How educators teach science to young children

Published on Wednesday, 30 June 2021
Last updated on Monday, 28 June 2021

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Science learning is important long before your child memorises the periodic table or boots up their Bunsen burner in secondary school.

In the early childhood education (ECE) setting, science learning is a brilliant way to tap into your little one’s natural curiosity, develop their capabilities, and open up new ways to explore, experiment and expand their knowledge.

Here, we investigate what science means for young children, and how educators can strengthen science learning in the ECE laboratory.

What exactly is ‘science’?

Although we can get technical when defining science, the government boils things down simply when it says that science is:

  • A way of thinking and doing
  • A way to discover and understand the world around us
  • A way to build and communicate knowledge, and
  • A commitment to using evidence (things that can be observed and measured).

Science helps youngsters to understand the natural and social world, and whether your child is wielding a magnifying glass or making milk ‘dance’, science learning hones their problem-solving and critical-thinking skills, and opens up a world of new interests, innovative ideas, and eye-opening discoveries.

How can educators engage young scientists?

The government says, ‘The way science is taught makes all the difference’ for young children.

Educators who are enthusiastic, encouraging and ‘present’ during learning experiences make science meaningful and interesting for little ones, and there’s everything to be gained from a play-based learning approach, which motivates youngsters to touch, think, listen, question, test, explore and more!

Science should be something that’s interesting and fun, not dry and daunting, and educators are encouraged to ‘facilitate’ science learning experiences, instead of directing them.

Resources, like books, tools and natural objects, should be in easy reach, and it’s the educators’ job to:

  • Encourage children to make comments, ask questions and keep trying when things don’t go to plan
  • Extend children, by promoting good scientific practices, such as research, observation, documentation and collaboration
  • Acknowledge everyone’s contributions by documenting and exhibiting initial knowledge and the learning journey (e.g. on a project wall), and
  • Involve children in planning and managing their own learning.

Educators are encouraged to take a child-led approach, which allows each learner to discover, explore and extend their interests (whether that’s outer space, pretty flowers or wriggly worms!).

It’s also important that educators show young learners how science is relevant to everyday life, so that it really means something to them (e.g. they might say, “When you go to bed, New Zealand is rotating away from the sun to make night.”).

Instead of shying away from words like ‘rotating’, ‘ecosystem’ or ‘precipitation’, early childhood teachers should use proper scientific names, terms and processes to help children become confident, capable and keen learners.

The government says educators can also build the confidence of young scientists by:

  • Exploring science in a familiar setting, like the ECE kitchen or vegie patch
  • Working in small groups, and
  • Using ‘scaffolding strategies’ to encourage littlies to watch, learn and share.

    For instance, an educator might use ‘Say-mores’ (asking a child, “What happened next?” or “Why do you think that?”) or ‘Fish-bowling’ (when a group gathers around a science activity and learns by looking) to build confidence.

What does good practice look like?

Although science experiences are led by children’s interests, quality ECE services put a lot of thought into how science teaching and learning will play out day-to-day, and year-on-year.

To understand what makes a difference for science in ECE, and how science teaching and learning can be strengthened, the Education Review Office (ERO) spoke to 147 early childhood services and has released two new reports detailing its findings:

There’s a wealth of information in these documents, but in a nutshell, the ERO has identified three things that strengthen science teaching and learning at ECE services:

  1. Leadership
  2. Intentional teaching, and
  3. Responsive curriculum.

Specifically, they’ve found that:

Having leaders with a focus on science boosts children’s opportunities for successful science learning.

These ‘science leaders’ set a clear direction for teaching and learning by:

  • Developing curriculum materials and helping to choose resources
  • Supporting educators to teach science, and
  • Ensuring that science learning is promoted at the ECE service.

Intentional teaching is also important, and this involves applying a ‘scientific lens’ to children’s learning opportunities.

In practice, this means that educators:

  • Think about how the ECE environment and resources can spark children’s interest in science
  • Plan different contexts for children to learn about, instead of just focusing on the ‘living world’
  • Pay attention to what children are learning, and share this with parents and whānau
  • Identify children’s science-related working theories (their evolving ideas about the world, formed through experiences) and temperaments, and put thought into how these can be developed, and
  • Plan to extend children’s science vocabulary, so littlies can explain their ideas with language like ‘habitat’ and ‘magma’.

A scientific lens adds complexity to explorations, so it could mean that children start to explore velocity and friction by rolling different items down ramps, then head outside and climb the slide with different shoes on (e.g. grippy soles or slippery ones) to test friction further.

Science teaching and learning is also strengthened by a curriculum that’s responsive to all children’s interests, knowledge and needs.

The ERO explains that a responsive science curriculum is one that’s planned with these things in mind:

  • Children’s existing knowledge and interests
  • The direction their science learning might take (as working theories are tested, refined and developed)
  • How children’s languages and culture can be authentically reflected in the science learning, and
  • How science learning opportunities might reflect stories/places/experiences that are important to children and their whānau.

When it comes to bicultural practice, it’s important that children know about the values of kaitiakitanga (guardianship), manaakitanga (kindness), and mauri (respect for all living things); and exploring Māori astronomy is one example of adding a scientific lens – and cultural focus – to an investigation of outer space.

How can parents, whānau and community members support science learning?

The ERO says, ‘Children’s learning and development is enhanced when kaiako, parents and whānau work in partnership to develop the curriculum provided,’ and fortunately, you don’t need to be an astrophysicist to do this!

There are lots of ways that you can lend your time, thoughts and expertise to support your child’s learning and connect your home with your ECE service.

For example, you might:

  • Share your Māori knowledge of native birds with educators
  • Tell them about a new museum exhibition that could extend the science curriculum
  • Bring in your map of the night sky, or
  • Explain your design for an eco-friendly worm farm.

Interactions with the wider community can also enhance children’s science learning, and this could involve your ECE service participating in a local clean-up day, then examining rubbish and recyclables, or asking a friendly vet to identify an old animal bone.

All in all, science is an important part of your child’s learning and development, and an interesting, intentional and responsive teaching approach will yield great results!

Additional references

Te Papa learning resource: It’s a bug’s life

ERO: A guide for kaiako and leaders on supporting science in early childhood

Further reading

9 play-based science activities that teach STEM skills

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