Your program can offer children opportunities to be active participants in scientific experiences that help them develop fundamental problem-solving skills and become aware of jobs people do in the areas of science, mathematics, and technology and that build comfort in these areas and confidence in themselves. As you think about this exciting and worthwhile process, consider Jean Piaget's goal for education: "To create people who are capable of doing new things, not simply repeating what other generations have done-people who are creative inventors and discoverers."

Free Discovery is a time when children can fulfill their natural eagerness to find possible solutions to their own inquiries in their own ways. As children participate in the Free Discovery process, they begin the first steps in an exciting journey toward developing technological ability. As they take an active part in "making and doing," their questions begin to build the structural base for later scientific thinking. To accomplish this, Free Discovery:

  • Offers children a nonthreatening learning time in a secure environment where there are no "wrong" answers; therefore, there is no failure.
  • Allows children time to become comfortable with materials.
  • Encourages children to make their own observations and discoveries and to feel good about them.
  • Builds children's self-esteem as they feel in control of their own actions.
  • Proceeds at each child's own learning pace. Free exploration and play are a need that must be fulfilled before children can see the materials as learning resources. By providing lots of time, simple equipment, and interesting, age-appropriate materials, you can make Free Discovery a time that gives children unlimited opportunities to explore and interact without set parameters.


Observing: As children observe and explore, they make inferences. You can help them learn to record observations in their minds, call them up later and fit them into a larger framework to help make sense of what they are doing or learning. You might suggest that they try measuring and comparing, or you might help them isolate various factors or alter something and make new observations. For example, during Free Discovery children might learn that a magnet will attract paper clips in the aic You might then ask: What will happen if we put the paper clips in water? (The activities in this article will build on the concept of Focused Observation.)

Classifying: Children naturally want to group and organize objects in their world. The simplest form of classification takes place when children observe and start to collect similar objects and materials. Encourage this behavior by asking why they are putting all the objects in the same place. Responses will likely indicate that they've identified a certain attribute (though not always the one we expect). These children are well on their way to becoming skilled classifiers.

You can help children develop classification skills. For instance, they may have already been grouping according to a single attribute or physical property. Increase the challenge by asking children to rank-order objects: Which is the smallest? The next smallest? And so on. Which is the heaviest or the longest? Eventually children will not only be able to divide a group of objects by a particular attribute, they will also be able to further separate them into groups based on another attribute. For example, a child might divide a group of plants according to height-tall plants and short plants. The next challenge for the same child might be to separate the two groups according to smell-- those plants that have a strong smell and those that do not. Now there are four groups: tall plants that have a strong smell, short plants that have a strong smell, tall plants that don't smell, and short plants that don't smell. This work is certainly the beginning of scientific classification.

Encouraging children to make use of their observations not only reinforces the importance of being good observers but also develops classification as an opportunity to make decisions and to be in control.

Organizing and Communicating: Free Discovery, Focused Observation, and Observing to Classify are the initial skills that children need to begin to establish order in their world. Next comes organizing and communicating what they are learning. For instance, you can encourage children to make meaningful drawings for a class Discovery Journal (see "Using Discovery Charts and Journals," page 37) and to create graphs and charts together to describe their observations. Then, as you work together to share, record, and reflect on children's discoveries and thinking processes, they will begin to understand the need for orderly record keeping and analyzing information-at their level, of course. In addition, they will begin to see that much of what they are learning about words and numbers is useful in scientific discovery.


  1. Discovery Science activities follow this process:
  2. Introducing a topic and/or materials to children.
  3. Asking children to share what they know.
  4. Creating a Discovery Chart (see "Using Discovery Charts and Journals").
  5. Giving children plenty of Free Discovery time.
  6. Encouraging contributions to the Discovery Journal.
  7. Coming back together to share information and add to and change the Discovery Chart.
  8. Building on children's interest and curiosity, with additional, complementary activities to enhance learning and science knowledge.

Begin your Discovery Science investigations with a discussion about a topic such as magnets or rocks and soil (examples follow). After completing this discussion, you will have a list of children's observations and a feel for the kinds of inferences they are making. Now is the time to start guiding them into observations and discoveries that will support or correct the inferences they will make during Free Discovery.


Free Discovery:

  1. Gather children in a group and pass around a variety of magnets for them to inspect.
  2. After everyone has had a chance to take a look, ask: "What do we know about magnets?" Write this question on the top of a Discovery Chart and record all responses. Encourage everyone to get involved in the discussion with a few probing questions: What does a magnet do? What shape are magnets? How big are magnets? If children present misinformation, include it without correction. (You'll come back to that later on.)
  3. As the discussion slows, you might say: "Look at all we already know!" and read the list aloud, carefully repeating each comment. Stress the importance of the children's involvement so they feel their comments are valuable and need to be shared with everyone. One goal of this process is to help children feel that they all belong to one Gig discovery team and together, through cooperation, they will learn a lot about magnets.
  4. Introduce children to the idea of the Discovery Journal, the oversized booklet you'll use to record the results of your observations.
  5. Begin Free Discovery by inviting children to explore and investigate in the Discovery Center. During this time, children will begin to make initial inferences, although some may be incorrect. You can use these inferences to glean where children are and to help them move further along.
  6. As children participate in Free Discovery, observe what they do, listen to what they say, and help them record what they are observing and learning by using pictures and dictation. (You might also try asking children to record what they're thinking on tape.) Later you'll use these entries to discuss the question: What did we learn about magnets?
  7. Bring children back to a discussion group. Look over your Discovery Journal and ask: "Now what do we know about magnets?" Add any new information to the Discovery Chart in a different color. Decide if anything already written needs to be modified. Use still another color for that. Then ask: "What else would you like to learn about magnets?"


Magnet Sorting: Set out objects that are attracted to magnets and other objects that are not. Encourage children to experiment and offer them a sorting box divided into a "yes" section and a "no" section.

As the children work, encourage them to use related science words-such as attract, magnet, magnetic, predict, and sort. Children will be learning about the math concept of grouping, the written-literacy skill of differentiating between the words "yes" and "no," and of course the science concept that magnets attract objects made of metal but not all metals. Families can also be encouraged to try this activity at home.

Magnetic Force: Challenge children to see what can stop a magnet. Ask pairs of children to hold a magnet on one side of a piece of material (such as cardboard) and a paper clip on the other side to see if the magnet can attract the paper clip through the material. Try this with fabric, plastic wrap, a door a safe piece of metal, and other materials that children suggest. Children are learning more about the math concepts of comparing and counting and beginning to understand the science concept that magnetic force can pass through various materials.

Magnets as Tools of Exploration: Explore how far magnets can reach (much like scientists do when they try to locate mineral resources below ground). Without children watching, bury several objects that are attracted to a magnet, such as washers, bolts, nuts, and paper clips, in a box of sand. Put out some very strong magnets and some weaker ones. Encourage children to take a strong magnet and move it slowly back and forth over the surface of the sand. (It's a real surprise when objects come jumping out!) Then allow children to work on their own, or in small groups, to hide objects in the sand and then locate them. Challenge them to use different magnets and see what happens. This activity encourages expressive language and new words such as locate and surface. Children will also learn more about the science concept that magnetic force can pass through various substances.

When you have finished these activities, bring children together to share what they've learned, to add to the Discovery Journal, and to add to and/or modify your Discovery Chart. Their enthusiasm, coupled with yours, will spur you on to other activities and explorations involving magnets, such as predicting magnetic attraction, seeing how many paper clips various magnets will hold, and so on.


Before you begin talking about this topic, send a letter home to families letting them know that you're going to be investigating rocks and soil and that children are welcome to bring in rocks and soil sampies from home. Provide sampling containers, such as sandwich bags, to avoid unmanageable volumes of dirt. Ask for help from parents with labeling each sample with the child's name and the place where it was collected.

Free Discovery:

  1. Gather children to discuss all they know about rocks and soil. Again accept everyone's thoughts and comments and write them down on a Discovery Chart. A few questions you might use to stimulate discussion are: What do you know about rocks and soil? Where do you find rocks and soil? What happens when rocks and soil get wet? How can rocks and soil move? What do we use rocks and soil far?
  2. Talk about the new materials in the Discovery Center Be sure children understand how to handle rocks and soil samples.
  3. Encourage children to explore the rocks and soil samples freely, mixing, adding water, looking closely with hand lenses, and so on. Help children record their discoveries for the Discovery Journal to share later in your large-group discussion.
  4. Come together in a large group. Restat the comments recorded on your Discovery Chart. Ask children to share their thoughts, insights, drawings, and so on. Add these to your chart and ask the children: "What else would you like to learn about rocks and soil?"


Not All Rocks Look Alike: Help children focus their observations. Choose rocks that have distinct similarities and differences. (After children have become "rock conscious," give them increasingly similar rocks. ) Familiarize yourself with the characteristics of the rocks, such as color shape, texture, and luster It will be interesting to listen to the words children use in their descriptions and how their language grows.

Do this activity in small groups. Ask each child to choose a rock and describe it to the group. Help them look for details. Then ask children to put their rocks in a paper bag, shake it a little, and dump the rocks back onto the table. Challenge them to each find their original rock and then tell the group how they knew that was the one.

Children are learning about the math concept of comparing, building their expressive vocabularies with words such as shiny, rough, dull, sparkly, and so on, and beginning to understand the science concept that rocks have unique physical properties that be used for classification.

Rock Hound Expedition: Seed your play yard with rocks and take the class on an expedition to gather them. During the "trip," stimulate observations and descriptive language by questioning, comparing, and contrasting the various rocks children find. The more enthusiastic and encouraging you are, the more interested and excited your children will be. Collect the rocks in a bucket, and when you return, ask children to group them into categories. This can lead to a rock show or rock museum and reinforce much of the learning listed in the activity above.

Smells of the Earth: Use one large container each of clay, sand, potting soil, and playground soil. Have on hand enough small cups for two samples of each, along with trays and newsprint to help contain any spills and crayons to mark your samples. You'll also need water. Ask those children who would like to help you to put a spoonful of each kind of soil into individual cups-two cups for each soil type. Then mark each pair of cups containing the same soil type with the same color crayon. Ask children to smell the soil samples. Do they all smell the same? If not, how are they different?

Help children add a little water to one of each type of soil sample, drop by drop, and to smell carefully for any changes. Next, ask them to compare the smell of the wet soil to the smell of the dry soil. Encourage children to talk about how the smells are different, which smells they like better; and why

Now ask children to help you pour all the samples into a single container Then, as a group, decide on an appropriate place outside to place the soil. As you do, talk about the importance of caring for the environment.

Remember: Always come back together so children can share what they've learned. You'll also find that animals and plants both make interesting topics to explore scientifically.

This article originally appeared in the February, 2000 issue of Early Childhood Today. From Exploring the Early Years by D. Winnett, R. Williams, E. Sherwood, R. Rockwell. Copyright 1994 by Dale Seymour. Used by permission.