Fostering Scientific Thinking In Young Children

I recently contributed an article to Neighborhood Parents Network‘s Parent to Parent Newsletter (pdf), which describes much of my approach to science education. Below is a slightly longer version of the piece. I hope you find it useful.

In many ways, children are born scientists. Their natural curiosity drives them to explore and experiment, and they are often fascinated as they learn how the world around us works. Their thirst for scientific knowledge seems endless. But when you ask children what scientists do and how scientists come upon new knowledge, the response is often vague. You hear descriptions of men and women who know lots of things, dress in white lab coats and toy with beakers full of chemicals.

Facts are often at the core of science education for young children, and that is part of a strong foundation in science. But science goes far beyond factual knowledge. The process by which scientists make their discoveries is what makes the world of science so special. The following tips can help plant the seeds of scientific reasoning in your child’s mind.

  • Say, “I don’t know.” In fact I encourage you to sometimes say, “I’m not sure,” even when you do have a pretty good idea how something works. Then, with your child as a partner, follow up and try to find some answers. Young children are somewhat inclined to think dichotomously — either they know the answer or they don’t. Show your children that learning is an active process. Show them that “I don’t know” can be a temporary condition.
  • Model different ways to search for knowledge. Read books, watch short videos, search the internet, and design your own experiments. Don’t stop with facts. Teach your child that penguins eat krill, and then tell them how you learned it. Maybe you read about it in a book that was written by a penguin scientist, who watches penguins. Maybe you saw a video or a photograph.
  • Use the words “I agree” and “I disagree” as much as you can. These words are your friends. Whereas ‘yes’ and ‘no’ are stubborn declarations, talking about what you believe opens up a conversation. You can make a case for what you think, and children will get a glimpse of your thought processes. You can also teach that scientists often disagree; they do experiments to see who is right, and they sometimes change their minds.
  • Question what your child already knows. If your child tells you that Tyrannosaurus ate meat, you’ll probably agree. But you don’t have to stop there. Dig deeper and ask your child why we think tyrannosaurus was a meat eater. Turn it into a research project. Ask whether people have ever seen a dinosaur eating. Then look at animals alive today, watch what they eat, look at their teeth, categorize them, and see what you’ve learned about sharp teeth.
  • Discuss and implement simple experiments. I suggest starting with very simple experiments. Take something, put it into two groups, do different things to those groups, and then see what happens. With support, even very young students can see how the scientific method helps us learn. Does your child want to design an unrealistically challenging experiment? Does your experiment involve dozens of sharks and giant lasers? Well, then use your imaginations. Turn it into an art project and draw what might happen, or act it out with whatever costumes you can come up with.

Try This Simple Experiment!

What do plants need to grow? Perhaps your child can tell you that they need dirt, water, air, and sunlight. This wonderful experiment shows how experimentation helps us learn more about what a plant needs.

Plant bean seeds in four different cups, mugs, or small pots. Garden beans or green beans work best. You might want to plant two or three seeds in each container, because there could be some duds. Give each cup a different set of conditions. (1) One cup will get no dirt. (2) One cup will get no water. (3) One cup will get no sunlight. Either put a box over the top of it or keep it in a very dark closet. (4) And the last cup gets everything we think it needs: dirt, water, and sunlight.

Then, water the plants every couple of days (but not the no-water plant!) and watch what happens. Plants will start sprouting after about a week. If you like, you can measure and graph their growth. Be prepared for a surprise!



One Thought on “Fostering Scientific Thinking In Young Children

  1. Pingback: Teach Your Very Young Child How To Read. |

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