Steven gently holds Toady as Claudia examines the croaking toad with a magnifying lens.
With his teacher sitting nearby to offer encouragement, Eric plants a seedling he grew at home from a grapefruit seed.
Brittany caresses Bunny, while Fred listens intently to hear the rabbit's heartbeat.
What do these five preschoolers have in common
nature. They're all observing nature in action, exploring living things and learning basic scientific concepts through spontaneous play.
Young children are scientists by nature. They are born with a strong sense of curiosity
that impels them to explore, experi-
ment, and make discoveries. Both the
4-year-old preschooler who compares
her handprints with her friend's and
the 34-year-old biologist who com-
pares various gene combinations in a
lab share a basic human desire to find
out now things work and to make sense of their world. This is the foundation of all scientific thinking.
Look around and you will see that science is everywhere — in our rooms, on our playgrounds, in our
lunch boxes, and within each individual. As teachers, we need to create an
environment in which this natural thirst for knowledge is nurtured.
Science learning takes time. Children need to have a large block of time each day in which they are free to follow their
curiosity and experiment with materials to find for themselves the answers to questions as,
"What will happen if ...?" and "How will it change?" They also need time
to test their results, often by repeating the same experiment again and again.
A child may return to the same type of experiment over a period of days or
even weeks, if he or she is working on a complicated theory or project that
evolves slowly, such as growing plants, making raisins
from grapes, or watching the metamorphosis of a butterfly
or a frog.
Science learning requires adequate space. Children
need enough room to move about freely and actively
explore the wonders of the natural world. Science learning
also requires the right types of space. Some science exper-
iments are messy, and they need a place in which drips
and spills won't be a problem. Others are noisy, and they
need a place in which the noise won't interfere with other
children's needs. Many science experiments require sun-
light or involve weather, so windows or adequate outdoor
spaces are important.
An environment filled with real hands-on materials for exploration will
stimulate children's curiosity and provide them with opportunities for
discovery. A room for young children is not a place for quiet sit-down,
paper-and-pencil tasks on worksheets and workbook pages. Instead, it's a laboratory
of learning about the real world through interactions with people, plants, animals, and materials.
While science can happen anywhere, a discovery, or science,
center is the place where plants are grown, observed, and recorded;
where rocks are collected, examined, broken, and grouped; where
nuts are cracked, tasted, and sorted. Because the discovery center
plays a major role in learning, it needs to be well thought out and
planned. It's not enough to place a few rocks, a magnifying glass,
pinecones, and nuts on a tray and call it the discovery center. The
discovery center should offer chil dren many opportunities to
explore, experiment, think, and, of course, discover.
It's also a place to provide a variety of science activities from
which children can choose. A good rule of thumb for a smooth-running
center is to have approximately two and a half activities per child
using the center. For example, if four children can use the center at
one time, provide 10 choices for them. Too many activities may
cause frustration — "I'll never do them all"— and too few activities
can create anxiety — "I'll never get a turn." Change the activities when children give you
signals that they're bored with them, such as ignoring the
materials or repeatedly using them in inappropriate ways.
This might happen after a month or after a day, depending
on children's interest.
The successful discovery center is child-directed. A good way to accomplish this is
to include rebus (picture) directions for each activity that's in the center. This is
especially helpful for those children who don't speak English. Rebus directions
allow children to choose an activity that interests them, do the activity, return it to its place, and then choose another activity
— without waiting for verbal directions from you. (Of course, if they have trouble, they should feel free to come
to you for help.)
It's also important for you to organize the discovery
center in a way that helps control the use of equipment
and makes cleanup easy. When you do this, the discovery
center offers indirect guidance for the children working
there. Put the activities on low shelves so children can
choose them independently. Also, make each activity self-
contained. Place them on trays, in buckets, or in baskets.
This way, you define the boundary of the activity and give
children a place to return materials. Plan for easy cleanup
by keeping a trash can, sponge, whisk broom, or any other
item that is needed nearby, within easy reach of children.
Perhaps the most important ingredient in a room for
science learning is the emotional climate that you create.
In a supportive environment, children are encouraged to
touch, to investigate, and to find out for themselves the
answers to their questions. They're encouraged to take
risks, without the fear of "getting it wrong." Their ques-
tions and ideas are treated with respect, and their explo-
rations are validated by your interest. When you help chil-
dren make their own discoveries — and share with them
your own natural sense of wonder, curiosity, and joy of
discovery — you're creating an environment in which
genuine learning can take place naturally and sponta-
neously throughout each and every day.
One of the best things about encouraging young childrens explorations is that you
don't have to be a science expert yourself to do a good job. It's not important that
you know a lot of scientific terminology or that you understand all the underlying
scientific principles for the way things work. That kind of information will come at a
later stage of education. When working with young children, your role is not
to serve as a dispenser of knowledge, but as a facilitator of learning. In fact, if you
don't know the answer to a child's question, discuss howyou can go about getting
the information you need. Learning how to find out, and that it's okay not to know all
the answers, is more important than a
quick response. When you provide the time, space, materials, and emotional climate for children to follow their
natural curiosity and sense of wonder, you're building
foundations for lifelong scientific thinking.
With so many choices and opportunities for learning, deciding what
to put in the various learning centers may, at times, seem confusing. It helps
to think about the ways young children learn. As
you know, they don't separate their learning experiences into
fragmented subject areas, such as "language" or "problem solving" experience a
young child has affects the way he or she approaches other experiences. Their
learning is Integrated, with one idea flowing into another in a natural, spontaneus way.
Keeping this natural integration in mind, consider organizing materials and planning experiences for learning
within the framework of thematic units. When you use
themes to pull your curriculum together, you provide a
foundation for learning in all areas. Every activity in every
learning center becomes meaningful to children and relevant to the topic being explored. Within a thematic unit,
children who choose to build with blocks, paint at the
easel, look at picture books, or work with puzzles are all
experiencing activities related to a central topic that sparks
their interest. Their learning environment makes sense to
children because all the activities work together.
How do you go about selecting themes? Listen carefully to children's conversations. Pay attention to interests,
questions, and ideas children express. One idea will lead
to another, as you and the children enter into a partnership
and go about planning meaningful learning experiences.
Let's take a look at the way one class developed a thematic unit from a lunchtime conversation.
One day at lunchtime, as Susan was sipping milk through a straw, a curious
expression appeared on her face. She turned to the boy sitting next to her and
asked, "Kevin, where does the milk in these little boxes come from?" Without
a moment's thought thought, Kevin answered, "From all the big boxes!" LaTron
jumped into the conversation and said, "No, it doesn't. It comes from the store!" Then Maria
chimed in, "My milk comes from the refrigerator." As
their teacher, Ms. Young, listened to the children's conversation, it became clear that this would be a good time
to study milk.
The next day at group time, Ms. Young encouraged the
children to discuss where they thought milk comes from.
She wrote all their ideas on an experience chart, but the
children still had questions about milk and its source. Ms.
Young suggested that they do research, and the children
decided to ask their families where milk comes from.
Without being aware of it, the children were following
the scientific method. They identified the question,
"Where does milk come from?" and wrote their hypothe-
ses on the experience chart. Now the research phase was
beginning. The children were encouraged to talk to their
families about milk and to bring in from home any books
about the subject.
The next morning, the children were excited to share
what they'd learned. They all agreed that milk comes from
a cow, but that answer only raised other questions. How
does the milk get in the cow? How does the milk get out
of the cow? How does it get in the boxes? Why is it
white? How does it get to the stores? Are there different
kinds of milk? Ms. Young and the children discussed
ways to find out more about cows. They decided a trip to
a dairy farm would be the best way, but since there wasn't
one in their area, they opted to watch a video or movie
about cows and milk.
The group followed through on their plan, an important
step in research, and watched a video that took place on a
farm and showed farmers and machines milking cows.
Again, many questions were answered, but new ones
appeared. For example, when they saw a goat being
milked, it caused quite a stir. The children had been sure
they knew exactly where milk comes from! Goats? It was
an exciting discovery. The children were curious about the
different tastes of cow and goat milk. They decided to
have a tasting party and to serve only milk and foods
made from milk. The children were making plans to use
their senses to gather knowledge.
During the following week, the children's interest remained strong and they continued
to gather information on the subject and reformulate their ideas. The library center was
filled with the books about cows, farms, and milk that the children brought in from home.
Ms. Young also provided blank-paper books, and some of the children created their
own "cow books," which they read to friends, sharing
their new ideas and information. Other children looked
through the book The Cow Who Fell In the Canal by
Phyllis Krasilovsky (Doubleday), while they listened to
the accompanying tape.
In the block corner, two groups of children
worked on different projects, while one child
played alone. In one group, three children
were trying to duplicate a barn they'd seen in
a book. There were intense discussions about
where to place each block in order to make
the barn walls stand. Nearby, two other children were playing with plastic farm animals.
They had built four fenced-in living areas
with the blocks, and they were deciding which animals to
put in each. Without being aware of it, they were grouping
the animals, a very basic and necessary scientific skill.
Carlos, who was working alone, built a large fenced-in
area for one cow. Mrs. Rojas, the assistant teacher,
stopped by and asked Carlos to tell her about the cow and
the area he had constructed. He carefully explained, "My
cow has to make lots of milk, so it has to eat lots of grass,
so it needs lots of ground for eating lots of foods." After
watching the video about cows on a farm, Carlos had fig-
ured out that if his cow eats more, it can give more milk.
In the art center, Ms. Young had placed black, brown, and white paint
at the easel. Offering more neutral colors was an invitation for children
to experiment with cowlike colors, while those children who were ready
for representational art could attempt to create a cow.
In the manipulative center, two children were hunched
over a puzzle of a cow, trying to find the various body
parts to put in the right places. Two other children were
trying to match pictures of baby animals to their mothers,
which helped them become aware of similarities and differences
in the animals. Another child was putting a set of
picture cards, which showed the different steps involved
in milking a cow, in sequential order.
The children had heard cowbells in the video, and this led to a discussion about
bells. Following their interest in the sounds they'd heard, Ms. Young added
different-sized cowbells to the music center for free exploration
and experimentation. As a few children compared the different pitches
and tones, the teacher took advantage of their interest and asked,
"What do you think makes the bells sound different?
What makes them sound the same?" This was a perfect
opportunity to combine music with science.
In the dramatic-play center, several children were pretending to farm the ground,
using the buckets, rakes, and shovels that Ms. Young had added. They also played
with the different milk and milk-product containers and packages that the teacher
provided. When Jacquelyn held up a yogurt container and said, "My mommy eats this every
morning for breakfast," the children decided to add yogurt
to their tasting party.
Ms. Young and the children got out the party list and
added yogurt to it. After some discussion, they also added
cottage cheese, cheese, whipped cream, skim milk, and
sour cream to their list. And although they all agreed they
knew what chocolate milk tasted like, they decided it
would be fun to have it at their party, anyway. The list
A lively and interesting discussion arose
about buttermilk. When one child said
he hated it's taste, others agreed to leave it off the list. But when Ms. Young
asked the group how many children had actually tasted it, no one else had.
The teacher decided this was an excellent time to make butter with the children,
so they could discover what but termilk was and where it came from.
The next day in the science center, Ms. Young set up a
butter-making activity. On a tray were small baby-food
jars with lids, heavy cream, a tablespoon, a package of
crackers, cups, and a rebus recipe card to show the children the steps in making better.
Kevin and Susan, the two children who began the cow/milk study, chose to do the
activity first. They each put a tablespoon of heavy cream
into a jar and put on the lid. Then they shook and shook
their jars, stopping frequently to observe what was happening. Mrs. Rojas encouraged them to continue shaking
the jars. After a while, Kevin shouted, "Look! Look! I see
Kevin's butter. Then Susan discovered butter in her jar.
Her lump of butter was much larger than Kevin's, and the
admiration from the group started all over again.
Kevin's and Susan's discoveries inspired the others in
the class to make their own butter, which they spread on
crackers to taste. As the children made the butter, they
poured off the liquid into a large, clear jar. No one seemed to notice the
jar filling up until one child said, "What is that stuff? It looks yucky!"
This drew some of the other children into a discussion about the liquid.
Mrs. Rojas listened to see if they would guess that this was buttermilk.
After a while, she asked, "What does it look like? What else do you know
that is the same color?" LaTron solved the problem. "It's buttermilk!" she shouted. "Yuck!"
The two teachers knew that tasting
it would give the children more information about the liquid, but they
refrained from suggesting a trial by such unwilling taste buds. Instead,
Ms. Young began a discussion of how
people know whether they like the way something tastes. Finally, the group agreed that the only way to
know if they liked the taste of buttermilk was to taste it. A bit of butter milk was poured into a small cup for
each child. Reluctantly, children took
very small tastes — and they unanimously decided that they didn't like
it. But they did agree that by tasting it, their decision was scientifically valid
because it was based on research.
Finally, it was time for the tasting party. The children reviewed their list
of foods. It had grown quite a lot since they first decided to taste the
difference between cow and goat milk. With Ms. Young's help, they
assigned foods to bring in from home and volunteered for different jobs.
The room was filled with excitement the day of the party. The children cut
up those foods that needed it, filled cups with small scoops of the other
items, and set the table.
Then the actual taste-testing began. Each item was sampled and discussed. The air was filled with joyful
discoveries as the group shared their different ideas and opinions on the merits of the various foods.
When the children had tasted everything and cleaned up from their
party, Ms. Young pulled out a large sheet of paper made into a bar graph.
On each line she had drawn a picture of one of the foods the children had
tasted. She asked them to think about which one they liked best. As each
child shared which food he or she liked best, the teacher drew a stick
figure of the child, with his name beneath it, beside the picture of the
food. Then they examined the results of their taste-testing. They compared
the best liked — chocolate milk — to the least liked, which had zero votes
— skim milk and cottage cheese. Ms. Young made smaller copies of the
graph so each child could take one home and share the results of the
taste-testing party with his family. The original graph was placed on the
wall at children's eye level for them to examine at their leisure.
To bring closure to the milk study, the children decided to make a big
book about milk. Each child contributed to it by drawing a picture,
dictating a story, or doing both. The book was assembled using notebook
rings and placed in the library center, where children could look at it when
they pleased. The children felt satisfied and delighted with all the new
information they had learned about cows and milk.
These teachers introduced new ideas to the children in ways that
made the study about milk and cows meaningful. Offering experiences
based on a theme the children chose helped them leam about their world,
organize information, and structure their thinking. They truly learned
about cows and milk because they made discoveries on their own, rather
than having the information "taught" to them. Although the teachers
focused the activities on one topic, the children were encouraged to follow
their interests — whether by writing a story, working a puzzle, ringing the
bells, painting at an easel, or building with blocks. These learning areas may
not traditionally be labeled science, yet they allowed the children to fol-
low their curiosity and explore a variety of scientific concepts.