Preschoolers are the best scientists because they are so observant. They can watch ants, pill bugs, worms indefinitely. They ask a million questions about things we adults never think about. They can watch a vortex in a flushing toilet over and over again or pour the same cup of water into the same bottle a hundred times and not get tired of it. The key for we adults is to help them understand what they are seeing or experiencing, or at least help them to define their questions or wonderings. Terms like “I wonder why” or “I notice that” help them to put their questions into words. It also give them vocabulary as you name the things they see. Words like funnel, vortex, antennae, spiral, pattern, sparkle, reflection can become part of their everyday vocabulary, starting with a simple exploration assisted by a helpful adult or peer.
Learning the process of science is as important as learning the content. There are five steps in the inquiry process with young children: Engage, Prepare to explore, Explore, Reflect and Share (EPERS). We use the following process skills to carry this out:
1. OBSERVING, using our senses, noticing things, looking for changes, etc.
2. COMPARING, making predictions, comparing with past experiences, comparing things in front of us, looking for similarities and differences.
3. CLASSIFYING, including sorting, looking at attributes and putting items together with other items with similar attributes, looking at the properties of an item.
4. MEASURING, comparing weight, size, speed, color, smell, etc.; quantifying what we see and collecting data.
5. COMMUNICATING by interpreting data, describing changes or what happened, etc.
Of course we predict and hypothesize, but these skills are developed more fully later.
Next time you go to the playground, the park, or are just hanging out in your backyard, see if you can help your child explore. They can dig a hole in the dirt, take a flower apart, sort through a button box, or play with pouring in the bathtub. (Bathtub toy suggestions: put a turkey baster, empty dish soap bottle, piece of tubing from the hardware store, straws, measuring cups, wooden spoons, corks)
Maybe you can take photos of your child, or even have them take photos of their exploration. Write down their words describing what they are doing, noticing, wondering about. And display their work! That’s the best fun of all!