Let's Investigate!

Spark your child's interest in science with these seven steps to successful studies.

By Ellen Booth Church




One spring day, Lily's kindergarten class became fascinated with the rust that had developed on the swings in their school playground. Lily's teacher invited the children to look closely at the rust, and together they made a chart of what they would like to learn about it. With some water and collected materials, the class conducted a series of experiments to find out what types of things will rust in water and what will not. Later, they decided to test known rusting materials using other liquids; the children wanted to know if a screw could rust in milk, liquid soap, or soda.
Lily's teacher hadn't planned on studying rust, but the children's interests led to an amazing lesson: Science is everywhere! The key is to approach science as an investigation in which you learn along with your child. For example, children are natural collectors. Just look inside their pockets, backpacks, or drawers, and you will find the most amazing assortment of "special stuff." You can use your child's collections as a launching pad for investigation. Invite him to share what he knows about them. You may be surprised by how knowledgeable he already is! Find out if he has any questions he would like to explore.

The Scientific Method for Young Children
The process of science learning is what really counts with young children, not the content. There are seven basic steps that will help you teach your child about scientific discovery and how to examine problems logically. These steps are similar to those used in the scientific method, but they emphasize the skills that are most relevant for young children: 
1. Observe. This is perhaps the most important step for your young child, because he is at the developmental stage when he is constructing his own knowledge about the world. Observing is the process of looking closely, noticing things from different viewpoints, and quietly watching and waiting, without much doing. While this stage is essential, it is one that is frequently not given enough time and energy. Children often want to jump in and do the experiment. You need to remind him to take the time to use all of his senses to interpret the world around him. Try taking the observations to different levels and locales. You will be asking your child to gather more and 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?

2. Compare. This is the process of taking your child's observations about objects and phenomena and noticing similarities and differences. You are inviting her to move beyond telling you what she noticed to expressing the relationships between things.

  • How are these plants alike or different?
  • Where have you seen similar plants?
  • What about their smell?

3. Sort and organize. A natural offshoot of comparison, this takes the process to a more abstract and representational level of thinking. As your child matches, groups, and organizes materials in many different ways, he will begin to understand that objects can belong to more than one group at a time.

  • How many ways can we sort the plants? Some have flowers and some don't; some are tall and others are short; some have big leaves and others have little leaves.
  • How many ways can we organize the leaves? Round, long, pointed, two-lobed, or three-lobed, for example.

4. Wonder, predict, and hypothesize. This is the process of questioning and speculating based on what you've learned in the first three steps. Your child will use the questions that arise from her innate curiosity as the basis for your experiment. She'll get better at prediction through experience, so be sure to provide a lot of opportunities for this process skill. This step also helps your child to make generalizations. If she notices that light seems to shine through the leaves of a fern, but not of a rubber plant, she may make the generalization that sunlight will not shine through thick leaves.

  • What do you wonder about these plants? (If he's having difficulty thinking of something, you can add your own questions: What will happen if we put some in a closet?)

5. Experiment, test, and explore. Now it's time to try out your ideas and test your predictions. The key is to provide plenty of different materials — and time — to explore. It's important for him to play with an experiment over many days.

  • How can we test if light will shine through a leaf?
  • How many different leaves can we test?
  • What places can we put plants in to see if they will grow?
  • What else do you want to know about plants?

6. Infer and record results to represent understanding. Now it's time to communicate the findings of your experiments with others. It's an important step because it asks your child to take her concrete experience and verbalize it and represent the information abstractly — using graphs, drawings, or charts.

  • She can make a small drawing of the plants' growth each day.
  • She can make a chart to record the best places to grow plants.

7. Extend, expand, and apply. Perhaps the most overlooked step is that of applying the information gained from the experiment to a larger field of experience. Your child "owns" the skills and understanding when he knows how to use them in many different situations. Broadening the scope of his experiments, trying them again with new materials, and seeing if his understandings are consistent are essential parts of any good science study for children. This is the time for great open-ended questions and new activities that can inspire your child to think creatively!

  • What would happen if the plants were covered with dark paper or light paper?
  • What if you didn't give the plants any water?

Science at Home
Every family can be a science team if you use these quick and easy ways to celebrate the wonder of exploring the world together. You don't have to be a scientist to do science at home, either. It is not as important for your child to memorize science facts as it is for her to learn how to find out!
Try these strategies to bring out the scientist in your child:

  • Remember the importance of hands-on experiences. For example, when he's taking a bath, study the concepts of floating and sinking by using prediction, experimentation, and application. You can also experiment with evaporation with a puddle of water on the sidewalk. Draw a line around the outside of the puddle. Ask him what he thinks will happen to the water. Just wait until your child comes back to the outline after a few hours and sees what happened!
  • Support and develop the fine art of observation by taking time to watch and wait with your child. By quietly spending time observing her surroundings, your child will construct her own knowledge of how things work. 
  • Use open-ended questions. By simply asking questions that get your child to think creatively, you will be encouraging him to wonder, predict, experiment, and evaluate.
  • Remember that we are all scientists. There is a science to most things we do, from making art and cooking to building things and using language. Older children (5 and up) will enjoy creating a new language that will help demonstrate how science is a part of other things — in this case, literacy. Think of different symbols (or lines and squiggles) to represent each letter of the alphabet. Ask your child, "How do you spell your name in this new alphabet?" 
Thinking Skills & Learning Styles
Sorting and Classifying
Scientific Method
Age 5
Age 4
Age 3
Science Experiments and Projects
Early Science