System exploration in early childhood

Children's coats hanging on hooks.When winter sets in, teachers set aside time in the schedule for children to remove and store their winter outwear. Such a variety of clothing systems appear! Coats and jackets with zippers, hoods, snaps and Velcro, mittens and gloves, hats that pull on or strap on, snow pants and overalls, scarves and boots! These items are the parts of the system that keeps children warm outside. 

Children master the skill of putting on and fastening these items over time as their fine motor skills develop and they have repeated opportunities to practice. Some children get undressed or dressed faster than their classmates. Instead of waiting, they can collect data. On a tally chart with pictures of each kind of clothing, they can make a tally mark for each item they observe. Some questions to investigate include, “Does the number of _____ change with changing weather?” “What kind of hat do children find easiest to put on? What kind of jacket do children find easiest to fasten? Which kinds of fastening do children prefer? 

Cover of January 2015 Science and ChildrenIn the January 2015 issue of Science and Children, I wrote about children investigating coats as systems, examining the parts of various coats and measuring and recording data. What systems are the children in your program investigating?

Although children experience a world where complex systems, such as atomic structure, operate, they may have not reached a developmental age where they understand these systems, forces and particles. We know this because researchers who investigate how children learn have discovered the age ranges when children can use their information to demonstrate or model these concepts (Michaels and others). Ready Set SCIENCE! (Michaels), particularly Chapter 3, discusses conceptual change in children’s thinking “as a result of instruction, experience, and maturation.” The authors state, “A key challenge for teachers is to build on students’ embodied knowledge and understanding of the world and to help them confront their misconceptions productively in order to develop new understanding” (pg 38).

 Beginning with systems common in the lives of young children, early childhood educators can lay the foundation for later learning.


Michaels Sarah, and Andrew W. Shouse, Heidi A. Schweingruber. 2007. Ready, Set, Science!: Putting Research to Work in K-8 Science Classrooms. National Research Council

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2 Responses to System exploration in early childhood

  1. Mark says:

    I really like the idea of seeing clothing as part of a system. How we adapt to weather with our clothing can help children see how animals adapt. I was looking for resources on blubber (clothing types!) and found a totally engaging activity for primary grades using shortening as blubber. I found it at under Winter Animals-Be a Polar Bear. It will be easy to combine both of these activities in the classroom.

  2. Peggy Ashbrook says:

    Thank you for that resource Mark. You might also take a look at a similar activity in “Thinking BIG Learning BIG,” a free download here: Author Marie Faust Evitt’s class measures their ‘Cold Count’ in the section titled “Thinking BIG About Ice: Brrr! It’s Cold.”
    Using shortening and then trying to remove it from anywhere it got on your hands is also a lesson in how materials don’t easily combine!

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