EARLY CHILDHOOD TODAY: What does it mean to say that young children are natural scientists?

Lilian Katz, Ph.D.: Children, all children, are born with the disposition to make sense of their experiences. This is also what scientists do-make sense of experiences by experimenting, by utilizing the scientific process. You can see this disposition even in babies. A 4-monthold will drop a spoon and watch as Grandma picks it up-over and over again. She is a scientist, testing her environment to see what happens. Our job, as adults who work with young children, is to make sure that we do not damage this disposition.

ECT: What should we do?

Katz: Provide lots of opportunities for children's natural curiosity to manifest itself. With very young children, our role is one of supporter and guide. With preschoolers and older children, we need to be more challenging, involve children in projects. I define "project" as an indepth investigation of a phenomenon or an event in children's own experience or environment that is worth learning about-something children are interested in, something they can readily observe and interact with. During project work, we help children formulate their own research questions, figure out ways to find the answers, and assist them in representing their findings. Worthwhile projects contribute to children's confidence in their own experiences and help them understand those experiences more fully.

ECT: What do young children gain from participating in this kind of science exploration?

Katz: Science is a particular way of thinking about things. When children are truly involved in the scientific process they gain understanding, knowledge, and life skills. They deepen their awareness of what's going on around them and how others contribute to their well-being.

ECT: Can you give us an example?

Katz: In our area, one group of 4- and 5-year-olds did a project that involved studying our carpool system at the university. Before they collected data, they were asked to make predictions: How many cars did we use? How often? What kinds of things could go wrong? What were the most common repairs? In drawing out children's predictions, teachers asked not only what children were thinking, but also why. In other words, teachers encouraged children to be aware of their own reasoning, which is certainly an important life skill. Together they made a chart that listed first their predictions and later their findings. Again, that's what scientists do.

If these investigations are done well, children learn to be empirical, to develop the habit of saying, "Let's check the facts." And just as important, children's involvement inspires them to write and to read because writing and reading are purposeful.

ECT: How does children's development parallel their involvement in scientific learning?

Katz: With younger children, we need to stay alert for spontaneous rushes of interest and curiosity, to organize our environments to support and guide this spontaneity. As children reach preschool age, we can begin to help them ask questions they can find answers to. One teacher here focused a project on the trains that go through this area and stop at silos to load up corn. This is a topic children could easily ask their grandparents about, but the teacher needed to help them phrase the questions. Another important life skill learning to ask questions.

ECT: Is there anything else we should be attuned to?

Katz: As children get to be 5, 6, and 7 years old, they are ready to make more use of diagrams, charts, and graphs, so they're gradually learning how to use the representational system. However, at all age levels, in varying degrees of complexity, teachers can encourage still another very important life skill. We can take time to ask children to reflect on what they've done and what they've learned.

Lilian G. Katz, Ph.D., is professor emerita of Early Childhood Education at the University of Illinois (Urbana-Campaign) where she is also Director of the ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary & Early Childhood Education (http://www.ericeece.org/). She is a past president the National Association for Education of Young Children and editor of the first online, peer-reviewed early childhood journal Early Childhood Research & Practice.