children with the daylight savings time change? Teachers can build on these observations by helping children record their observations and track small changes, and then holding discussions or conversations reflecting on these records. One of the crosscutting concepts described by the Next Generation Science Standards, Patterns, is central to many science investigations at all ages.

Child makes pretend food out of plant leaves.The crosscutting concepts, “Patterns”, “Scale, proportion, and quantity” and “Structure and function” are evident in children’s play as they choose large leaves to serve as “plates” and smaller leaves or flowers as the “food” for their housekeeping scenario. They repeat the patterns they see in the layout of food on plates, and notice the scale of the food pieces compared to the size of the plates and the structure of the stiff large plates and the easy-to-tear smaller leaves.

In the October 2014 issue of Science and Children, I wrote an Early Years column about children examining plant leaves on multiple occasions over time, and discovering patterns in shape and other attributes. 

If you have already investigated leaf shapes in your program, your children might be ready to become citizen scientists and observe the “leafing-out” of a favorite plant. Young children and their teachers can participate in Project BudBurst. This is an on-going investigation into when a plant bud begins to open–not very exciting if you only check once but when children check a plant weekly, and then document their observations with drawings or photos, the gradual change becomes exciting. And during the data gathering period, they can celebrate the day when a leaf is “as big as a fingernail”, or even their hand.

Some favorite trade books that call attention to leaves and patterns are:


  • A Tree Is Nice by Janice May Udry,
  • Maples in the Mist. by Minfong Ho,
  • A Log’s Life by Wendy Pfeffer,
  • Autumn Leaves by Ken Robbins,
  • The wonderful tree; a story of the seasons by Adelaide Hall and Gyorgy Lehoczky,
  • I Am a Leaf by Jean Marzollo
  • Trees, Leaves & Bark by Diane Burns
  • Red Leaf Yellow Leaf by Lois Elhert
  • A Tree is Growing by Arthur Dorros

What other books that you use in your program can you share with us?


  • Echoes for the Eye by Barbara Juster Esbensen,
  • Insect by Laurence Mound,
  • Children’s Guide to Birds by Jinny Johnson,
  • Fish by Steve Parker,
  • The Book of Sea Shells by Michael H. Bevans,
  • Pattern (Math Counts) by Henry Pluckrose

The Children’s Museum of New Hampshire suggests using songs and books to teach the concept of patterns to young children.

What books or other resources about patterns can you share with us?

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