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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.

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.

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