Article

Scientific Thinking: Step by Step

  • Grades: PreK–K, 1–2

Setting Up Your Science Center

Your science center is a place to bring the outside in and develop higher-order thinking skills used in the scientific process. Have lots of open-ended materials available for children to explore when they need them. Keep everything accessible and organized so children know where to find the magnifiers when they find a bug to observe or where to get the pan balance when they want to compare things. This center can grow and change with the additions children find and bring from home. Here are some science study tools to include in your center:

  • a discovery or "feely" box for exploring surprises with a few senses at a time
  • magnifying glasses, plastic mirrors, and prisms
  • binoculars, taleidoscopes, and kaleidoscopes
  • flashlights, colored cellophane
  • barometer, thermometers
  • magnets 
  • wheels, gears, pulleys, ramps
  • balance scale 
  • tight table and materials
  • twigs, Leaves, nuts, seeds, eggshells, feathers, shells
  • stones, minerals, fossils 
  • empty bird and insect nests 
  • living plants   

We have all heard the wise adage about art: It's not the product but the prices." The same can be said about science. In the early childhood years, children are learning the process skills of science as they apply to different theme. The skills-observe, compare, sort and organize, predict, experiment, evaluate, and apply-- are the seven essential steps to scientific thinking.

This step-by-step approach to science is flexible, allowing you to follow children's interests and discoveries. If this year children are fascinated with a rock collection a child brings to school, you may choose to use rocks and pebbles as your topic of study. But if next year a child brings in her seed collection, you might choose to focus on seeds and plants for your science curriculum. Once this process approach is in place, children will discover that they can apply it to any topic they want to investigate.

Have No Fear!

Some teachers do not feel comfortable with science. But when you approach science as a process in which you learn along with the children, there is nothing to fear. The goal in developing a successful science program is to keep an open mind and be able to see science everywhere. By providing children with many interactive experiences, you'll be teaching them how to apply the "steps to science" to everything they encounter. Follow the steps outlined here for a dynamic, interactive science program.

Using the Seven Steps "Recipe"

The basic steps for creating great science studies are similar to those in the scientific method, but expanded, with emphasis on the skills that are most relevant to young children. Let's take a look at each one:

Observe This is the process of looking closely, noticing from different viewpoints, and quietly watching and waiting without much "doing." By their nature, children often want to jump in and "do" the experiment. We need to remind them to take the time to use all their senses when they approach an activity.

Take the observations to different levels and locales. Ask children to gather more information and viewpoints. What do you notice about these plants? What happens when you look at them from above, far away, or very, very close? Let's wait and see what happens when the wind blows them or the sunlight shifts. What do you see now?

Compare Making comparisons invites children to move beyond telling what they noticed about something and to begin expressing relationships between things. How are these plants the same and/or different? Where have you seen similar plants? Different plants? How do some plants feel different from others? What about their smell?

Sort and Organize This is the process of grouping things by recognizable traits. Children match, group, and organize materials in many different ways. They begin to understand that objects can belong to more than one group at a time. This is a great time to invite children to record their findings in pictures and graphs. Referring to these pictures and graphs, they can make further comparisons. How many ways can we sort the plants? (with and without flowers, tall and short, big leaves and little leaves) How many ways can we organize the leaves? (round, long, pointed, two-lobed, three-lobed, and so on)

Predict This is the process of questioning and speculating, based on prior knowledge gained in the first three steps. Children get better and better at prediction through experience, so be sure to provide lots of opportunities for this process skill. What will happen if we put some in a closet? Will sunlight shine through a leaf? This step also helps children generalize about things. If they notice that light seems to shine through the leaves of a fern but not through a rubber plant, they may generalize that sunlight will not shine through thick leaves.

Experiment This is when children test out their predictions and try out their ideas. The key to this step is to provide plenty of different materials and TIME to explore. Provide materials for free exploration in your science area so children can visit and revisit them on their own-which is how children conduct their own version of an "independent study." How can we test if light will shine through a leaf? How many different leaves can we test? What places can we put plants to see if they will grow? What else do you want to know about plants?

Evaluate This is where children communicate the findings of their experiments with others, taking their concrete experience, verbalizing it, and representing the information abstractly with graphs, drawings, charts, and field books. For example: On accordion-folded paper, can you make a drawing each day of the plants in your study? Use dark paper for the dark places the plants are kept and white or yellow for the light places. Which were the best places to grow plants? Which places were not good for growing plants? How many leaves could you shine light through? How many could you not shine light through? How can we show this information on a graph?

Apply This step involves applying the understandings gained from the experiment to a larger field of experience, encouraging children to broaden the scope of their experiments, try them again with new materials, and see if their understandings are consistent.

This is the time for great, open-ended questions and activities to help children think beyond the box! What would happen if the plants were covered with dark paper, light paper? Would they grow? What would they do?

Science All Around the Room

Once you arrive at the application stage, you can take the understandings and experiments outside of the science center and into other learning centers. Here are some examples of how you can take plant study all around the room:

Literacy

  • Collect books from the library that show beautiful pictures of the natural world. All week have a special part of the earth as a centerpiece in the classroom -a flower, a pretty branch, or a bonsai tree.
  • Tell a never-ending story. Have a large drawstring bag or basket full of fruit, nuts, and seeds. Start a story with "Once upon a time, there was a happy little orange who went walking through the fields looking for his friends. When suddenly he... " Now pass the bag and continue the silly story.
  •   Create a picture dictionary of the new science words learned and used in this unit. Add drawings and photos to illustrate each word. Place this in the literacy center to assist in children's science journal writing.

Art

  • Hang a sign in the art area asking children, How can you use seeds and bulbs in an art project?
  • Add seed and plant paintings by great artists for inspiration at the easel.
  • Take away the paintbrushes and replace them with nature items at the easel. How can you paint with a leaf, a flower, pine bough, and a corncob?

Manipulatives

  • Provide math manipulatives for children to use so they can record the growth of seedlings, bulbs, and plants in a wide variety of ways.
  • Create all sorts of games. Make an "inside/outside" matching game of fruits and vegetables using photos cut from seed catalogs or downloaded from the Internet. Invite children to help you make a "parts of a plant" puzzle showing the plant from roots to flower. They can cut the pieces from posters or catalogs or draw them themselves. Make a seed sequence game using photos taken of the growth of the new bulbs.

Water/Sand Table

  • At the water table, hang a sign reading: Do seeds float? Provide a variety of nuts and seeds for testing and a chart for recording findings.
  • In the sand table, bury a number of large seeds and nuts in the damp sand. How can you use water to find the seeds? Let each child keep one item.

Music

  • What nature objects can be used to make instruments? Bring in gourds, bean pods, coconuts, and other items for children to explore. Use these to add sound effects and orchestrate favorite songs and books!

Follow Children's Interests

The most effective way to choose a science topic is to start with something children are interested in. Notice what they notice. In the springtime, one kindergarten class became fascinated with the rust that had developed on the outdoor play equipment. The teacher invited children to observe and notice the rust and then brainstorm what they know about it. At the next gathering, children made a companion chart of what they wanted to find out about rust. With some containers of water and an assortment of great "junk," children engaged in a series of experiments to find out what will rust in water and what will not. Later they decided to test other liquids to see if the "known" rust items would rust in them as well. They wanted to know: Would a screw rust in milk, liquid soap, or soda the same way as it did in water? Certainly rust was not on the class syllabus or even a faint possibility in the teacher's mind as a lesson plan, but by taking their lead and using the steps to science together, they created an amazing science study!

Children's Collections

Children are natural collectors. Just look inside their pockets, backpacks, or cubbies and you will find the most amazing assortment of "special stuff." You can use children's collections as a starting place for science studies. Invite children to share their collections and discuss what they know about them. See if they have any questions about their collections that they'd like to explore. Consider the experiments, using the steps to science, that can be done with these items. Remember to start with observation and comparison. What do you notice about the items in your collection? How are the items the same and/or different? You might want to present a science tool such as a magnifier or pan balance and ask, How can we use this tool to find out more about the items in your collection? Then follow the steps to science and see where they lead!

Click here to view and download the Developmental Chart Developing Scientists - Age by Age (PDF)

  • Subjects:
    Early Science, Early Childhood Care and Education, Scientific Method and Process, Learning and Cognitive Development, Learning and Classroom Centers
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