Teaching Science in the Early Childhood Classroom

AUTHOR: Aliza Rivera, Early Childhood Specialist

I can remember when the idea of teaching science to a room full of 4 year-olds terrified me. My fear often led to science activities that were either “safe,” not messy, or often underdeveloped. Students tended to overlook my science center and it was not utilized enough by my young students. I can even recall a memory where I encouraged my students to look, but not touch. Sound familiar? You are not the only one.

Leo F. Buscaglia states, “It is paradoxical that many educators and parents still differentiate between a time for learning and a time for play without seeing the vital connection between them.” For the longest time I was in denial of the idea that young children already come to school with an innate sense of natural curiosity about the world and how it works. I had to work on my ability to understand the different ways that young children play. I often had to stop what I was doing, listen to what my students were saying and reflect on their subsequent actions through the different play opportunities planned throughout the day. By doing this, I came to understand and conquer my fear of teaching science. I found that my fear was based on a personal struggle of not understanding how play activities connected with content knowledge and how they could come to support young children’s learning of science naturally through play.

Realizing that science is everywhere and that it can be integrated into the curriculum in a variety of ways, I began to develop a deeper understanding of essential scientific ideas rather than a superficial acquaintance of isolated facts. I embraced the opportunity in allowing my young students with sufficient time to develop a deeper understanding for the world around them.  When I began to allow more time for my students to explore, it provided me with the opportunity to observe the capacity to which the play became more complex.  When I engaged in play with my students, I began to understand the opportunities in which to question the understanding of my student’s thinking patterns and to acknowledge the different content areas they were experiencing.  When my students demonstrated to me a variety of skills that could be seen universally across content areas, then I introduced additional materials that supported my student’s’ natural sense of inquiry.

These observable skills included:

  • exploring objects, materials, and events
  • asking questions
  • making observations
  • engaging in simple investigations
  • describing (including shape, size, number), comparing, sorting, classifying and ordering
  • recording observations by using words, pictures, charts and graphs
  • working collaboratively with others
  • sharing and discussing ideas
  • listening to new perspectives (Hamlin & Wisneski, 2012)

Teachers, just like myself, who utilized inquiry and science in the early childhood classroom came to the realization that it built a natural pathway that allowed them to understand and value the thinking processes of the young learner. In doing so, they used their students’ thinking processes as learning experiences in helping guide their students to uncover explanations that were closer to a scientific idea than simply learning through isolated facts (Hamlin & Wisneski, 2012)  Developing inquiry in an early childhood classroom can transform a class from a collection of individuals into a community of learners that openly share their interpretations of the natural world around them (Worth & Grollman, 2003). Research has shown that such learning experiences can help children reform and refine their theories and explanations—to learn how to think through their ideas, to take risks and ask additional questions, and to reconsider their ideas on the basis of others’ views (Vygotsky, 1962).

Science is part of our everyday lives. How can teachers use play as opportunities to engage young learners in scientific inquiry? The key is in the types of experiences teachers create for young learners and how well they support children during play. Fostering a young child’s natural sense of inquiry is essentially building a strong foundation for the ongoing development of many cognitive skills across content areas (Worth & Grollman, 2003).

Sources:

Hamlin, M., & Wisneski, D. B. (2012, May). Supporting the Scientific Thinking and Inquiry of Toddlers and Preschoolers through Play. Young Children, 67(3), 82-88.

Vygotsky, L.S. (1986). Thought and Language. Cambridge, M.A.: The MIT Press.

Worth, Karen & Grollman, Sharon. (2003). Worms, shadows, and whirlpools: Science in the early childhood classroom. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.


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