The content of science for young children is a sophisticated interplay among concepts, scientific reasoning, the nature of science, and doing science. It is not primarily a science of information.
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While facts are important, children need to begin to build an understanding of basic concepts and how they connect and apply to the world in which they live. And the thinking processes and skills of science are also important. In our work developing curriculum for teachers, we have focused equally on science inquiry and the nature of science, and content—basic concepts and the topics through which they are explored.
In the process of teaching and learning, these are inseparable, but here I discuss them separately. Their curiosity and need to make the world a more predictable place certainly drives them to explore and draw conclusions and theories from their experiences. But left to themselves, they are not quite natural scientists. Children need guidance and structure to turn their natural curiosity and activity into something more scientific. They need to practice science—to engage in rich scientific inquiry.
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- Approximation Methods for Navier-Stokes Problems: Proceedings of the Symposium Held by the International Union of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics (IUTAM) at the University of Paderborn, Germany, September 9 – 15, 1979.
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The cycle begins with an extended period of engagement where children explore the selected phenomenon and materials, experiencing what they are and can do, wondering about them, raising questions, and sharing ideas. This is followed by a more guided stage as questions are identified that might be investigated further.
This structure is not rigid, nor is it linear—thus the many arrows. And while it is used here to suggest a scaffold for inquiry-based science teaching and learning, it closely resembles how scientists work and, in interesting ways, how children learn. Scientific inquiry provides the opportunity for children to develop a range of skills, either explicitly or implicitly.
The following is one such list:. This description of the practice of doing science is quite different from some of the science work in evidence in many classrooms where there may be a science table on which sit interesting objects and materials, along with observation and measurement tools such as magnifiers and balances. Too often the work stops there, and little is made of the observations children make and the questions they raise.
Another form of science is activity-based science where children engage in a variety of activities that generate excitement and interest but that rarely lead to deeper thinking. There are a multitude of science activity books that support this form of science in the classroom. Thematic units and projects are yet other vehicles for science work in the classroom. These can be rich and challenging; however, they may not have a focus on science.
Transportation or a study of the neighborhood are typical examples that have the potential for engaging children in interesting science but frequently focus more on concepts of social studies. If these projects or themes are to truly engage students in science, care needs to be taken to be sure that science is in the foreground, and the integration with other subject matter is appropriate and related to the science. With an of the practice of science that guides how we approach science inquiry in the early childhood classroom, we turn to the question of the content of science for this age.
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There are many phenomena that can be explored, many questions to be explored, many basic concepts to be introduced, and many topics to choose from, so rather than make a list of possible subject matter and topics, following are key criteria for guiding decisions about topic selection. At the core of inquiry-based science is direct exploration of phenomena and materials. Thus, the first criterion is that phenomena selected for young children must be available for direct exploration and drawn from the environment in which they live.
The study of snails is an example of an exploration that meets these criteria. Others include light and shadow, moving objects, structures, and plant and animal life cycles. Examples of some that do not meet these criteria include such popular topics as dinosaurs or space travel. Other topics often chosen in early childhood classrooms such as the rain forest or animals of the Arctic polar bears and penguins may be based in appropriate concepts habitat, physical characteristics, and adaptation of animals , but these too lack the possibility for direct engagement.
Topics such as these need not be excluded. They can be the subject of important dramatic play, elaborate discussion, and exploration using books and other secondary sources. The problem arises when they take time away from or substitute for inquiry-based science experiences. Such an experience provides a base from which children will gradually develop an understanding of adaptation and evolution. Working with balls on ramps is yet another example where skillfully guided experiences build a foundation for later understanding of forces and motion.
A third criterion is that the focus of science be on concepts that are developmentally appropriate and can be explored from multiple perspectives, in depth, and over time. When children have many and varied opportunities to explore a phenomenon, they come to the final stages of inquiry with a rich set of experiences on which to base their reflections, their search for patterns and relationships, and their developing theories. This might be followed by observing their own movement and that of other familiar animals and a continuing discussion about similarities and differences and how movement relates to where an animal lives and how it gets its food.
In contrast to this depth and breadth are experiences with phenomena such as magnets that are very engaging, but once children have noted what they do, there is little else to explore. Equally important, the third criterion is that the phenomena, concepts, and topics must be engaging and interesting to the children AND their teachers.
While not a criterion for the selection of content for an individual unit, across a year, the science program should reflect a balance of life and physical science. For many reasons, teachers are more comfortable with the life sciences and steer away from physical science. This leaves out explorations of deep interest to children and deprives them of the challenges and excitement of experimentation.
Inquiry into life science is different from inquiry into physical science, the former being more observational, taking place slowly over time. Inquiry in the physical sciences is more experimental with immediate results. Both are important, so it is balance that is important in an early childhood science program. January Water tables continue to be one of the favorite centers in the room. I love seeing how engaged the kids become filling cups, emptying cups, moving water from one compartment in the water table to another. January It was too cold for the kids to go outside today, so the kids in my small group did a clay project instead.
The theme for the project was making things that can hold water. Tonya made a pot. Alex made a vase. Sam made a bowl. Ben made a pancake, then rolled it up. And suddenly, all the kids were making pipes! January The kids in my small group asked if they could keep making clay pipes today, so we did. They can really imagine how the water is going to move.
Later Sam and Ben worked on making a long pipe. They wanted water to come out of both ends at once, so Sam suggested cutting a hole in the middle of the top so that they can add another pipe there. I asked him where that idea came from. January During free choice, the kids continue to spend lots of time at the water table—using the tubes and T-connectors, exploring how water goes up and down and around the water wire wall.
At the same time, their work on Water Town feeds their work at the water table. There are many implications for the classroom given this view of science. It is co-constructed by the child and the teacher. The phenomena and the basic concepts are determined by the teacher, perhaps because of an interest she has observed in the classroom, but this need not be the case. Once a phenomenon is introduced and children begin their explorations, their questions may guide much of what follows.
But the idea of pipes and Water Town clearly belonged to the children. The selection of and access to materials are critical to science. It is through the materials that children confront and manipulate the phenomenon in question. To the extent possible, the materials must be open ended, transparent, and selected because they allow children to focus on important aspects of the phenomenon.
This is in contrast to materials that by their appearance and the ways in which they can be manipulated guide what children do and think. One example of the difference is the prefabricated marble run. Rather than creating their own roadway for marbles and struggling to make it work, the marble run has done the thinking for the children. All they need to do is drop the marble in and watch it roll. This is very different from using blocks and some form of gutter materials where they need to grapple with the slope, the corners, the intersection of the parts, and solve the problem of getting the marble to reach their finish line.
The materials themselves are open ended, and the movement of water visible. A third example is the use of multiple kinds of blocks and construction materials when investigating structures. In such an investigation, Legos might be temporarily removed because the fact that they snap together reduces the challenge of building towers and walls and thus reduces the focus on the forces at work.
Good science investigations take place over extended time, both short term and long term. Engaged children may stay with something for significant periods of time, and some children may need time to get involved. The typical schedule in the classrooms of young children often militates against inquiry-based science learning. Short or minute activity or choice times allow children to start but not continue their work. In addition, if science work is episodic and not available regularly during the week, continuity is lost and the opportunity to draw conclusions reduced.
Science also needs to be talked about and documented. This, too, takes time. Science needs space. If children are to engage with phenomena in many different ways, activity may need to be spread out in the classroom and outdoors. Building structures may happen in the block area, on table tops, in the sand table. Germinating seeds need to be put somewhere, as do plants that are growing in other ways and interesting collections from outdoors.
An investigation of shadows might include a shadow puppet theater, a darkened alcove for playing with flashlights, and a lamp and screen to explore shapes. The purpose of this study was to investigate structure mapping processes that occur during acquisition of new relational categories and to identify the learning patterns and systematicity of children with autism spectrum disorder ASD compared with intellectual and developmental disabilities IDD and typical development TD.
Comparison effect and level of familiarity were used to investigate structural mapping processes. Three groups of 24 children participated in the study.
Using a computer program, participants were asked to select a perceptual or relational choice based on one or two standards using illustrations depicting new relational categories in various spatial configurations. Known, partially known and unknown illustrations were used in depicting three levels of familiarity.
All three groups selected perceptual choices when one standard was available no comparison. However, when two standards were available, enabling a comparison, children with IDD and TD increased their tendency for selecting abstract relational categories, while children with ASD did not change their preference and continued selecting perceptual choices. Systematicity principle was evident mostly in the selection of relational choices by children with TD and IDD when the illustrations were known or partially known.
Hence, even when an opportunity to compare and to use previously known information was available, structure mapping processes and systematicity were implemented to align information among children TD and IDD but failed to assist the learning of new relational categories among children with ASD.
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Science Inquiry and the Nature of Science
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