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.
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.
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.)
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!
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.