Your classroom is a science lab, bursting with questions, hands-on experiments, ideas, and innovations. How many times can I throw a ball into a hoop? Why is wind invisible? Will ants eat my sandwich? What will happen if I mix all the colors together? What makes flowers grow? f How is a rock like a shell? All around the room and across the curriculum, children experiment, and analyze - it's the scientific method in action.

Born Explorers

A baby having lunch in a high chair may not be thinking to herself, "I'm going to experiment with these peas and see what they will do." But that's exactly what she'll do. She observes the peas' appearance, smashes them, wonders what will happen when they drop to the floor, experiments with many methods of throwing the peas, and discovers that when she drops things off the high chair someone else picks them up. She's using the scientific method - and she can't even talk yet.

By the time she's in your class, she'll be experimenting with block towers, art materials, climbing bars, magnets, manipulatives, and letters. The scientific method is not just something we use to do experiments - it's a way of thinking that's inherent in young children's natural curiosity and desire to learn.

A Process to Their Play

You can observe children applying the steps of the scientific method as they investigate things in their world -- seeing how far water will squirt from a squeeze bottle, finding out what will happen if the ball is rolled down a ramp, or discovering what's inside a seed pod. Children's natural sense of wonder and desire to hypothesize and experiment form the scientific approach they apply to all areas of the curriculum.

Why is the scientific method so important to so many kinds of activities? Because it's a process of thinking that includes two very powerful skills: creative thinking and critical thinking.

Children develop creative-thinking skills as they try out different ways of doing things, create new ideas, and use materials in new ways, such as when a child pretends a pot is a hat and a spoon is a microphone. Critical-thinking skills come into play as children break down a whole problem into parts - for example, when they think about how to set up a pretend store or when they ask how many toys they can stuff into the sand pail. Sorting, classifying, comparing, predicting, and analyzing are common critical-thinking activities.

Inviting Inquiry

How do you encourage children's use of the scientific method? Start by viewing the world as scientists do. Be inquisitive. Wonder out loud.

Ask questions that have no easy answers. Be open to many ways to approach a problem or learn a skill. Your curiosity will be contagious.

Here are some other ways to encourage children's experimentation:

Focus on comparisons. If you could have just one overall theme for an entire year, what would it be? The concept of same and different! Why? Through observing and comparing, children use the skills that initiate scientific inquiry and thinking. Comparing a pencil and a crayon, for example, can lead to exploring size, shape, weight, marking style, methods of manufacturing, even favorite colors. Children can compare almost anything: the leaves on different plants, their shoes as they wait on line, upper- and lowercase letters on signs, the food different insects eat, or works by their favorite authors.

Explore new approaches. Try teaching something in a new way or looking at something differently. How about inviting the children to teach you something about a current topic? Or discover what happens when you follow the daily schedule backward!

Support exploration and risk-taking. Always keep an eye out for new and inviting items for children to explore on their own. What happens when you put out a new material at the art table, for example? The children observe its appearance, composition, and texture; they predict what they can do with it and which materials it will work with; they experiment with techniques of manipulation and construction; and then they evaluate their experience, their creation, and the fun of making it. That's science!

As the children experiment with different materials and methods, they explore the concepts of balance, adherence, and structure - all while making a work of art. You've created an environment that supports scientific investigation and the children have taken advantage of it.

Living Experiments

For young children, all of life is a science project. The fun part is that when they ask their questions, they don't know where or how the answers will be found - the learning is in the playing and the experimenting.

So the next time one of your children plays with her peas or combines everything on the table in her lunch bowl, you might consider this the scientific method at work. Imagine the scientific thinking the child is using as she investigates and explores, and then help her to evaluate her experiment.

As Marcel Proust said, the real voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.

This article originally appeared in the May, 1998 issue of Early Childhood Today.