With children's own curiosity and spontaneity already in place, the scientific process comes naturally. A well-known educator shows us how to guide children's investigations that lead to surprises only science can bring.
Because children are so naturally curious, and therefore inclined toward scientific discovery, there is exciting potential for curriculum development that makes full use of the outdoor world. In fact, it doesn't matter whether that world is an urban, suburban, or rural setting-each type of environment is rich in learning experiences.

Our task is to focus all this science potential in developmentally appropriate ways. To help children organize the knowledge they are constructing, we can begin by shaping activities around the scientific process, which includes:

  • asking questions
  • making observations
  • making guesses (hypotheses)
  • experimenting
  • drawing conclusions
  • documenting results

Often, activities that are very familiar to early childhood classrooms can become in-depth science curriculum with a slight change of focus and some fresh approaches. Let's take weather as one example.

What's the Weather? (for threes and fours)

Plan this activity on a day that begins cloudy and becomes rainy. Call children together for a morning meeting to explain that today will be a Weather Science Day. Explain to children that when you go outside, you want them to discover everything they can about the weather Invite children to generate ideas about what they will look for (such as the color of the sky or how the air feels to them). List children's ideas on a chart. Encourage children to make guesses (predictions about what they think the weather will be like).

Take everyone outside to look at the sky. If it is not cold, you could sit outside and discuss what children have observed. Otherwise, have a discussion immediately after returning to the classroom. Ask open-ended questions that move children's thinking along:

  • How did the sky look?
  • What else did you notice? Did anyone observe colors?
  • How did the air feel?
  • Does anyone have a guess about what the weather might be like later on?
  • What color crayons would we need to make a picture of today's weather?

Write down children's observations on the chart paper and compare them with the ideas that were recorded on the chart before the outdoor observation. Suggest that everyone look at the weather again later Children can decide if they should check the weather again in an hour or two. (This may depend on whether they are in school for a half-day or all-day session.)

When a light rain begins, ask children to put on their rain gear before you take them outside and continue making observations. Encourage sensory exploration. Does the rain feel cold or warm? How does it look? How does it sound? Is there any smell in the air? Again, write their observations on the chart. Ask them to predict what the weather will be like later.

Children can document their observations through art activities. For example:

  • Create a cloudy/rainy day mural using muted colors or rain pictures using watercolors.
  • Make a rainy weather collage using pictures of slickers, umbrellas, clouds, rain, and so forth.

At the end of the day, talk about all the discoveries children have made about a cloudy/rainy day. Go over the chart and reinforce what they have learned through observation, prediction, and sensory exploration. If there is time, end with a story about a rainy day.

Weather Week (for fours and fives)

In a Monday morning class meeting, tell children that they are going to be weather scientists for a week. Ask them to think about what that might mean, and chart their ideas. Here are some questions you might ask to get the conversation up and running:

Will we need to check the weather every day? More than once a day? How many times a day? Why? What times of day should we check?

How can we keep track of our observations? Should everyone make a chart? What should be on the chart? Should we make predictions before we go outside?

Encourage children to organize the activity as much as possible. They can make their own picture charts showing sun, clouds, rain, and wind for recording weather conditions. The charts can be divided into segments for each time of day the weather is checked (10:00 a.m., noon, 2:30 p.m., and so on). Children will need a separate page for each day of the week, with Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday printed at the top of the page.

At the end of each day, summarize children's observations on an experience chart. On Friday, allow extra time for a discussion of the week's weather Talk about changes the children have observed at different times of day and between days. Ask children to think about why weather observations might be important (to know how to dress, to predict storms so people can be safe). During story time, pick some books related to weather.

Weather Journals (for fives and sixes)

At the beginning of the school year, introduce the idea of a year-long study of the weather. Help children understand that scientists often work on projects for long periods to see if patterns are developing or try again (problem-solve) when their hypotheses and predictions don't turn out as expected. Provide each child with a notebook to serve as a journal or assist them in making their own out of construction or scrap paper fastened with a ring (more pages can be added as necessary).

Begin the study with a discussion to find out what children know about weather. If necessary, move the discussion with open-ended questions:

  • What would you like to find out about weather?
  • What have you noticed about the seasons?
  • Can someone tell her thoughts about how we match clothing and seasons?
  • Any ideas (hypotheses) about what causes changes in the weather?
  • Any ideas about how we can learn more about the weather?

Write down what children say on chart paper, and guide them in a discussion about how the class will study weather during the year The discussion should lead to a series of topics children want to explore, such as seasons, how rain and snow form, and how weather scientists do their work. The topics will vary according to each group. However each study should include the following:

  • regular outdoor observations (daily if possible, at least weekly)
  • charting of discoveries through drawing/writing/dictation in science journals at least once a week
  • age-appropriate Internet-based research (if possible)
  • trips to the library
  • class story time and individual reading on weather topics
  • ongoing class discussions on the topic. Explain to children that as you study weather over the school year; you will be using a process that scientists use in their work. Introduce a chart illustrating the scientific process that you have prepared in advance and go through the various steps-questions to study, observations to make, hypotheses about the "whys" of weather, experiments/explorations, conclusions, and recording findings (or documentation).

At the end of your science study, you can hold a class event for parents and other classes at which children's findings are displayed.

In addition to weather studies, there are a multitude of science activities that bring children into the scientific realm, opening their minds to in-depth exploration that moves their thinking well beyond what they observe and record Here are additional activities to try:

A Tree Over Time

Regardless of whether your school is in a city, suburb, or rural area, a tree very near the school can be explored over time for leaves, buds, shapes of branches, fruits, flowers, nests, and the way it looks in each season. If children are encouraged to observe, they will notice minute details that adults often don't see. And these observations can become rich sensory experiences as children look, hear, smell, touch, and when safe and possible, taste the fruits of this familiar object of nature. Tree observation can follow the scientific process. Children can draw pictures of the parts of the tree in its various stages, write stories and poems about it, read books about trees, and conduct research about this particular tree.

Tree observations are appropriate for threes and fours, fours and fives, and fives and sixes. In fact, the activity should be repeated at each level, so children can delve deeper into the study of the tree each year. For example, threes and fours can record their observations on an experience chart; fours and fives can dictate stories and make a class book as a way to record their observations; fives and sixes can write seasonal poems, dissect a leaf or piece of branch, or record tree observations in a journal. All three age groups can go to the library to find storybooks, as well as nonfiction books, about trees.

Bring on the Birds!

Birds are available for study just about anywhere, and they provide excellent opportunities for scientific exploration for threes and fours, fours and fives, and fives and sixes. Children can observe birds that are commonly found around the area of the school. With help from the library, teachers, or parents, they can identify the type of bird, listen to its sounds or songs, observe its roosting places, do research to find out if it migrates, and where it goes. If possible, bird feathers can be explored and nests can be watched in the spring. Children can draw what they have observed, list their observations on a chart, keep a log of bird sightings, and if feathers, bones, or pieces of nests become available, observe them under a magnifying glass and write or dictate their observations.

Soil Science

Plan this activity for a time of year when the earth is soft enough to dig. During class meeting time, ask children what they think they might find if they dug up some soil. Write their predictions. Then suggest that children do what scientists do to find out.

What you Need:

  • several strainers
  • magnifying glasses
  • rulers
  • small container with a lid
  • a digging tool (shovel or scoop)

What You Do:

  • On Soil Experiment Day, provide each child with a container and digging tool and bring the rulers (fives and sixes can carry their rulers and do their own measuring). For younger children, you will probably have to measure the area for digging (a 12-inch square works well).
  • Ask some open-ended questions to spur discussion: Did anyone notice something special in the soil? Tell us about what you found. How did the ground feel? Smell?
  • When you return to the classroom, set up a system where two to four children at a time can work with their soil samples. Have the strainers and magnifying glasses nearby and put a sheet of newsprint under each child's container. Children can sift their soil, examine what is left in the strained touch the soil, listen to the sound as it moves about on the newsprint, smell it, and find their own ways to explore the soil. Findings may include small stones, berries, twigs, pieces of bird feathers, seeds, acorns and other seedpods, and moss.
  • To document findings, younger children can dictate information and draw pictures; older children can write words or sentences and illustrate their discoveries.
  • After everyone has had a chance to analyze his soil sample, have a discussion and list all the things that children discovered.

Science exploration levels the playing field for children, allowing some who do not seem to be leaders to excel. As you bring scientific exploration into your classroom as a way to hone children's sensory learning and sharpen their observation skills, you will very likely gain new insight into the capabilities of the children in your class. Their natural curiosity, when focused on science topics, will lead them to original discoveries that may surprise you!

Click here to view and download the Developmental Chart Science Development and Young Children (PDF)