Developing Science-Savvy Little Scientists
Our experts this month are Judy Brown, EdD, museum consultant and Senior Vice President of Education Emerita at the Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science, Cheryl Lani Juárez, MEd, Senior Director of Professional Development at Frost Science, and Janet Castillo Schoenfeld, MEd, Early Childhood Project Coordinator at Frost Science. This article is the first in a two-part series from these authors. You can read the second part here.
At a Glance
- Research shows that young children are ready to learn science at a much younger age than popularly thought.
- Our authors break down commonly held beliefs that act as barriers to promoting science learning in young children, and give you a few action items to spread the word.
- Finally, we’ve included three great activities to help you get started with teaching science to the young ones in your life.
Young Children Are Ready for Science
Research shows young children’s capacity to learn science is much greater than previously thought.
It’s important to help children get an early start on learning the fundamental concepts of science. This will help them later, because they will have a science foundation to build upon when they begin elementary school
Learning about science is also important for young children because it helps them develop ideas about how the world works. Young children have early intuitions about the world and we can use these as a foundation to build an understanding of complex science concepts. We can also myth-bust inaccurate ideas the children have about science in these early years.
But we have to fight the barriers that keep young children from science
Research has identified many commonly held beliefs that are barriers to promoting science learning in young children. These limiting beliefs include the following ideas:
- Myth: Some children are born scientists, others are not; some are encouraged or discouraged to pursue science by their family cultures.
- The truth is scientists are built, not born. The earlier we start getting children excited about science, the more likely they will thrive in science courses later in life.
- Myth: Children need to learn the “basics” before they are able to address more complex STEM subjects. Little children should be focusing on learning their ABCs.
- The truth is learning science can help children with their early numeracy and literacy because it’s a great chance to put these new skills into practice.
- Myth: Children who are motivated will achieve. Not everyone can be good at science and math.
- The truth is all children have the capacity to learn about and love science! We need to give them a chance and present science in exciting ways to help them get excited about it.
Spread the Word
We encourage you to you join us and other early childhood science advocates in changing these perceptions by promoting the following key messages.
- All children are born scientists with a natural curiosity to explore the world around them.
- Children who engage in scientific activities from an early age develop positive attitudes toward science.
- Early introduction to science and math “talk” helps children build STEM vocabulary and acquire the background or prior knowledge they need to develop a deeper understanding of STEM topics. (You will see science talk in our activities below.)
- Just as people need to be immersed in a language in order to become fluent, children, too, need to be given many opportunities in many different settings to become fluent in STEM subjects.
Below we have three activities that can help you get started with teaching science to the young children in your life.
Start Building Science-Savvy Little Scientists Today!
Here are some ways you can get started.
1. Visit a science-rich environment.
Museums and aquaria are places where people of all ages and backgrounds can enjoy and be inspired by science, and where attitudes towards science can be positively influenced.
On your next visit, try asking your child these questions to promote science process skills and science vocabulary:
- What do you notice/observe?
- Tell me what you are doing/exploring/investigating?
- What would happen if you…? What changes do you observe?
- What do you predict/think will happen next?
- Tell me what you see. What do you notice?
- Let’s try this. What do you think will happen?
- How is this home for fish different from your home?
2. Try this Cloud Watchers ECHOS® activity.
Take child(ren) outdoors to notice similarities and differences among the many clouds in the sky. Some clouds are white and others are gray; some clouds look puffy or look like familiar objects. With a clipboard in one hand and a piece of chalk in the other, children observe and draw the clouds they see.
Each child will need:
- pieces of white and gray chalk
- two sheets of 9” x 12” blue construction paper
1. Ask the children: What do you think clouds look like when it is rainy outside? What do you think a cloud looks like when it is sunny? Listen to children’s responses.
2. If it is not a rainy day, say: It is not a rainy day, so let’s go outside to observe clouds and draw what you see.
3. Hold up a clipboard. Tell the children: This is a clipboard. Scientists sometimes use clipboards to help them record information. We will be scientists today and use a clipboard to hold the paper for our drawings of clouds. Prepare the children to go outdoors. If any children have sunglasses, they should wear them outside. Bring the clipboards with paper and the container of chalk with you.
4. Prep the children by saying: Sometimes the shape of a cloud can look like other things. I wonder what shapes you will see today.
5. Take the children to an area outside where the sky and clouds are clearly visible, but not in direct sunshine. Once you arrive, give each child a clipboard, a piece of white chalk and a piece of grey chalk. Okay, cloud watchers, let’s draw!
6. Discuss what the children see as they look up at the sky. Prompt them to notice the shape and color of the clouds. While they are observing the clouds, ask:
- What shapes do you see?
- Are the clouds puffy, like cotton balls?
- Are the clouds thin, like stripes in the sky?
- Can you find a cloud that reminds you of something?
7. Let’s talk about what we saw while we were outside. Ask the children, one at a time, to hold up their drawing and tell the group something about it.
3. Try this Let It Rain ECHOS® Activity
Children predict and experiment with various materials to discover what helps people stay dry in the rain.
Each child will need:
- two rubber bands
- three 5-oz. clear plastic cups
- two small pieces of scrap fabric (use an old shirt or cotton balls)
- small tray (foam grocery/vegetable tray)
- Introduce the activity by saying: Today, we are going to investigate what type of material helps us stay dry in the rain. For this investigation you will each get a tray with three cups.
- One cup is covered with paper and the other is covered with plastic. Inside each of these two cups is a piece of fabric. The other cup has water and a dropper.
- Give each child a tray with three cups. For this investigation we are going to use a special tool called a dropper. Watch me as I drop five drops of water into this cup. Let’s count together: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.
- Now it’s your turn. Use your dropper just like I did to add one drop at a time to cup 1. Try it! Allow time for children to add the water. Do you see the water drip into cup 1? If it doesn’t drip through, add more drops.
- Keep adding drops until the water is absorbed. As the water begins to drip through the paper into the cups, direct each child to remove the piece of paper towel from the top of cup 1. Provide assistance with the rubber band if needed. Does the fabric feel dry? Does it feel wet?
- Ask children to hold up the small piece of wet paper towel they removed from the top of the cup. If you wore a raincoat made out of paper, would it keep you dry? Probably not. The paper would absorb water and you would get wet!
- Now, use your dropper to add drops of water to cup 2. Try it! Allow time for children to add the water. Do you see the water drip into cup 2 through the plastic? If you wore a raincoat made of plastic would it keep you dry? Yes, it would. The plastic will not absorb water.
- Finish up by saying: You were great rain investigators today! Now we know what material to wear to stay dry in the rain.
The Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science in Miami, Florida, has been working for more than two decades with preschool educators, parents and the community to develop early science curriculum, professional development, and interactive exhibits for early learners. The museum’s Early Childhood Hands-On Science (ECHOS ®) curriculum has been tested in schools across Miami-Dade and are proven to be an effective way to teach preschool children about science. These activities can be completed at home or in your classroom.
McClure, E. R., Guernsey, L., Clements, D. H., Bales, S. N., Nichols, J., Kendall-Taylor, N., & Levine, M. H. (2017). STEM starts early: Grounding science, technology, engineering, and math education in early childhood. New York: The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop.
About the Author
Judy Brown, EdD, museum consultant and Senior Vice President of Education Emerita at Frost Science. Judy’s experience in leading research and development initiatives is extensive and spans more than two decades of work in both early childhood and informal science education settings. She has played a lead role in bringing the resources of the informal science education community to the educational reform movement and has won numerous awards for the development and implementation of innovative science enrichment programming for girls, underserved minority children and youth.
Cheryl Lani Juárez, MEd, Senior Director of Professional Development at Frost Science. Cheryl has over 30 years of experience in informal science, technology, preschool and bilingual education, and has directed numerous multi-year national, state and regional projects related to building the capacity of informal and formal PreK-12 educators to integrate hands-on science and technology into classroom teaching and learning.
Janet Castillo Schoenfeld, MEd, Early Childhood Project Coordinator at Frost Science. Janet oversees the implementation of the Museum’s ECHOS® Science from the Start Program. She delivers professional development to preschool teaching teams and parent leaders, and participates in a range of community engagement activities, including specialized field trips and Museum-based family events.