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What to expect in preschool: science

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By Diana Townsend-Butterworth

Relativity in the block corner: Children build towers and balance blocks of different sizes and shapes to construct bridges, exploring concepts of spatial relations, gravity, and balance. Sprung finds that preschoolers learn basic principles of physics by building ramps of different heights and racing cars down them, predicting which car will finish first.

Meteorology at circle time: The preschool day often begins with a discussion of the weather. Is the sun out today? How does the sun feel on our skin? Why is sun important? Is it raining? How does rain feel? Why is rain important? Some classes may keep a container to measure and compare rainfall. Is it colder or warmer than it was yesterday? How do we know? Is it cold enough for snow? Children record their observations in diagrams and charts.

Horticulture on the windowsills: The class might grow beans. Each child has a tiny clay pot. He plants a seed in the pot, filling it with soil and patting the dirt down around the seed. Every day he will water the plant and record its growth on a chart. He will learn what seeds require to sprout, and, later, what they need in order to grow.

Biology in the fish tank: Some classrooms have rabbits, gerbils, or guinea pigs; others have fish or earthworms. These creatures teach children how living beings interact with their environment and react to different stimuli, says Tokieda. Preschoolers take responsibility for caring for the animals: recording the temperature in the fish tank, learning about the earthworm's habitat, finding out what the rabbit and gerbils and guinea pig eat and measuring out their food. Children observe the animals' habits, measure and weigh them, and record their growth in pictures and charts.

How to help at home

  1. You don't have to be Einstein to enjoy science with your child, says Tokieda. Science is all around you. Get into a playful, curious mode of being — look around, say "I wonder why…", and join your child in the process of discovery.
  2. Show your child science is important to you. Share the science section of the newspaper. Watch science and nature TV programs together and discuss them
  3. Encourage your child's natural curiosity. Respond to her questions by suggesting experiments to test her hypotheses. Look for answers together in books and on the Internet.
  4. When you walk your child to school, or go to the park, be on the lookout for interesting things — the rocks near the sidewalk, the leaves on the trees, the clouds in the sky — and point them out. Talk about the ducks migrating south and the squirrels preparing for winter.
  5. Encourage your child to help you in the kitchen by finding ingredients and weighing and measuring them.
  6. When you recycle bottles and cans, ask your child to help put them into categories. Involve him in sorting the laundry and the silverware, and putting it away in its proper place.
  7. Turn the bathtub into a physics lab. Give your child a variety of objects to play with in the bathtub so she can find out whether they float. Note the level of the water before she gets in the tub and after she is in. Point out the difference and say, "I wonder where all that water came from?"
  8. Provide your child with simple toys or safe objects, like a clock or flashlight, to take apart and find out how they work.
  9. Play games together. Marbles are a great way to learn about mass and velocity.
  10. Remember it's always OK to say, "I don't know. Let's find out."

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.