Leah Melber, Ph.D.
Science education professor
When a child is exposed to science explorations at an early age, they develop critical thinking skills, learn process skills such as observation and communication that help them in all areas of life, as well as gain an appreciation for topics that are sure to play a big part of their life in the future. Some children may go on to be a scientist, but more importantly, children with early exposure to science have a better understanding of the world around them.
What do you think might happen?
What should we do next?
Why do you think that happened?
How are these things different? How are they alike?
Which (leaf, bug, rock, flower) do you think is most interesting? Why?
What do you want to discover next?
Did you tell (insert name) what you discovered today?
Science in the Kitchen
We know through research that when working with young children, it’s important to start with topics that they can make personal connections to. This makes learning more meaningful and aids in comprehension. Beginning in the kitchen ensures that children will be comfortable with the physical environment, as well as have a basic knowledge of the concepts that you are going to explore, and these two things will better support learning.
How Old Must a Child Be to Explore Science?
It’s never too early to begin exploring. When a very young infant places something in his or her mouth, this is a type of scientific exploration! Children begin noticing the world and asking why questions as soon as they learn to talk. Even before children begin talking, providing different experiences with textures, sounds, and images will help build up an experience base to support later learning. From walks around the block to touching a family pet, these are all types of scientific explorations.
The Benefits of Exploring Science
We want our children to develop into problem solvers—able to confidently tackle whatever situation may come their way. Critical thinking skills are helpful in all areas of life. When we encourage children to explore areas of personal interest, and ask their own questions—we’re more likely to see quality learning than when we simply provide the answers.
Why Children are “Natural-Born” Scientists
Children use inquiry everyday. They make observations, such as, “Look at this great leaf I found!” When a child is curious about a leaf and notices the pointy leaves, he is making observations. Children also plan investigations, such as, “I wonder how long it will take me to dump all the salt out of the shaker!” They collect data—touching ice is cold—and they communicate what they discover ("This dog feels so soft!"). Inquiry is a natural process for children. By providing situations that encourage our children to openly explore, we’re helping them hone their inquiry skills and build understanding.
Helping Children Explore Science
Encourage children to explore what they are interested in. What do they want to know more about? Provide opportunities for children to explore with all five of their senses. Children take in data in lots of different ways. Provide them with safe opportunities for touching, smelling, looking, and tasting.
Keep children’s experiences open-ended. By providing opportunities for kids to explore without feelings of “being wrong,” you are encouraging a love of learning.
Don’t be afraid to get dirty! Science can be messy. When a child is afraid to get dirty, they aren’t completely immersing themselves in the learning process. Be ready for a little mess, After all, even a clean-up bath can be an exploration in science!
Questions Adults Should Ask Children
When engaging a child in discussion, remember to ask open-ended questions, such as:
What do you see?
What If You Don’t Know the Answer?
Everyday I still get asked questions that I don’t know the answer to. First, it’s okay to make a general guess based on what you might already know. For example, a child asks you “why doesn’t this plant have any leaves?” You may not know exactly what kind of plant it is, but you might comment back, “Some plants lose leaves in the winter. I wonder if that’s what happened here?”
If you have no idea—which also happens to me all the time—then tell your child that you don’t know. Even famous scientists don’t have all the answers. They constantly have to look things up. Tell your child you are excited to find out the answer together and make a plan for where you could go for more information. If it’s a strange plant you don’t recognize, maybe you could make a visit to the local nursery. If it’s a question about the stars, a quick internet search could provide the answer. The local library is filled with children’s books on every topic and is another great source. A trick I use is to look up answers in children’s books rather than adult level reading. The shorter length is easier to fit into a busy schedule, and they provide answers in language that is easier for children to understand.
Child care provider for 6 years
With the children in my care, I like to have them participate in an activity called “Sink or Float.” Basically, all you need to do is take a large bowl full of water and then take various objects and ask the children whether they think that particular object will sink or float. You can use toys, various sizes of wood, aluminum cans – just about anything. It encourages children to predict what might happen with the object. Children might predict that objects that are larger in size may not float, but they might be surprised to learn when some of them actually do float.
Cares for her grandchildren, mother of two
I like to show my children how they can create their own scented play dough. Take one pack of a flavored drink mix and mix it with 1 cup of salt. Add 1 cup of water, 3 cups of flour, and 2 teaspoons of vegetable oil. Mix for several minutes and presto, you have your own scented play dough.
The children not only feel the play dough with their hands, but they can smell the flavored drink mix which has been added. And since we made it with basic food ingredients, it’s safe if they even wanted to taste it.