Exploring Science with Preschoolers

By Kathy Porter Peden, TLC Teaching Assistant

I love watching children learn about the world around them. They are such eager explorers and anyone who has spent more than a few minutes with a preschooler knows they are full of questions and curiosity.  

Sometimes, as teachers or parents, we are reluctant to dive into science topics and activities with our young kids, but I encourage you to give science with preschoolers a try. Here are four common fears with teaching young children science, and tips on addressing and overcoming those fears for a fun and engaging activity:

1.    "Science is intimidating.  I don’t know much about the subject my child or class is interested in."

  • You don’t have to be an expert in astrophysics before you start talking about space and stars with your children. You can teach them a vital life lesson by admitting you don’t know all the answers but you’d like to learn something new.

  • The children’s section of the local library has great beginner science books. Many have just a few words and great pictures.

  • You can find some great information and some really good videos on the internet bu make sure to screen these before sharing with your children. Not everyone has the same standards for what a child should see.

2.     "It seems too complex for young children."

  • Children grasp way more than we give them credit for. Think of all the amazing learning they have done in a few short years! Even if they don’t understand all the intricacies of a subject, having fun exploring it now will likely leave the door open to add to their understanding in the future.

  • Preschoolers LOVE big words. Science is chock full of impressive vocabulary. You can teach them one or two big words relating to the current topic and give simple definitions. Give them the opportunity to discuss and use the words several times and you will see their pride as they talk to others using that vocabulary. Recent “big words” in our class have been: nocturnal, echolocation, translucent, opaque, condensation, evaporation, and precipitation.

3.    "It might not work right. I tried before and it was a flop."

  • Well, yes, that does happen. Things don’t always go the way we expect but even failures can be learning opportunities. Talk with the children about their ideas. “Why do you think it didn’t work?” “What should we do differently next time?” “Do we want to try this again to try something else?”

  • Try not to impose your own expectations on their exploration. If you hear yourself saying, “That won’t work. Do it this way,” you might need to back off and let them do their own research. Last year I had one of those moments when my little students wanted to plant a huge mango seed along with all the lettuce and pansies we were starting for our garden. My first reaction was to explain that mangoes do NOT grow well in Colorado but looking at their eager faces, we stuffed it into a jar of dirt. They watered it and watched for weeks. I was just ready to throw it away, assuming it was just a moldy mess when I saw a big green shoot was erupting from the ground. We transplanted it into a real pot and it’s a sturdy little mango tree these days. Every time I see that tree-let I am reminded that sometimes following a child’s curiosity can land you in a beautiful place.

4.    "It might be messy."

  • Well, yes. There is that. You can take that into account and minimize the mess. Do the messiest stuff outside. Use a drop cloth or work in a dish tub or on a cookie sheet. Keep towels handy. Encourage the kids to wear their lab coats (paint smocks)

As you explore science with your children remember to:

Keep it safe.  Make sure your materials are safe for impulsive and fast moving little people.  Supervise closely.

Keep it fun.  Exploration and discovery and laughter are fun.  Memorization drills are NOT fun.

Invite the wonder.  Model asking questions and pondering the things your children ask about.

"I wonder why…?"

"I wonder what would happen if …?"

"I wonder how that works…?"

I hope you have fun exploring the world and seeing it through the wondering eyes of the preschoolers in your life.

Teaching Versus Testing

By Kirsten Asbury, TLC Teaching Assistant

Often times as teachers we find ourselves asking questions that we already know the answer to, or that a student already knows the answer to. When we ask questions like “What letter is this?” or “How many sides does a triangle have?” or “What day comes after Monday?” we are not actually teaching our students, we are testing them. It is appropriate to ask testing questions when we are actually trying to determine what the child knows. It is important to facilitate the child’s learning by actually teaching them strategies to be successful when they are being tested. 
Constantly being tested can affect a child’s desire to participate in learning opportunities. For example, if you ask a child the name of a certain letter and they get it wrong and you correct them, they have failed. If this pattern continues they may develop coping skills so they will not have to participate in these “testing” activities. They could continue to give the wrong answer even when they know the answer to make peers laugh, they may shut down and stop responding, or they may act out in different ways to avoid these activities all together. 

TLC preschool students enjoy interacting with their teacher after reading a story together

TLC preschool students enjoy interacting with their teacher after reading a story together

What can we do as teachers to avoid testing students and teaching them instead? The answer seems so simple, just stop asking “testing questions.” It takes a very conscious effort to make sure we are not just testing our students. In the book Teaching Reading to Children with Down Syndrome by Patricia Logan Oelwein there are numerous different strategies and games to help teach children different reading skills. Playing games with your children or students is one of the most effective ways to help teach them. It is important to start at the simplest level of any game to make sure the child feels successful. If an activity or game is too hard for the student, stop, and choose something more appropriate to ensure that the child feels that they accomplished something on their own. Some games that Oelwein suggests to help children reach success in learning are “family bingo,” “letter basketball,” and “letter hunts” around your house or school. 
It is okay for learning to be hard for a child; when it is hard for a child to learn, acknowledge that it is hard! When the child experience success when something is hard that will increase their self-esteem even more! I encourage parents and teachers to really think about what questions they are asking children and avoid just testing them. I know this is something I need to work on, and it takes a very conscious effort but is well worth the rewards experienced by the child who learns and learns to love the process of learning.