Science for preschool children

Child builds a ramp structure based on her drawing.I’m taking a job with a preschool program. I’m concerned about how to incorporate science lessons with children who have had no experience with science. Any suggestions or advice would be welcome.  —C., Virginia

Thank you for taking on the awesome responsibility of working with young children! I think you’ll find that even though they may not have had formal science classes, they have many informal behaviors and experiences that lend themselves to learning and doing science: asking questions, observing and exploring their surroundings, drawing, learning new words, making new “discoveries,” being creative with materials, and using their imaginations. Many children may have visited parks and nature centers or participated in outdoor activities with their families.

The Framework for K-12 Education has a section, “Children Are Born Investigators,” describing the capabilities of young children:

In fact, the capacity of young children—from all backgrounds and socioeconomic levels— to reason in sophisticated ways is much greater than has long been assumed. Although they may lack deep knowledge and extensive experience, they often engage in a wide range of subtle and complex reasoning about the world. Thus, before they even enter school, children have developed their own ideas about the physical, biological, and social worlds and how they work. By listening to and taking these ideas seriously, educators can build on what children already know. (p.24)

Their curiosity and thought processes are interesting to observe. For example, I was at a supermarket seafood counter when a toddler sitting in a cart suddenly squealed, “Spider! Spider!” We all looked around, and her mother reassured her that there weren’t any spiders nearby. The girl pointed to silhouettes on the wall behind the counter depicting a crab and a lobster. I was impressed that she made the connection between spiders and these other arthropods. Her mother did not correct her but identified them as crabs and lobsters and said that spiders and insects were indeed related to them. She expanded the child’s knowledge and validated her observation.

Preschool activities should capitalize on young children’s experiences . It has been said that “Play is the business of childhood” and from what I’ve observed what may look like “play” in a classroom is actually the learning process at work—something that we often forget with older students! Your school program probably includes many play experiences that can be a foundation for science learning:

  • Exploring living things with classroom pets, an aquarium, or windowsill plants
  • Recording daily weather observations and looking for patterns
  • Collecting and organizing objects such as rocks, seashells, leaves
  • Investigating objects with magnifying glasses
  • Playing games that include sorting and counting objects
  • Building with blocks
  • Solving problems through trial and error
  • Making objects with clay
  • Observing with the senses and using hand lenses or cameras to gain different perspectives
  • Keeping a “journal” of drawings
  • Using outdoor space for bird or insect watching, collecting, gardening

While you observe children at play, talk to them: What is happening here? What would happen if…. Tell me about your drawing. Does that remind you of anything? A think-aloud of your own thought processes can encourage children to make connections.

You can also integrate science into other activities. Introduce appropriate words to describe or explain things. Have picture books available on high-interest topics such as animals, rocks, machines, dinosaurs, plants, and weather. Include nonfiction in read-alouds. (See NSTA Recommends or check with a librarian for suggestions.) And be sure that your displays and conversations are scientifically accurate (I cringed when I saw a bulletin board with polar bears and penguins frolicking together in the snow.)

If you’re looking for activities with a focus on specific concepts, see Peggy Ashbrook’s “The Early Years” column in NSTA’s Science and Children journal. Each issue has a different lesson with background information, suggestions for using the activity with children, and a photograph of students in action. For example, the March 2015 issue includes “Getting Messy With Matter.”  Her NSTA blog The Early Years also has helpful ideas.

Take a look at the NSTA Position Statement on Early Childhood Science Education for suggestions on supporting science learning in young children.

Although I have a secondary science background, I’ve learned from my own experiences that young children’s interest in the world around them should not be underestimated! I wonder what happens to their creativity, curiosity, and enthusiasm as they get to the upper grades?

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1 Response to Science for preschool children

  1. janet wong says:

    One great element of science ed for the primary grades is simply introducing vocabulary and concepts–so that kids are familiar (and not intimidated) when they encounter these topics in science lessons later on. Poetry can help with this. For example, here’s a poem (on Pinterest) by Rebecca Kai Dotlich that can be paired with her picture book about cranes!

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