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What to expect in preschool: science

Preschool teachers introduce scientific concepts by capitalizing on children's innate curiosity about the world.

By Diana Townsend-Butterworth

Why is the grass green? Why don't turtles have teeth? Why is the sea salty? "Science is our attempt to understand the things we see — to make sense of the world around us. Scientific concepts are a way of explaining to ourselves and our children how the world works," says George Tokieda, a science teacher at the Brearley School in New York City and a curriculum developer. "Science shows children the interconnections of life and teaches them that the things they observe are not just haphazard events."

Preschool teachers can pull the science out of the environment and make it part of daily experience, says Barbara Sprung, codirector of Educational Equity Concepts, a nonprofit that develops bias-free curricula. Preschoolers find science in trips to the park and the playground, and in water and sand play, making fruit salad, rolling toys down a ramp, and building with blocks. Science is based on curiosity, and teachers reinforce children's inherent curiosity through discussion. Talking is key, Tokieda finds, because it helps children internalize their observations and start to do the kind of higher-level thinking that enables them to begin to see the big picture. They begin to understand the scientific method, learning how to develop hypotheses, design ways to test them, record and compare data. Through exploration and discussion, preschoolers learn that science is part of their lives — and that it's a lot of fun! There are so many opportunities:

Botany in the park: A teacher takes a stick, draws a rectangle around a tree and asks children to see what they can find. She is expanding observational skills, says Sprung. When preschoolers spend time observing, they learn which trees lose their leaves in winter and which ones have buds in spring. They collect leaves and sort them by size and shape. They watch the birds and squirrels and other animals, and learn to share their observations through discussions, drawings, charts, and graphs.

Physics on the playground: Seesaws, slides, swings, and bouncing balls make the playground a natural physics lab. The seesaw demonstrates principles of balance, the slide is an experiment in gravity, and swings are laws of motion in action, says Sprung. The teacher can encourage children to think and question by challenging them to balance the seesaw with kids of different sizes. She can relate the way the seesaw balances to the balance scales in the classroom. She can encourage her students to look under the seesaw to see how it works and which parts move. In this way, they investigate principles of weight and mass.

Explorations at the water and sand tables: Children make sieves with different size holes and pour sand or water through them, noting how the size of the hole affects the results. At the water table they learn the properties of water as they predict whether objects will sink or float, then test their predictions.

Chemistry in the kitchen: While they help prepare vegetable soup, preschoolers name the ingredients as they sort them and add them to the pot. The teacher asks questions about the color, texture, and smell of the carrots, onions, and tomatoes. She may ask what a tomato will look like when she cuts it open. As the soup simmers, the class will predict which vegetables take longer to cook. The teacher may take pieces of carrot or potato out for children to poke with toothpicks to test their hypotheses. They may add spices and compare taste. Later, when they eat the soup, the children can talk about the differences in taste and texture among the vegetables.

Diana Townsend-Butterworth is a former teacher and head of the junior school at St. Bernard's School in New York City. She is the author of Your Child's First School and Preschool and Your Child.