7 Ways to Encourage Science with Toddlers and Preschoolers

7 Ways to Encourage Science - Adventures of a Subversive Reader

It was the toy car which brought it to my attention. Squirm has become more and more interested in his toy cars and making them move. One day I noticed that he was picking them up and moving them onto the lino to play with them – he’d noticed that they rolled better on the lino than the carpet.

It struck me that he was exploring friction and forces – he was exploring science. And this wasn’t the only time he’d been exploring science – he explores gravity when he drops something and biology when he examines the ants crawling on the path in front of him or watches a bird preening. In fact, a lot of the time, his world is one big science exploration. I guess it’s probably the same for a lot of toddlers – which  amazes me and thrills me.

As an upper primary teacher I know this fascination with science doesn’t hold out. Students might enjoy experiments, but they’re not always interested in repeating them. Or finding out the ‘whys’ behind it. Or applying their knowledge to other situations. And it often gets bogged down in important, but rather dull lessons about scientific method and how to write up experiments. Or is held hostage to safety concerns or (sadly) a lack of resources in the schools.

Teaching science is hard. Often these are massive, complex concepts which are continually being researched and examined at university level. As a teacher you have to understand them and then work out a way for kids to explore them, without being spoon fed any of the information. Resources are tight (both for experimenting and for explaining) and time is limited. Teachers who excel at teaching science should be celebrated.

But maybe we, as parents, could help these teachers out a bit. Maybe we can play our part to preserve the curiosity and exploration which is evident in our toddlers. Here are a few simple ideas to honour science with our children:

1. Give them space and time to explore

Exploration doesn’t happen in 10 or 20 minute blocks. Children need the chance to observe the world around them and to figure out what interests them. Offering extended times to just play independently – inside or outside – gives children the time they need to explore and process different ideas.

2. Respect their questions

According to my mother, I was the kind of child who had hundreds of questions about everything. It’s important to let children know that their questions are valid and worth asking – after all a good scientist is curious about how things work and how they could work better

3. Offer opportunities for tinkering

Offer opportunities to pull things are and put them back together, to play with different materials and to make grand plans for mundane materials. This TED talk looks at a program devoted to tinkering:

And TinkerLab is a wonderful website with tonnes of ideas. But for younger toddlers, tinkering could be as simple as offering a range of household materials to play with or even a cardboard box. Squirm ‘discovered’ the cardboard box that my new frying pan came in the other day. He realised that he could manipulate the lid in different ways until it made a great slide to roll blocks and other toys down.

4. Give children opportunities to share their learning

One of the things my students used to find hardest was writing up their experiments. It can be extremely difficult to share what we do or what we observe, so it is great if children get into the groove of sharing their experiences and understandings from the beginning. They might want to talk about it, or record their voices on the computer, or they might be a visual person who likes to draw what they understand. An adult can also scribe their ideas for them. Sometimes the act of writing things down or listening to their ideas might spur them on to further exploration or clarification

5. Help them to extend their understanding

The jump from experimenting or observation to concepts can be a hard one to make. If you have a child who is really into a scientific topic, then you might like to extend them with the help of your local library. Lots of libraries have great non fiction sections for kids, and books will often explain different concepts and give children ideas for new explorations.

6. Invite science into your house

Make science a part of your life the same way you might make reading or writing part of your life. Have books about science topics or scientists. Talk about cool things you’ve seen in nature, or the awesome science you saw on the news. You can even get music about science, like the awesome Here Comes Science from They Might Be Giants. This is my favourite song and video from that CD

7. Go out and find science

As well as the science you find naturally around you, there’s also awesome places with tonnes of science information and exploration. Squirm and I recently visited a local nature centre which had lots of science information, science books and microscopes for children to look through, as well as a cool nature walk. When I used to take students to the Queensland Museum, one of their favourite areas was the Discovery Centre which had drawers of animal poo! There’s lots and lots of places where you can discover science when you get out and look for it!


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