"I've found that young children learn best through active involvement with their environment."

Early Childhood Today: How do you decide what science concepts you'll introduce during the year?

Robin Smith: Most of them come from the state framework, which we have broken down to fit the children's lives. These topics include the ocean and sea life, the farm, and farm animals. However, children often initiate topics out of sheer enthusiasm. For instance, this winter I wanted to do hibernation, but the children really weren't excited about it. So I asked them what they wanted to learn. They said the rainforest-and it's been terrific!

As the weather warms up, and because a lot of children in my class have fathers who are fishermen, we'll probably study sea animals and ocean life. We'll go out to the pond, go scalloping, go out on the fishing boats, make clam chowder and go to the beach!

ECT: What special techniques do you use to get children involved in science concepts?

Smith: There are so many! I introduce activities that are interesting and meaningful. Our classroom becomes a laboratory with opportunities for children to observe, investigate and experiment. We also make a chart. I list children's responses to the topic: What I know about ... And: What I want to know ... We use the chart as a foundation for learning and refer back to it together.

After we decide on a topic, we discuss how it relates to their lives. When children understand that a topic has meaning and purpose, it becomes more important to know about it. I also:

  • Hang beautiful posters and charts all over our classroom.
  • Play related music.
  • Fill the bookshelves with related nonfiction and fiction at various reading levels.
  • Talk about the field trips we'll be taking.
  • Set up our listening center with related stories.
  • Ask children to bring in any related materials from home.
  • Make sure all the areas in our room offer handson materials and activities that relate to the topic.
  • Do a "guided discovery" with each new material. I might say: "What do you think we could do with this?"

ECT: What subjects have you found spark children's interest the most?

Smith: Nature holds a natural fascination for children. We do butterflies every fall because the children can collect caterpillars, observe the metamorphosis process, and raise money to help people and butterflies in Mexico with a Monarch Butterfly Festival. Other great topics? Anything to do with the ocean because of our environment here. The earth, the sun, the stars, and the moon. Magnets. And every other year we hatch eggs that we get from local farms. We use two incubators and estimate how long it will take the eggs to hatch, how many will hatch, what they will look like. The children supervise both the temperature and the water and then the chickens go home to the families.

ECT: How do you integrate science into the overall curriculum?

Smith: I need to integrate the topic for myself first. When I'm considering a topic, I do a curriculum web to see all the ways I can relate the topic to social studies, science, math, literature, field trips, cooking, community members, art, music-I make sure I can cover every modality so that I can reach each one of my learners. I look at what we can do with oral language, written language, small- and large-group and individual work, and culminating activities. I ask myself: What can we turn the dramatic-play area into? The listening area? The block area? The water table? What games can I create that will help children develop skills and learn to share?

ECT: If you could have just three science materials, what materials would they be?

Smith: Magnifying glasses, a microscope, and scales because each of these gives children opportunities to look more closely at the world around them. I can take them out in the field, they're easy to use, and I can use them across the curriculum no matter what topic we're learning about.

ECT: What can families do at home to continue developing the themes children love at school?

Smith: I send home a weekly newsletter announcing our topic. I also include questions parents can ask their children that relate to the topic. Are there foods in your kitchen that come from the rain forest? (Questions I know the children know the answers to so every child will be successful.) I ask our librarian to read related books to the children. Then children can check them out and parents can share them at home. I encourage families to tell stories about the topic that relate to their own lives and invite parents and grandparents to come into our class to share too. Their contributions are very valuable.

ECT: Anything else you'd like to add?

Smith: Young children learn best through active involvement with their environment and need to feel ownership when it comes to their education. I make sure children have choices and offer open-ended activities so they can experiment, explore, and construct key concepts, in depth, at their own levels. Basically, I'm the facilitator I try to ask the right questions, have the right materials-and take input from the children because they have a lot to offer and share. If we just listen to them, we can find everything we need to teach them. In the last few years, I've learned the best lesson: To trust that children are aware of what they need to learn.