Thursday, October 6, 2011

Preschool science activities

How to teach science--and the scientific method--to young children

When done right, preschool science is exciting and intellectually meaningful. The right preschool science activities can

• nurture your child’s natural sense of adventure and curiosity

• help your child develop his own understanding of the natural world

• encourage your child to be a persistent problem solver, and

• introduce your child to basic elements of scientific reasoning (seeking evidence; testing predictions)

So what’s the right way to teach science?
Research in cognitive psychology and child development has revealed a lot about how kids learn.
Here are some important recommendations relevant to teaching preschool science. Most of this advice stems from the influential work of Rochel Gelman, a leading researcher in the field of cognitive science and science education.

Don't force it and don't lecture

Preschooler brains aren’t wired for tasks that require them to sit still and focus their attention on your every word. They process information more slowly and burn more energy while they do it. Force kids to sit still for lectures, and you risk turning destroying their natural enthusiasm for science.

Teach through hands-on experiences

Preschoolers learn best by doing, so choose preschool science activities that emphasize hands-on experiences and require minimal explanation from you.

Build on what your child already knows

Learning about something completely unfamiliar is relatively hard. It’s much easier to learn more about something you are already familiar with.Although they are young, preschoolers have nonetheless begun building concepts in a variety of core subject areas, or domains.
Cognitive psychologist Rochel Gelman argues that you should choose preschool science activities that feed into these pre-existing “learning paths.”

Some of these learning paths include:

• cause and effect sequences pertaining to every day objects (e.g., popsicles melt in the sun-—Gelman et al 1980)
• structure and function (like the relationship between the shape of an animal’s teeth and its diet)
• variation and classification--the idea that different objects or organisms have distinct properties (e.g., “mammals have fur; birds have feathers”)
• how nonliving physical things change (e.g., a toy becomes a broken toy—-Gelman et al 1980; Das Gupta and Bryant 1989)
• how living things grow and change (Rosengren 1991)
• how the insides of a living thing differs from the insides of an inanimate object (Gelman 1990)
• how living things move
• how animals and people think (i.e., they have goals and desires)

These learning paths can be linked to a wide range of preschool science activities (see next section).

Choose preschool science activities that are conceptually connected to each other

While it might be tempting to jump from topic to topic, kids are more likely to learn when they are given many opportunities to think about the same concept (Gelman and Lucariello 2002; Winnett et al 1996).To make science lessons more meaningful, Rochel Gelman and her colleagues recommend that you choose one or two central concepts—like “insides and outsides” or “biological change and life cycles”—and stick with these core concepts for months at a time (Gelman and Brenneman 2004).
At first blush, this might sound rather limiting. But the central concepts are broad and yield themselves to a wide range of preschool science activities. For instance, if you choose to focus on “biological change and life cycles” you might spend time exploring

• Seeds and plants (e.g., counting the seeds inside an apple; planting the seeds; observing how plants grow under different conditions)
• The life cycle of various animals (e.g., learning about frogs, puppies, butterflies, humans, etc.)
• Measuring growth in plants and animals
• Health and illness

Encourage your child’s special interests

The “learning paths” mentioned above are based on what most (if not all) kids know about. In fact, they relate to core domains of knowledge that may be “universally learnable with relative ease” (Gelman and Lucariello 2002).But these are not the only learning paths of importance. Your child might have a special interest in rocks, or automobiles, or cats, or animal behavior. Pay attention to these interests and find preschool activities that build on them.

Stick to subject matter that is age-appropriate

Beware of tendency to adapt preschool science activities from lessons designed for older kids. Encouraging your preschooler to mix paint colors or explore shadows is a fine idea. But it makes little sense to tackle the physics of light waves, since many adults find this difficult.In general, I think it is a good idea to avoid activities that depend on explanations of unseen forces (like electromagnetism or natural selection).

Don’t “dumb down” the vocabulary

When we learn new concepts, our brains have to “file” these concepts away. Our brains do this, in part, by connecting the concepts with vocabulary. In this way, the concepts and the terminology are intimately connected.So don’t try to “dumb down” the language when you introduce your child to new information. If you are teaching kids about respiration, call it respiration (Gelman and Brenneman 2004).

Make science tools a part of everyday life

Some preschool science activities involve the use of science tools--like magnifying glasses, rulers, and balance scales. Once your child becomes familiar with using such tools, keep them available throughout the day—not just during preschool activities (Gelman and Brenneman 2004).

Make preschool science activities an opportunity to learn the scientific method

Scientists develop hypotheses to explain the world. Then they ask themselves what ought to happen IF their hypotheses are correct. Testing these predictions—and analyzing the results—is the essence of the scientific method.Some science activities permit kids to explore on their own—-without making them conscious of the scientific method. I’m convinced that these activities are extremely valuable. But kids can also enjoy more structured activities that explicitly teach the scientific method. Rochel Gelman and her colleagues recommend introducing kids to the terms

• Observe
• Predict
• Check

For more illustration, see these preschool science activities about ice.

Other resources

Preschoolers don't need television, but there are a few programs designed for young children that seem to teach valuable lessons about science and the natural world. For my personal recommendations, check out these reviews of the best preschool science shows.

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