Category Archives: Early Elementary Science

Cats are Girls and Dogs are Boys

When I was maybe three years old, I had an epiphany. I came to the absolute conviction that the pets I was seeing around my neighborhood were like human beings. They came in two different genders, just like me and my mother and my brother and father. The cats were the girls and the dogs were the boys. It took a little longer for me to understand the concept of species as a means for sorting. In my mental file cabinet, gender came earlier than species.

Children are all little scientists. How could they not be? Fresh to this wonderful life, they are constantly observing the world around them, and much more closely than we adults do, hence the popularity of the Where’s Waldo books and the fact that most children are far more successful than their parents in finding the little guy in the midst of so many other people.

The Youngest Scientist is a Small Child

We freely admit that children are curious, that they can drive us to distraction with their constant questions. I recently read that preschool children ask their parents around 100 questions a day. You know the kinds: Where does the sun go at night? Why aren’t there any more dinosaurs? Why do people get sick? Why don’t birds sing at night? Can dogs be girls? And every answer is followed by another question, until the conversation can become almost philosophical if not outright surreal.

Many a harried parent has wondered, “Why do children ask so many questions?” They seem hardwired to do so. In short, children are trying to make sense of the world. Imagine yourself landing on an alien planet, something like the moon Pandora in the film Avatar. What would cause you to wonder, to ask questions? Probably pretty much everything around you. And so with children, still strangers in a strange new land.

So in the process of asking all those questions, children are learning a lot of valuable things about the world, not the least of which is how to ask interesting questions that don’t have easy answers, an essential skill for success in life. And, as a result of following their inborn curiosity, children enter school with many of the “building blocks of scientific understanding” already in place.

That is why starting science in preschool and continuing science in kindergarten and the primary grades is absolutely essential. It’s a case of striking while the iron is hot. The natural curiosity children bring to school, their hunger to make sense of this world, makes them natural students of science, more than they are natural readers or writers or mathematicians. Why not let children’s inborn inclination to learn about the world drive their learning of those other essential skills, reading, writing, and arithmetic? Why not let their inherent need to know drive them to learn the skills they need to better understand what they are observing and communicate their budding understanding to others.

But there is another essential reason to start early and to emphasize science with very young children. Being observers and novice scientists doesn’t necessarily mean they will get the science right or that the sense they make of things is accurate. Letting them carry those misconceptions forward into middle school without addressing them immediately, not only risks dampening children’s natural curiosity by making science just another school subject rather than the act of grasping life itself, but it also risks their carrying forward uncorrected any misconceptions they might have. We all know that it’s more difficult to erase longstanding assumptions with new and more accurate constructions the longer we wait.

And speaking of misconceptions, the National Research Council’s landmark report, Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8 (2007) makes a compelling case for beginning science instruction in the primary grades, starting with kindergarten. (Free here.)

  • In contrast to the commonly held and outmoded view that young children are concrete and simplistic thinkers, the research evidence now shows that their thinking is surprisingly sophisticated. Important building blocks for learning science are in place before they enter school.
  • Children entering school already have substantial knowledge of the natural world, which can be built on to develop their understanding of scientific concepts. Some areas of knowledge may provide more robust foundations to build on than others, because they appear very early and have some universal characteristics across cultures throughout the world.
  • By the end of preschool, children can reason in ways that provide helpful starting points for developing scientific reasoning. However, their reasoning abilities are constrained by their conceptual knowledge, the nature of the task, and their awareness of their own thinking.

Free Download from the National Research Council

Cats are both boys and girls and so are dogs. Children will, as I did, figure that out fairly quickly. But what about less obvious misconceptions, like those people often have about what causes seasons or what the relationship is between the sun and the earth in that scheme? Those misconceptions can take root early and remain uncorrected through university, if students are left to their own devices.

Far too often, we adults have already stopped challenging our own assumptions … about science, about society, about politics, about a lot of the things that matter. In the case of children, their inborn curiosity, their countless questions, seem to peter out around third grade, if they haven’t been encouraged and nurtured before that. What an incredible waste!

In fact, and to reiterate, we now know a lot more about knowledge acquisition in young children than we did when we believed the following falsehoods about children and science:

  • Elementary schoolchildren think in concrete as opposed to abstract terms.
  • Elementary schoolchildren can make sense of their world primarily in terms of ordering and classifying objects and relations and not in terms of explanatory understanding or the building of intuitive theories.
  • Elementary schoolchildren cannot use experimentation to develop their ideas.

Elementary children can do all of the above, from thinking more abstractly to developing explanations and theories, to using experimentation! “All three of these views, as well as other views of broad cognitive limitations of elementary schoolchildren, and even many preschoolers, are no longer accepted by the cognitive developmental research community.” So says the National Research Council’s Committee on Science Learning, Kindergarten Through Eighth Grade. (See above for a link.)

Kindergarten Scientists Experimenting with the Properties of Matter in Jessica Manaois’s Class at Kipling Elementary in Chicago

Those early years are precious. If your school doesn’t have a strong emphasis on science in the primary grades, beginning one would be a laudable goal for the coming school year. In fact, principals joining Golden Apple STEM Institute often focus their professional development support on primary and early elementary teachers in order to build a strong foundation in children for doing science in the middle and upper grades. Young children deserve to have rich, engaging science experiences at school, and what’s more, they love it when they do!

~ Penny

You can learn more about Golden Apple STEM Institute here.  If you are in the Chicago metro area, please contact us to learn how to become a partner school.


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Filed under children as scientists, Early Elementary Science, primary science, Uncategorized

In the beginning …

“All young children have the intellectual capability to learn science. Even when they enter school, young children have rich knowledge of the natural world, demonstrate causal reasoning, and are able to discriminate between reliable and unreliable sources of knowledge. In other words, children come to school with the cognitive capacity to engage in serious ways with the enterprise of science.”


“Very little if anything is expected to be accomplished in science during the K-2 years in most U.S. elementary school classrooms, where the overwhelming focus is on developing early literacy and numeracy. Most science activities are short (one lesson long) rather than coherent units.”

Both quotations are from the landmark 2007 report by the National Research Council of The National Academies, Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science Grades K – 8. (Free download here.)

A Good Introduction to Early Elementary Science Education

An Important Introduction to Early Elementary Science Education

It would seem from reading these two statements, that if we aren’t teaching very much science to young children in our schools, we are missing a hugely significant opportunity to build on their inherent interest in the world around them and the preliminary sense they’ve already made of it. After all, when the students are ready, isn’t the teacher supposed to appear? Cue the crickets.

Why is there such a profound disconnect in our schools between the reality of millions of science curious students who enter the school as budding little scientists and the actuality of nominal and often poor quality science instruction those children too often receive during those critical primary years? What does science look like at the beginning of schooling? What should it look like?

There’s a hint of an answer in the second quotation. Since the advent of No Child Left Behind, U. S. schools have marginalized non-tested subjects, feeling the need to prove that their students are literate and numerate more than they feel the need to educate children in other subject areas children might find engaging and relevant to their lives, subjects like science, the arts, and social studies.

To begin to address these questions, I want to focus on what I saw in a kindergarten classroom I recently visited.

In Raquel Martinez’s Kindergarten classroom at Washington Elementary in Chicago, where students are learning about weather in a coherent ongoing unit, I see and hear children engaging in science and engineering practices.

Their teacher says to them, “You were good observers, good explorers yesterday.” She asks them, “Do you think the sun comes out everyday? Let’s take some time to think. (wait time) Now, turn to your partner. This is a tough question. You have to know why. ‘Does the sun come out everyday?’”

In many ways, it’s a subtle question Ms. Martinez poses to get her students thinking about what they have observed during their young lives. Ultimately, this lesson will lead children to an understanding of why the sun appears to come out each day — the result of the earth rotating on its axis as it revolves around the sun. But first she must tap their prior experience of the phenomenon.

I saw children keeping their observations in science notebooks.

I saw data gathered as part of the “Daily Weather Watch” and added to the weather observation chart, a bar graph, indicating whether the day is sunny, cloudy, or rainy.

Little Alana, “today’s weather watcher,” reports to her classmates after observing at the window, “It’s sunny.” By the next time I visit Washington, the “weather watcher” is being called “today’s meteorologist.”

A Budding Meteorologist Gathers Data Through Observation

A Budding Meteorologist Gathers Data Through Observation

Children color flash cards with the following words and images on them: Windy, Cloudy, Rainy, Stormy, Sunny, and Snowy. They cut them out with scissors, great for developing fine motor skills, and place them in a little pocket in their science notebooks. They have the words, “A scientists knows … in our world” before their eyes as they work.


Keeping A Science Notebook Is Something Scientists Do

There was more. But I hope this captures a sense of what should be happening at the very beginning of every child’s schooling to lay the foundation for all of the science learning that needs to take place over the course of the next twelve years and beyond. Above all, science should not be neglected. Very young children are ripe for learning science because they are inherently curious about their world and eager to understand how it works. And Raquel Martinez is there for them, expertly guiding their science experiences.

But let’s ask another expert.

Tonti Elementary 1st grade teacher and STEM Institute alum Stacy Gibson had this to say about why teaching science in the primary grades is so important:

“I love teaching science so much. First of all, it is so much fun for the kids. I feel a lot of people push science off because it isn’t tested in first grade. I feel that it teaches all the skills that are tested/important to be successful thinkers. In science, students are reading and comprehending what they are reading. We also include math (measurement, graphing, addition/subtraction, etc.) and most importantly working together and critical thinking. Science teaches kids ‘productive struggle.’ Students are working through challenging problems to come to a deeper understanding. It’s about trying things and learning from mistakes.

Stacy Gibson and Her First Grade Scientists

Stacy Gibson and Her First Grade Scientists

Planning science units is the hard part. It takes extra time and materials. At our school we don’t have a science curriculum, so we just have to find our own stuff. I spend a lot of time looking things up online and talking with other teachers. Science needs to be hands on, not just watching a video or reading a textbook everyday but instead having kids do the exploring. We used to use FOSS kits, and I loved that because we had all of the materials we needed in one place. After we got the new NGSS standards, our school stopped purchasing FOSS kits. We are still trying different lessons, and some work and some don’t. It is a work in process, and we are learning along with the students.

I do wish everyone saw the importance of science like see it. I wish materials were included when we are buying our math and reading materials every year. I have gotten a ton of great materials from different PDs and workshops, but I would love having ones that are focused on the first grade topics. and Mystery Science have been helpful resources.

It is full time job planning and teaching science, and we have to do it along with all the other subjects. I am always re energized when I see the kids problem solving and working together and how excited they are, and I love working with other teachers who value science and the opportunities to explore teaching science with other adults.”

Stacy Gibson Meeting with her Principal, Gerardo Arriago of Tonti Elementary, and Steven Walsh, STEM Institute Coach

Stacy Gibson Meeting with Her Principal, Gerardo Arriago of Tonti Elementary, and Steven Walsh, STEM Institute Coach

By the way, Stacy and her fellow first grade teachers have common planning time, and Stacy helps her colleagues by designing much of the science that she and her colleagues will teach. Both are excellent strategies for building an excellent science program, and Tonti has done a great job of that.

NSTA, the National Science Teachers Association, a leading developer of the Next Generation Science Standards, updated its Position Statement on Early Childhood Science Education in light of the NGSS. It’s well worth reading, if you are looking for support for doing more science in your classroom, an understanding of what that science should look like, and a guide to the kind of professional development that would best foster your own growth as a classroom teacher responsible for developing science understandings in young children. (By the way, STEM Institute meets all of the criteria.)

But to give you a sense of the critical elements NSTA recommends, here is an excerpt:

NSTA recommends that teachers and other education providers who support children’s learning in any early childhood setting should
• recognize the value and importance of nurturing young children’s curiosity and provide experiences in the early years that focus on the content and practices of science with an understanding of how these experiences connect to the science content defined in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) (NGSS Lead States 2013);
• understand that science experiences are already a part of what young children encounter every day through play and interactions with others, but that teachers and other education providers need to provide a learning environment that encourages children to ask questions, plan investigations, and record and discuss findings;
• tap into, guide, and focus children’s natural interests and abilities through carefully planned open-ended, inquiry-based explorations;
• provide numerous opportunities every day for young children to engage in science inquiry and learning by intentionally designing a rich, positive, and safe environment for exploration and discovery;
• emphasize the learning of science and engineering practices, including asking questions and defining problems; developing and using models; planning and carrying out investigations; analyzing and interpreting data; using mathematics and computational thinking; constructing explanations and designing solutions; engaging in argument from evidence; and obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information (NRC 2012, NGSS Lead States 2013);
• recognize that science provides a purposeful context for developing literacy skills and concepts, including speaking, listening, vocabulary development, and many others; and
recognize that science provides a purposeful context for use of math skills and concepts.

Some good guidance there, as you plan your own science units. You can read the entire position statement here.

~ Penny

You can learn more about STEM Institute here. We are currently recruiting Chicago area schools to join our 2017 cohort. Contact for more information or call 312-477-7522. Looking forward!

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Filed under children as scientists, Early Elementary Science, Taking Science to School, Tonti Elementary School, Uncategorized, Washington Elementary School