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November 7, 2016

Hands-On Science Explorations: What IS Science?

By Elaine Winter
Grades PreK–K

    It pretty much goes without saying, early childhood science activities are “hands-on” experiences. We could also call them “senses-on.” Young children learn about their natural and physical worlds through their fingertips, their muscles, their eyes, ears, and noses. They are learning as they cook, lift, mix, and observe. But is this sampling enough? Initial sensory encounters form the foundation for cognitive growth. Without them, science-related explorations would be shallow and most likely very forgettable experiences. 

    As preschool teachers, we move mountains to introduce meaningful firsthand opportunities to our students. Our classrooms boast sand and water tables; we host snails, fish, and walking sticks; shelves are laden with seasonal artifacts such as apples and pumpkins, fall leaves, bare twigs and evergreen branches, birds’ nests and bulbs. We bring the outside in, creating mini-laboratories for children to examine. Once we’ve sparked their curiosity, we can begin to question and encourage deeper thinking. For example:

    • Nancy and her associate Jean install a large, beautiful aquarium. Children watch as fresh water, greenery and multi-colored fish are introduced and the habitat comes to life.

    • One Monday morning, they also receive an abundance of woodland artifacts from a child and her dad.

    • After a taste test, Elisabeth asks her 2- and 3-year-olds if they prefer red or yellow apples, then graphs the results using children’s photo blocks. They discuss the results and identify which color is the favorite. Definitely yellow.

    • Elisabeth makes the class snails available to her 2- and 3-year-olds on a small tray. Children are able to touch and hold the snails; they watch them move, notice which foods they gravitate to. Her class also investigates apples and she introduces them to the surprising “star” inside.

    • Crystal gives her toddlers big brushes and small bowls of water so they can paint slices of tree trunk and notice how the water changes their appearance. Why is that?

    Additionally, our über-urban preschool invites nature into the classroom in two very special rich and impactful ways:

    1.   Gabby Sachs a zoologist and educator from the Art Farm visits us with small animals representing a particular species. Last week’s mammal visit included a rabbit, a guinea pig, and a hamster. As was appropriate for each class, Sachs described the animals speaking briefly about where they live and what they eat. Children were also invited to pat and brush each animal IF they wanted to. Each visit from Sachs is loaded with learning, with tenderness, and with fears overcome. When she brought us birds, she included a dove, a chicken and a parrot. Four-year-old Charlie focused on the chicken, “Wait a minute!" he said, “That’s not a bird. It’s a chicken!” Next month, the children will meet a quartet of reptiles. We’ll see what they have to say about these creatures.

    2.  In a large city, neighborhood communities seem to form organically. Across the street from our school is a church, the oldest in Manhattan. Our preschool shares in the upkeep of its park and garden areas. In exchange, we have access to its garden, enjoy a snack picnic, and listen to a story. Children run along winding paths, collect leaves and twigs, and participate in the harvesting of tiny carrots. (And I do mean tiny!)

    After repeated experiences such as these, most children are hungry to extend what they know through discussion, books, and other forms of research. 

    Last week Nancy challenged the 4-year-olds: ‘We have a 'science' area in our classroom. We do 'science' activities. But can you tell me what science is?" They responded with gusto:

    • Something great!

    • Discovering

    • You make and find things that are cool

    • Stuff that you don’t do every day

    • Finding dinosaur bones

    • Watching fish and how they eat

    • Sometimes we see reptiles and bugs

    • Looking at snails with a magnifying glass

    In a preschool classroom, books are for browsing, and stories for listening. I keep this in mind when stocking a bookshelf. Since few if any 4-year-olds are fluent readers, I look for books that tell their stories through photos or illustrations. When possible, I also include different kinds of publications, such as My Big World. The class made book is another exciting project containing children’s words and illustrations, and sometimes a few photos. These are bound and placed on the shelf along with other books.

    I’d like to close with a quote from educator and author Jonathan Silin. I believe it is particularly apt here. “We choose what part of the world to bring into the classroom. We put out an invitation. Children don’t have to accept it.”  In other words, we provide children with opportunities, knowing that not all will appeal to every child.

    This blog is a great forum for sharing favorite early childhood resources. I would love to hear about some of yours.

    It pretty much goes without saying, early childhood science activities are “hands-on” experiences. We could also call them “senses-on.” Young children learn about their natural and physical worlds through their fingertips, their muscles, their eyes, ears, and noses. They are learning as they cook, lift, mix, and observe. But is this sampling enough? Initial sensory encounters form the foundation for cognitive growth. Without them, science-related explorations would be shallow and most likely very forgettable experiences. 

    As preschool teachers, we move mountains to introduce meaningful firsthand opportunities to our students. Our classrooms boast sand and water tables; we host snails, fish, and walking sticks; shelves are laden with seasonal artifacts such as apples and pumpkins, fall leaves, bare twigs and evergreen branches, birds’ nests and bulbs. We bring the outside in, creating mini-laboratories for children to examine. Once we’ve sparked their curiosity, we can begin to question and encourage deeper thinking. For example:

    • Nancy and her associate Jean install a large, beautiful aquarium. Children watch as fresh water, greenery and multi-colored fish are introduced and the habitat comes to life.

    • One Monday morning, they also receive an abundance of woodland artifacts from a child and her dad.

    • After a taste test, Elisabeth asks her 2- and 3-year-olds if they prefer red or yellow apples, then graphs the results using children’s photo blocks. They discuss the results and identify which color is the favorite. Definitely yellow.

    • Elisabeth makes the class snails available to her 2- and 3-year-olds on a small tray. Children are able to touch and hold the snails; they watch them move, notice which foods they gravitate to. Her class also investigates apples and she introduces them to the surprising “star” inside.

    • Crystal gives her toddlers big brushes and small bowls of water so they can paint slices of tree trunk and notice how the water changes their appearance. Why is that?

    Additionally, our über-urban preschool invites nature into the classroom in two very special rich and impactful ways:

    1.   Gabby Sachs a zoologist and educator from the Art Farm visits us with small animals representing a particular species. Last week’s mammal visit included a rabbit, a guinea pig, and a hamster. As was appropriate for each class, Sachs described the animals speaking briefly about where they live and what they eat. Children were also invited to pat and brush each animal IF they wanted to. Each visit from Sachs is loaded with learning, with tenderness, and with fears overcome. When she brought us birds, she included a dove, a chicken and a parrot. Four-year-old Charlie focused on the chicken, “Wait a minute!" he said, “That’s not a bird. It’s a chicken!” Next month, the children will meet a quartet of reptiles. We’ll see what they have to say about these creatures.

    2.  In a large city, neighborhood communities seem to form organically. Across the street from our school is a church, the oldest in Manhattan. Our preschool shares in the upkeep of its park and garden areas. In exchange, we have access to its garden, enjoy a snack picnic, and listen to a story. Children run along winding paths, collect leaves and twigs, and participate in the harvesting of tiny carrots. (And I do mean tiny!)

    After repeated experiences such as these, most children are hungry to extend what they know through discussion, books, and other forms of research. 

    Last week Nancy challenged the 4-year-olds: ‘We have a 'science' area in our classroom. We do 'science' activities. But can you tell me what science is?" They responded with gusto:

    • Something great!

    • Discovering

    • You make and find things that are cool

    • Stuff that you don’t do every day

    • Finding dinosaur bones

    • Watching fish and how they eat

    • Sometimes we see reptiles and bugs

    • Looking at snails with a magnifying glass

    In a preschool classroom, books are for browsing, and stories for listening. I keep this in mind when stocking a bookshelf. Since few if any 4-year-olds are fluent readers, I look for books that tell their stories through photos or illustrations. When possible, I also include different kinds of publications, such as My Big World. The class made book is another exciting project containing children’s words and illustrations, and sometimes a few photos. These are bound and placed on the shelf along with other books.

    I’d like to close with a quote from educator and author Jonathan Silin. I believe it is particularly apt here. “We choose what part of the world to bring into the classroom. We put out an invitation. Children don’t have to accept it.”  In other words, we provide children with opportunities, knowing that not all will appeal to every child.

    This blog is a great forum for sharing favorite early childhood resources. I would love to hear about some of yours.

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