What Can They Really Understand?


I’ve always wondered about doing science “experiments,” like the good old homemade volcano, with young children, Pre-K’s and kindergartners. After a week or two (let alone a few months) how much will they remember? Will they even be able to tell you about baking soda and vinegar? 

If these activities include plenty of time for observation, inquiry, prediction, and discussion, I’m all for them. But I’m concerned that too often, these are just “science-tainment,” inspiring lots of “Wow!”s, but not a lot of scientific reasoning.

When I first started creating activities to help young children learn about the science of sound (which led me to write “Exploring the Science of Sound”), I wondered about how much they could really absorb and understand. I wanted to build on the curiosity they already had, and encourage them to question, predict results, and work together to find answers that made sense.

Luckily, I didn’t have to just “wonder.” The National Science Teachers Association has guidelines for early childhood teachers, including a Position Statement on Early Childhood Science Education which states that “children have the capacity to engage in scientific practices and develop understanding at a conceptual level.”
However, they need teachers to provide “multiple opportunities to engage in science exploration and experiences through inquiry.” There’s much more information and resources for early childhood teachers who want to teach science to their students in a meaningful way.

Building scientific understanding doesn’t happen in a day. Young children need “sustained engagement with materials and conversations that focus on the same set of ideas over weeks, months, and years.” Unfortunately, this isn’t the kind of science learning that happens in most early childhood settings.

I’m still reading, learning and practicing new ways of bringing inquiry-based science experiences into my science-of-sound activities. For those of you working with young children who aren’t sure where to start, I’d recommend the NSTA webpage. It’s smarter (and a lot less messy) than the baking soda volcano.





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