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by Istar Schwager, Ph.D.

Look!” said Lisa as she watched the ladybug crawl across the leaf. “That ladybug has two dots on her back.”

Can she fly?” asked her friend Joey, looking up from digging for worms nearby.

I don’t know,” Lisa answered. She bent down and looked closely. “ Maybe. She kind of has wings.”

Just then, as if on cue, the ladybug fluttered over to another clump of leaves. “She can fly, she can,” shouted Joey with that combination of wonder and excitement special to children under six.

Young children are natural scientists. Intuitively, they do many of the same things as grown-ups wearing lab coats. For professional and child alike, science is the process of finding out more about how the world works. Both observe, predict and form conclusions based on what they see. And much of science takes place outside the laboratory--scientists do some very productive thinking while brushing their teeth, feeding the cat, and listening to rain on the roof. For children, day-to-day life offers infinite opportunities to watch, explore, probe, and discover more about the world.

There are a number of ways parents can encourage and develop the scientific thinking preschoolers display so naturally. One of the most essential is to recognize that ‘science” can occur anywhere: in the kitchen, the backyard, the bathtub. Another is to understand that you don’t have to be a ‘scientist’ to foster your child’s normal curiosity. Preschoolers don’t need to be bombarded with facts. While seven- and eight-year-olds love spouting bits of information, younger kids are more interested in--and attuned to--the process of science. If you explore alongside your child, you will help her retain here natural enthusiasm for learning how things work and develop some science skills at the same time.

Encourage Skills
Here are some of the skills you can develop with your child:

Observing. This perfectly ordinary activity is at the very core of science. Noticing how things look, and how they feel, taste, smell, and sound is fundamental to learning about the world. Share a variety of ways to use your senses. For instance, you and your child can close you eyes and just listen to the sounds around you.

Describing experiences. Encourage kids to talk about what they see and hear, taste, smell, and touch. You might get responses like: ‘This leaf has jaggedy edges and this one has smooth edges,” “The sky is cloudy and the ground is dark.” ‘Sour juice makes my tongue feel tickly.”
Children use very colorful descriptive language that often captures their perceptions in unique ways. Ask questions that bring out these imaginative descriptions. Also, help them find appropriate words such as sour, sticky, lumpy, shiny, crackely, crisp.

If your child says, “The bench feels cold when I touch it,” you might suggest he find out if the jungle gym and seesaw handle also feel cold, “since they’re all made of metal.”

Or, ‘I knew Daddy was coming up the stairs.” “How?” “Because of the sound of the footsteps--they were loud and slow. Aunt Jane’s are fast.

Children can describe their experience in many ways--not just verbally. Encourage drawing, writing, pantomime, mimicking sounds, or singing, to translate what they observe through their senses.

Finding similarities and differences. Another way to sharpen observation is to suggest that children look closely or the ways things are alike and different. How are all the people on the beach the same? “Everyone’s barefoot except Sean, who’s wearing sandals.”

Two of the birds seem to like what’s in the birdfeeder, but the other one just wants to play.”

Collecting. Young children love to collect and sort things into categories. Yours may want to acquire leaves or rocks or rubber bands or something more unusual, Collecting is a great way to continue to explore similarities and differences and to sort objects into groups. Your child may decide that the leaves with five points go into one box, the leaves with three points into another.

Young collectors exhibit different styles. Some collect everything: others pick and choose. “ I already have an acorn with a hat on,” a young specialist might remark. “Now I need one whose top has fallen off.”

Some children like to sort through and group items in their collections by color, size, or texture: others turn the objects into people and things and use them to create stories.

Making predictions. A major question in science is “What will happen if...I mix the blue paint with the red paint: plant this sunflower seed: let go of the ball at the top of the slide?” When scientists test their theories-hypotheses-- they are seeing if their predictions hold up.

Seeing what happens next does not always have to be in the form of guessing the outcome-it can also be open-ended. Sometimes you aren’t at all certain what will happen. What’s important is to keep your eyes and your mind open. You and your child can find out together if your shadows will get longer or shorter when you walk toward the light; if the bar of soap floats or sinks; if the gelatin hardens faster In a small or large container.

Thinking about cause and effect . Little children love pushing buttons and turning dials to make the radio blare, turn the lights on, and make the phone ring at grandma’s house. They are fascinated by their own effect on the objects and people around them. As a team, you can look at how one thing causes another: The wind blows the leaves; the dog knocks over his water bowl; the loud noise makes the baby startle; the cold in the freezer turns the water to ice.

Noticing cause and effect can be the basis for early experimentation. If your child pours the bubble bath into the middle of the tub, nothing happens. If she dribbles it under running water, lots of bubbles form.


Here are some activities that can constitute early science experiments:

Playing with pets . Observe animal behavior and talk about it. Watching animals teaches children about basic life processes and about how animals respond to their surroundings. “Frisky always goes to sleep in the warmest corner,” you might point out, or “Jaws the goldfish can tell when he’s going to be fed from the tapping on his bowl.”
Being the weatherperson . Notice each day’s weather and describe if it’s cloudy, rainy, sunny, or some combination. Look at how people dress and move in different kinds of weather. Check thermometers and barometers; determine which way the wind is blowing by watching clouds and trees.

Cooking . Working in the kitchen is one of the soundest science activities there is. What happens when foods are heated? When they are frozen? When ingredients are mixed? Children get a lot of firsthand experience with cause and effect as they boil or beat an egg or see apples turn into apple sauce. Even playdough can be a dramatic example of how ingredients can be transformed from different entities into something new. (Mix 3 cups flour, 1 cup salt, 1 or more cups water, and 2 tablespoons of oil in a bowl to form a doughy substance perfect for molding and squeezing--but not for eating.)

Becoming body-conscious . Growth charts and weight scales teach children about their favorite subject--themselves. Photo albums are another great way to trace progress. (“Was that me? “)

Young experimenters could make hand- and footprints with paint. Then compare left to right hand or hand-prints to footprints.

Noticing similarities and differences between people ”Sally has brown eyes and, straight hair; Jennifer has grey eyes and curly hair.) provides an opportunity to underscore how special and unique each person is.

Gardening . Growing plants gives preschoolers early experiences in nurturing as well as in science. Lima beans and grapefruit seeds can be started in moist paper towels, then transferred to soil once roots start to sprout. Children can watch their plants develop and compare the amount of growth and leaf types. They can also become familiar with what plants need to thrive. Children love outdoor gardening as well, but it’s important to choose seeds that yield quick results. (Try radishes or bird seed.)

Question and Explore

Young children are right in the middle of making some basic discoveries about the world: for instance, that all animals need food. The best way for you to help your child learn about science is to share her enthusiasm and be available to answer questions or look for answers. Encourage her to keep her eyes and ears open, to notice and question what’s happening around her, and to take an active role in exploring her environment.

1986 Sesame Workshop (New York, New York) All rights reserved.

-- let us know what science activities your child likes.

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