Early Childhood Education
Science education is an essential component of the early childhood curriculum because it satisfies children’s desire to learn about the everyday world and allows them an opportunity to exercise and further develop their cognitive skills. Young children’s high level of engagement in science activities also provides a context within which the early childhood teacher can introduce opportunities for learning other things such as language and early literacy skills.
Science is a cultural and social construct. Ways of referring to science include scientific thinking, scientific facts, the scientific method, and science processes. The goals of science education can include acquiring a body of information, understanding the scientific method as a system of sustained and systematic inquiry, active participation in this form of inquiry, developing the cognitive processes used in doing science, and learning to apply scientific understanding to everyday life experiences.
In the United States, science education has typically involved a transmission model whereby the teacher delivered a prescribed body of information to sitting, listening, and perhaps note-taking students who would later be tested on their acquisition and retention of the information. Recent reform efforts in science education have challenged this traditional approach. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (1993) and the National Research Council (1996) concur that science education should focus less on science as a body of facts to be mastered and more on science as a way of thinking and trying to understand the world. Thus, reform in science education calls for students to be involved in the experiences of science inquiry from the very beginning of their education.
The science curriculum within early childhood settings is consistent with many of these recommendations and has a long tradition of what is often called “hand-on” or active engagement. Principles of exploration, manipulation, and hypothesis testing have been seen as vital and natural to young children’s science learning. Indeed, Piagetian scholars frequently evoke his imagine of children as “young scientists.”
A reform perspective for science education builds on young children’s strengths and these traditions. For the most part, children younger than five years depend on their personal experiences as the basis for learning. Although they are actively acquiring language, they are not yet skilled in taking in information through linguistic input alone. Thus, if science is conceived of as a body of knowledge to be transmitted linguistically, it is not suitable for the early childhood classroom. If, on the other hand, science is conceived of as a process of investigating and understanding the natural world, then it is an ideal match for the early childhood classroom because young children continually and actively make meaning of their everyday experiences in their physical and sociocultural environments. Language supplements this experientially based learning. Children use linguistic input from others to assist them in understanding and interpreting their experience and they actively use language to express their understandings and to ask questions that will help them interpret their experiences.
The Components of a Science Curriculum
“Science education” implies moving beyond the young child’s natural processes of learning about the everyday world to undertake systematic and sustained inquiry into phenomena of the natural world. This can lead to three somewhat distinguishable developments that must be considered in designing a science curriculum: content knowledge, a “script” for scientific inquiry, and basic cognitive skills.
Content knowledge. Any aspect of the natural world that can be made accessible to the young child can become the content for science education. Young children’s reliance on personal experience as the foundation for learning argues for a focus on phenomena that can be perceived by the child—for example, exploring the characteristics of water would be more feasible and appropriate at the early childhood level than would exploring the combination of molecules or the processes of climate change.
Whatever the domain, it is important that it be introduced to children in a structured manner that allows them to build a basic cognitive representation (mental structure) that can form the basis for further learning. Once children have learned, for example, the essential differences between living and nonliving things, that knowledge will influence what they notice and thus what they learn from future experiences. Whatever the domain, it is also important that children be provided with the appropriate tools, including vocabulary to describe their new concepts. Preschoolers who have carried out investigations shining a flashlight at plastic wrap, wax paper, and cardboard have developed some concepts about whether and how light moves through objects. In many cases, if the teacher uses the terms transparent, translucent, and opaque, the children will spontaneously hear and understand and learn these words and then appropriately extend them to other contexts. Children may also use other forms of representation—such as the graphic representations found in Reggio Emilia classrooms—to examine and share their understandings.
Depth and breadth are also important considerations in determining the content of science education. Any topic (e.g., the life cycle, mixing colors) that can be studied at the preschool level is probably sufficiently complex that it can also be studied at the college or graduate level. The topic must be approached at a developmentally appropriate level that honors preschoolers’ general level of world knowledge and cognitive limitations, yet it should be approached in a way that allows the child to develop a rich and interconnected knowledge base. For example, instead of studying the life cycle of only humans or only green beans, the preschooler could be introduced to the life cycles of several animals and several plants, then helped to describe the similarities and differences in the life cycle of plants and animals. When children have a rich knowledge base, they are better able to engage in higher order cognitive processes such as drawing inferences or drawing analogies. A rich knowledge base also contributes to listening and reading comprehension.
Scientific inquiry. There are methods of inquiry that set science apart from other disciplines. These methods are designed to construct an accurate (e.g., reliable, consistent, and nonarbitrary) representation of natural phenomena and to support or disconfirm explanatory theories. Young children will not use the same methods that adult scientists use, yet science education for young children nevertheless presupposes a systematic process of inquiry. Benchmarks for Scientific Inquiry (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1993) suggests that children K-21 acquire understandings such as the following:
• People can often learn about the things around them by just observing those things carefully, but sometimes they can learn more by doing something to the things and noting what happens (p. 10).
• Describing things as accurately as possible is important in science because it enables people to compare their observations with those of others (p. 10).
• When a science investigation is done the way it was done before, we expect to get a very similar result (p. 6).
• Science investigations generally work the same way in different places (p. 6).
There is a consensus among those who focus on science education at the preschool level that it should involve extended investigation within a domain, that it should be hands-on, and that children should be encouraged to ask questions, seek answers, make careful observations, document their findings, and use those findings as the basis for further investigations.
Probably the most explicit guidelines for science inquiry at the preschool level are provided by the ScienceStart! curriculum (e.g., Conezio and French, 2003). Teachers using this curriculum to support children in carrying out a science activity each day, following a four-step process described as “Ask and Reflect,” “Plan and Predict,” “Act and Observe,” and “Report and Reflect.” While it is expected that the teachers will initially be primarily responsible for implementing these steps, the goal is that preschoolers will gradually internalize and increase their level of participation in this science cycle.
Basic cognitive skills. The early childhood years are a time of rapid development and expansion of basic cognitive skills such as classifying and sequencing. Although developmental psychologists generally believe that these skills develop naturally as the child interacts with the environment, it is also recognized that their development can be enhanced by enriching the child’s environment and deliberately providing opportunities for the child to actively use the skills in the service of personally meaningful goals. Conversely, children who are in home and classroom environments that provide limited opportunities to use the skills can be assumed to have less experience and thus less expertise in using them.
The basic cognitive skills that are developing during the preschool years are applicable across a variety of domains and are in no way restricted to science inquiries. However, science draws on many of the skills and science education therefore provides an excellent opportunity to foster their development in the young child. The table below shows some of the skills that are developing during the early childhood years along with questions that a teacher might ask to support their use and development.
Processes that Develop
During the Early
Questions That Can Be Asked During Science Education to
Support the Use and Further Development of the Processes
Defining and controlling variables
What do you see here? What just happened?
How are these alike? How are they different?
Can you put pictures of plants in the first column and pictures of animals in the second column?
Can you cut a piece of yarn as long as your jump? Where should it start and end?
Here are pictures of the three bears from the story—can you line them up so the tallest is in the front and the shortest is in the back?
If we have three bears, how may bowls of porridge do we need?
You each have a picture of a red apple, a green apple, and a yellow apple. And you each have three bites of apple. Taste the different colored apples, then put the picture of your favorite on the tree.
Let’s look at how people voted for their favorite kind of apple. Which color was the most popular? Which color was the least popular?
If we want to find out what is our favorite flavor of ice cream, out of chocolate, vanilla and strawberry, what do we need to do?
OK, before you taste the ice cream, what do you predict you will like best?
If we mix yellow and blue again tomorrow, will we get green again, or could we get a different color?
If someone looked at this chart, what would they say was the month with the most birthdays? How could we write that in a sentence?
So we know now that if we mix yellow and blue food coloring, we get green. What if we mix two drops of blue with one drop of yellow—will that be the same green as if we mix two drops of yellow with one drop of blue?
Developmental psychologists and classroom teachers continue to document young children’s here-to-fore unrecognized cognitive competencies. However, competence is a complex construct that involves many different components. The younger child’s competence is often “fragile” in that it may appear only in a single or very limited range of situations. Expanded opportunities to use a particular skill can increase the flexibility with which it may be used in a variety of situations. For example, the child who is regularly offered opportunities to classify a variety of different sorts of materials and who is talked with regularly about this activity will more rapidly develop stronger and/or more flexible classification skills than the child with limited exposure to activities that involve classification.
Science Activities as a Context for Language and Literacy Development
Language development and early literacy development are now a, if not the, primary focus of early childhood education throughout the preschool and primary grades. State and federal education agencies are particularly concerned that too many children are entering kindergarten without the foundation in language and literacy needed to support their learning to read. How does science education in early childhood fit in with this emphasis on language and literacy development? Is there really time to include science education in the early childhood curriculum? In fact, science education in early childhood classrooms can provide an ideal context for the development of language and literacy skills.
Language and literacy must be about something. Contemporary research on learning has indicated that children learn best when they are engaged in personally meaningful, goal-directed activities. Because of young children’s preparedness to learn about the everyday world, they readily engage in hands-on science investigations. The teacher can capitalize on this engagement by embedding language and literacy activities within the science investigations.
The books teachers select to read aloud can be related to the science activities and can provide the basis for the reflecting and developing questions to investigate (for example, after reading Mouse Paint aloud, a teacher might invite her students to think about what would happen if they mixed paint themselves). There are many nonfiction books available at the early childhood level that teachers and children can consult as they carry out investigations. For example, they could consult several books on the life-cycle of butterflies when hatching butterflies.
Young children can be encouraged to use writing and other forms of graphic representation to record and analyze their data during science activities. Contributing to making classroom books and charts to demonstrate their findings offers children an authentic opportunity to use their own experiences as the basis for literacy materials they are creating for others. Such writing provides children with meaningful ways to extend their understanding of the alphabetic principle, concepts of print, and writing with an audience in mind.
Language development is enhanced at both the receptive and expressive levels as young children listen to the teacher talk about ongoing science activities and then appropriate some of that language to use as they describe their own activities. Science itself has a specialized vocabulary (tools, prediction, explanation) and the concepts that children acquire in the course of carrying out science activities lead naturally to the acquisition of new vocabulary to describe those concepts (assuming the teacher models the appropriate vocabulary). Science also provides an opportunity for teachers and children to exchange “information-bearing” language as they describe observations, formulate plans, ask questions, and offer explanations. Information bearing language differs from the use of language for behavior management and social exchanges that typically occur in the early childhood classroom and it helps children develop the speaking and listening skills they will need once they enter a formal academic setting.
Resources for Teachers
There are commercially available curricula for teaching science at the kindergarten level and beyond. For the most part, teachers who want to teach science at the preschool level have created their own lesson plans. New materials are being developed, thanks to funding from the National Science Foundation, including The Young Scientist series and ScienceStart! (see Conezio and French, 2003). There are also a number of reference books available that compile science activities. However, teachers should be cautious in using these activities because they often are teacher demonstrations (rather than hands-on activities) that are not contextualized in terms of an ongoing topic of inquiry and may not be scientifically accurate. One popular activity of this type is arranging a cone over the mouth of a bottle to represent a volcano, then putting baking soda and vinegar into the bottle to create an “eruption” of the volcano—this demonstration does not accurately represent the process of volcanic eruption nor lead to an investigation how the combination of a liquid and a solid could lead to the creation of a gas. It is entertaining, but it is not science.
Reform efforts are transforming science education from a verbal transmission model to a hands-on inquiry model. This transformation is ideal for young children, who are eager to learn about the everyday world. Young children engage readily in hands-on investigations of natural phenomena. With adult guidance, they are able to engage in systematic and sustained inquiry that leads to the acquisition of a rich scientific knowledge base, the expansion of emerging cognitive skills, and the development of other valuable skills, including language and early literacy.
1. Benchmarks for Scientific Literacy (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1993) describes goals for students’ achievement of scientific literacy at various grade spans, beginning at kindergarten through second grade. Many of these goals for grades K-2 are also appropriate for children ranging from three to five, the preschool years.
Further Readings: American Association for the Advancement of Science (1993). Benchmarks for science literacy. New York: Oxford University Press; American Association for the Advancement of Science (1999). Dialogue on early childhood science, mathematics, and technology education. New York: Oxford University Press; Conezio, Kathleen, and Lucia French (2003). Science in the preschool classroom: Capitalizing on children’s fascination with the everyday world to foster language and literacy development. In D. Koralek and L. J. Colker, eds. Spotlight on young children and science. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children; Czerniak, C., J. Haney, and A. Lumpe (2000). Assessing teachers’ beliefs about their science teaching context. Journal of Research in Science 37(3), 275-298; Forman, George, and Christopher Landry (1992). Research on early science education. In C. Seefeldt, ed. The early childhood curriculum: A review of current research, 2nd ed. New York: Teachers College Press, pp. 175-192; Ginsberg, Herb and Susan Golbeck, eds. (2004). Early learning in math and science. Special issue, Early Childhood Research Quarterly 19(1), 1-200; Holt, Bess-Gene (1977). Science with young children. Washington, DC: NAEYC; Kilmer, Sally J., and Helenmarie Hofman, (1995). Transforming science curriculum. In Sue Bredekamp and Teresa Rosegrant, eds. Reaching potentials: Transforming early childhood curriculum and assessment. Vol. 2. Washington, DC: NAEYC; Koralek, Derry G., and Laura J. Colker, eds. (2003). Spotlight on Young Children and Science. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children; National Research Council (1996). National science education standards. Washington, DC: National Academy Press; National Research Council. (2004). Mathematical and scientific development in early childhood: A workshop summary. Washington, DC: National Academy Press; Worth, Karen, and Sharon Grollman (2004). Worms, shadows, and whirlpools: Science in the early childhood classroom. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.