During group time, Miss Sylvie carefully filled a little pie pan from the dramatic-play center with water and placed it on the windowsill. "What do you think will happen?" she asked the children. The next day, in group time again, she brought the pie pan back-the water had disappeared! "What happened to the water?" she wondered aloud. The 5-year-olds had ideas: The pan leaked. Someone spilled the water. A cat came in and drank it.

After the ideas stopped coming, Jack raised his hand-Jack, who was repeating kindergarten and seemed disconnected from school life-"I know what happened!" The other children looked surprised. With all eyes on him, Jack announced, "Evaporation!" "Yes," Miss Sylvie said, smiling, as she launched the class on a study of that phenomenon.

The teacher's simple experiment held the power to produce lasting learning, demonstrated especially by Jack, who a year later could recall what he had learned in kindergarten the year before. The teacher focused the children's attention on an everyday event, engaged their curiosity and inborn desire to make sense of things, and then provided an accurate, scientific concept to guide further explorations and observations. Now they had a word for talking about puddles disappearing on the playground, and a way to explain an endless array of wet things - mittens and boots, hands and faces - drying.

Building Teamwork

Because many science experiences are novel to children, the excitement can generate a sense of shared community in a class. "Remember when we made popcorn and we were surprised because steam came out?" And when children are organized to work in teams, they experience many other benefits. Teachers can pair children, grouping them according to their language development (placing one highly verbal child with one who's less verbal), leadership behaviors (teaming one child who always gets things done with one who is more hesitant or shy), or activity level (matching an active child with one who's more controlled) so that they learn from each other. A teacher may want to encourage friendship between two children, perhaps pairing one new to the class with one who has built solid friendships within the group. She can pair them with the goal of giving them a sense of shared satisfaction in accomplishing work together. When teaming children, the teacher can have one child record the activities by drawing or checking boxes on, say, a clipboard while the other conducts and reports on the activities. If a third child is on the team, she can take charge of materials. Children can switch roles so everyone gets a chance to participate in all aspects of the exploration. Or a team may want to dramatize their experiences and reenact them for the class. When children internalize their experiences enough to recreate them in dramatic play, something lasting has been accomplished.

Working Scientists

Following the experiment on evaporation described above, teams of two children took small pans of water and placed them in different spots to see if their water would also evaporate. The teacher gave each team a small clipboard with paper to draw where they'd placed their pan. Teams checked their pans each day and compared results. They tried to explain why their water dried up quickly or not so quickly. Did the radiator make a difference? Was the pan really full or did it contain just a little bit of water to start with? What if we put coloring in the water? How about sugar or salt? How about milk and juice-will they evaporate, too? Teams chose which experiments to try and drew their results. The teacher and her assistant recorded the children's comments beside their drawings as often as possible. A group chart was started to collect and compare results. Thinking big, Mark and Kaysha experimented with a bucket of water! How long would that take to evaporate?

They repeated the evaporation experiment outside, placing pans in the sun and shade, on the asphalt, and under a bush. Laundering and then drying all the doll blankets outdoors showed a practical application.

Because the children still seemed interested in water, the teachers decided to extend the concept by:

  • providing plastic cups of ice water so children could observe how evaporated water collects on cold things, thus furnishing another powerful word for the children's vocabularies, condensation.
  • making soup-Miss Sylvie held a pie pan filled with ice cubes over a boiling pot and showed how the rising steam turned into "rain" on the bottom of" the pan.
  • inviting children to breathe into their cupped hands and feel the warmth, then breathe onto small mirrors and aluminum pie pans to see how their warm breath creates cloudy areas on them. Did the cloudy places feel wet?
  • taking children outdoors on cold days to watch their breath condense in puffs, and to examine the frost on car windows.

Throughout, the teachers talked to the children about their being scientists, because they were observing, writing down their observations, comparing results, and making new experiments and observations. Teachers also encouraged children to report evaporation experiences from home, and offered families suggestions in their weekly newsletter.

Extending the Learning

The teacher mentioned rain coming from water condensing high in the sky in clouds but didn't really expect children to grasp the concept of the whole water cycle. She knew it made more sense to stick to the concrete, repeatable, hands-on experiences she was providing. The teacher also knew that showing the change from water to ice and back to water made sense to 4s and 5s. She set up a station with eyedroppers and cups of water so children could make a few drops on a plate that went into the freezer (or outdoors) for a half hour. Then the drops were held in an outstretched palm where they turned back to water.

While the eyedroppers were out, the teachers added an egg carton filled with different colored water for small-scale color mixing. Children noticed that if two drops close by were pushed a bit they'd jump together, and the colors would mix intriguingly. They also tried to make the "biggest drop" by carefully adding drops to an existing drop until the drop burst and spread out flat. These experiments with "surface tension" were extended when children filled small containers to the max and noticed the rounded tops and how they broke. After experimenting with plain water, children tried soapy water and other liquids.

Interestingly, while watching the drops jump together, Léon said, "They're like magnets!" The teacher pulled out her magnet supplies and suddenly, the whole class was "through with water." Magnets were the science focus now. Another cycle of teamwork, observation, recording, reporting, and comparing began for the young scientists.

So science continued for the children, although the topics had changed. Children had gained the confidence to experiment, to think, and to share their results and ideas with one another. The teacher's knowledge of children - including what she knew about their abilities and interests-helped her supply interesting materials and ideas for ongoing and productive science learning.

Introducing Vocabulary

Four- and 5-year-olds are learning new words at a rapid pace, often several a day. Science experiences are a prime source of powerful new words because they use a common language to describe the world rather than a language that is specific to children's individual imaginations or home lives. Furthermore, because science words are typically new to everyone, children whose vocabularies are limited by experience or cultural background have equal access to the new and interesting words. When teachers write the new words in sentences supplied by children and post them near the materials used in the explorations, children gain a sense of ownership and make the connection between the spoken and written words.

Linking Concepts

Brain research of the last decade or so has shown how neural networks are constructed in the brain, with branching occurring continuously in an active, healthy brain. This growth and development is fostered by the exercise of curiosity and the chemicals of positive emotions. Knowing that developing a concept such as evaporation is useful to children, teachers can introduce them to many experiences with evaporation that will create new pathways in the brain and help link many different experiences into a solid understanding of a basic concept. When teachers keep in mind the basic concepts they're fostering, they can reinforce them throughout the year When the weather unit comes around, for instance, evaporation gets revisited as an explanation for clouds and rain. Photographs of experiences help keep conceptual memories fresh.

Thinking Reflectively

Optimally, most science experiences take place during center time so that teachers can work closely with just a team or two to make sure children follow procedures, observe carefully, and think things through. When teachers work with just one or two children at a time, they can dispel misunderstandings and foster new understandings about basic concepts. Teachers need to work through the experiences ahead of time so that they can formulate their own thinking. Many teachers have not been carefully trained in using everyday phenomena in early childhood science education, and many explanations are not clear to them. But several children's science trade books provide accurate information in a way that's easy to understand. Teachers can consult them as they work with children and thus learn together.

Many teachers begin the year stocking a science table or center, but by November dust has settled on the once interesting fungi and no one even looks at the center. How do teachers keep science going? One way is to be curious about everything. When outside, the teacher might say to the nearest child, "Let's collect rocks today and take them inside to study." Then rock washing, sorting, arranging, and counting can occur.

The wonderful truth about science studies is that everything can be looked at, talked about, and made into pleasurable learning experiences for children and teachers alike.