Educators who agree that an integrated curriculum is a good idea at the early childhood level may wonder why science should be the hub of the curriculum. Why not use literacy, or a theme approach, or a project framework?
These methods can successfully prepare children for school by sharpening their skills in language and literacy, problem-solving, and attention regulation. But science, we’ve found, makes it even easier to accomplish all of these goals. Why? Because children are intensely interested in learning about the world around them. Through science projects, they acquire a rich and coherent knowledge base about the surrounding world.
Here are the 10 biggest benefits teachers have found using science as a framework for learning.
1. Science responds to children’s need to learn about the world around them. The primary reason for a science-based early childhood curriculum is that this is what children want! Almost nothing engages young children’s interest so much as science demonstrations and hands-on science activities. Why? Because in the years before they enter school, children have four primary developmental tasks: physical and motor development, language acquisition, social interaction, and learning about the surrounding world. Hands-on science activities provide a rich context for all these things.
2. Children’s everyday experience is the foundation for science. We scrambled eggs when we were exploring the changing properties of matter. The children knew what the inside of a raw egg would look like and could predict how it would change when it was cooked. Everyday experience also provides a strong foundation for learning vocabulary and science concepts. And ongoing daily experiences are enriched as children get a deeper understanding of events and a larger vocabulary for talking about them.
3. Open-ended science activities include children in a wide range of developmental levels. In any activity we do in the classroom, children engage at a variety of levels, depending on their knowledge and skills. When we use water droppers to mix colored water, one child may choose to spend 20 minutes practicing the small-motor skills for operating the dropper and another may spend the time exploring how to use proportions to create different shades of orange. Because children can find their own level within an activity, they are likely to be challenged without becoming frustrated or bored.
4. Hands-on science activities permit teachers to observe and respond to children’s individual strengths and needs. As teachers observe children finding their own level within an open-ended activity, they can see when the child knows and when she needs assistance. By carefully planning the next activity the child encounters, the teacher reinforces skills already mastered. The child who practiced small motor skills with a water dropper may enjoy more tasks that strengthen that skill, or she may be ready to repeat the activity at a more advanced level, perhaps by focusing on mixing colors.
5. The scientific approach of trial and error welcomes error and interprets it as valuable information, not as failure. Science is a natural context for developing an attitude of exploration without the pressure of being correct. The children had planted seeds in a large terrarium and discussed what was needed for seeds to grow. During lunch, a child noticed seeds when the teacher cut open a pear. A long conversation ensued about what the pear seeds would need to grow. The child predicted they would need water. This conversation set the stage for an experiment sprouting different sorts of seeds. It is very likely that the pear seed will not sprout on damp cotton the same way a bean seed will, but the false prediction will be a springboard for further investigation rather than being considered a failure.
6. Science strongly supports language and literacy. Children learn language while participating in meaningful, comprehensible spoken interactions. Appropriately implemented, a science-based curriculum is rich in language used by both adults and children. Literature of all kinds can be used to support learning through science. Songs, finger-plays, poems and books are matched to the activity and used to support it.
Non-fiction books become a powerful foundation for conversations with adults and peers. (Look what the inside of a frog looks like! How can people stay warm if they live inside an igloo?)
Children’s knowledge and experience of the everyday world, coupled with visual and hands-on activities, supports vocabulary growth. A child who has watched her father make scrambled eggs has a prior mental picture that she can draw on to interpret a hands-on classroom experience of cracking and heating eggs. The memory and present experience together provide a meaningful context to support the child’s learning of words such as raw, yolk, stir, cooked, spatula, heat, and change.
Receptive language is fostered as children listen to the teacher read aloud and talk about the science activity.
Children learn expressive language as the teacher leads them through a cycle of scientific reasoning, and especially as the teacher supports the children in developing a report of their findings.
7. Science helps children with limited language participate in the classroom. Many come from homes where a language other than English is spoken and others come from homes where very little language is spoken at all. Teacher demonstrations and hands-on activities with familiar materials help children absorb a great deal of the content without knowing the teacher’s language; at the same time, this observationally based understanding provides a foundation for gradually acquiring the classroom language.
8. The problem-solving skills of science easily generalize to social situations. Preschoolers often bring problems with peers to the teachers’ attention. We have observed many ScienceStart! teachers help the children adapt the cycle of problem-solving to these interpersonal problems. They help children plan possible solutions, predict what might work best, try the proposed solution, let the teacher know how it worked, try something else if the first attempt didn’t work. A child who wants a toy someone else is playing with may come to the teacher and say, “I asked for it, but he wouldn’t give it to me.” “What else could you try?” “Well, maybe I could trade.” “Any other ideas?” “I could ask if we could play with it together.” “OK, go try one of those ideas.” “They didn’t work, but he said I could have it when he’s done.” The teacher here is scaffolding the child’s own attempts to resolve the problem, supporting the use of the problem-solving cycle that is made especially explicit during the science activities.
9. Science demonstrations help children become comfortable in large-group conversations. They engage everyone’s interest and create shared knowledge that can serve as the foundation for conversation in a big group. When the teacher makes orange by combining red and yellow, children are amazed. They ask how and why it happened, what would happen if another color were added, if other color pairs were combined, and so forth. The teacher can support and extend a large-group conversation of this sort for several minutes and then suggest ways to explore the questions they have generated. In addition, large-group discussion nurtures listening skills and attention management.
10. Science connects easily to other areas, including center-based play, artistic expression, math and social studies. With an integrated curriculum, similar activities and concepts may be available in multiple locations of the classroom. This creates an environment for learning through different senses and skills. During a unit on color mixing, children playing in the housekeeping corner might layer net capes in primary colors to create secondary colors. The easel could hold only two primary colors along with a model of various shades of the resulting secondary color. A table could hold strips of colored cellophane and clear contact paper to create plaid sun-catchers. This sort of integration across classroom areas and content nurtures repetition and reinforcement of the concept, and offers children an opportunity to engage the concept using their preferred form of play.
We’ve learned what works when young children discover the world around them through playful science activities. Their imaginations open up, their knowledge grows, and their vocabularies deepen. There’s no stopping them. Watch what happens when their curiosity blossoms!