Preschool science activities: How to nurture your child’s interest in the natural world

© 2008 – 2012 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

Can we design better preschool science activities? Activities that stimulate curiosity, teach science concepts, and avoid overwhelming or boring children with lessons that are developmentally inappropriate?

In the article below, I review the advice of educational and cognitive psychologists about preschool science education. But if you are looking for specific activities, you can also check out these links:

Floating and Boating is a set of science activities that encourage kids to play in the water, explore the concept of buoyancy, and make some cool contraptions.

Dirt Lab is a set of activities that encourages kids to investigate the properties of dirt and mud.

Animal tracking offers young children opportunities to exercise their spatial and scientific reasoning skills.

Experiments with ice cubes introduce kids to aspects of the scientific method, as does this

Brick-making activities allow kids the opportunity to make and test predictions.

Activities for encouraging the use of science tools may motivate kids to take measurements and develop fine motor coordination.

Preschool science activities:

How researchers suggest we teach science–and the scientific method–to young children

When done well, preschool science is exciting and intellectually meaningful. The right preschool science activities can

  • nurture your child’s natural sense of adventure and curiosity
  • help your child develop his own understanding of the natural world
  • encourage your child to be a persistent problem solver, and
  • introduce your child to basic elements of scientific reasoning (seeking evidence; testing predictions)

So what’s the right way to teach science? Here are some recommendations based on the work of Rochel Gelman and other psychologists.

Don’t force it and don’t lecture

Preschooler brains aren’t prepared to handle tasks that require them to sit still and focus their attention on your every word. Moreover, recent experimental studies indicate that merely telling a young child “this is how it works…” has the effect of dampening his curiosity and initiative.

Preschoolers given opportunities to investigate a new device actually showed less inquisitiveness and critical thinking after an adult explained how to use the device (Bonawitz et al 2011; Buchsbaum et al 2011).

For some ideas on how to cope with this problem, see my model for encouraging independent experimentation in preschoolers.

Teach through hands-on experiences

Preschoolers learn best by doing, so choose preschool science activities that emphasize hands-on experiences and require minimal explanation from you.

Build on what your child already knows

Learning about something completely unfamiliar is relatively hard. It’s much easier to learn more about something you are already familiar with.

Although they are young, preschoolers have nonetheless begun building concepts in a variety of core subject areas, or domains.

Cognitive psychologist Rochel Gelman argues that you should choose preschool science activities that feed into these pre-existing “learning paths.”

Some of these learning paths include:

• cause and effect sequences pertaining to every day objects (e.g., popsicles melt in the sun-—Gelman et al 1980)

• structure and function (like the relationship between the shape of an animal’s teeth and its diet)

• variation and classification–the idea that different objects or organisms have distinct properties (e.g., “mammals have fur; birds have feathers”)

• how nonliving physical things change (e.g., a toy becomes a broken toy–Gelman et al 1980; Das Gupta and Bryant 1989)

• how living things grow and change (Rosengren 1991)

• how the insides of a living thing differs from the insides of an inanimate object (Gelman 1990)

• how living things move

• how animals and people think (i.e., they have goals and desires)

These learning paths can be linked to a wide range of preschool science activities (see next section).

Choose preschool science activities that are conceptually connected to each other

While it might be tempting to jump from topic to topic, kids are more likely to learn when they are given many opportunities to think about the same concept (Gelman and Lucariello 2002; Winnett et al 1996).

To make science lessons more meaningful, Rochel Gelman and her colleagues recommend that you choose one or two central concepts—like “insides and outsides” or “biological change and life cycles”—and stick with these core concepts for months at a time (Gelman and Brenneman 2004).

At first blush, this might sound rather limiting. But the central concepts are broad and yield themselves to a wide range of preschool science activities. For instance, if you choose to focus on “biological change and life cycles” you might spend time exploring

• Seeds and plants (e.g., counting the seeds inside an apple; planting the seeds; observing how plants grow under different conditions)

• The life cycle of various animals (e.g., learning about frogs, puppies, butterflies, humans, etc.)

• Measuring growth in plants and animals

• Health and illness

Encourage your child’s special interests

The “learning paths” mentioned above are based on what most (if not all) kids know about. In fact, they relate to core domains of knowledge that may be “universally learnable with relative ease” (Gelman and Lucariello 2002).

But these are not the only learning paths of importance. Your child might have a special interest in rocks, or automobiles, or cats, or animal behavior. Pay attention to these interests and find preschool activities that build on them.

Stick to subject matter that is age-appropriate

Beware of tendency to adapt preschool science activities from lessons designed for older kids. Encouraging your preschooler to mix paint colors or explore shadows is a fine idea. But it makes little sense to tackle the physics of light waves.

Don’t dumb down the vocabulary

When we learn new concepts, our brains have to “file” these concepts away. Our brains do this, in part, by connecting the concepts with vocabulary. In this way, the concepts and the terminology are intimately connected.

So don’t try to dumb down the language when you introduce your child to new information. If you are teaching kids about respiration, call it respiration (Gelman and Brenneman 2004).

Make science tools a part of everyday life

Some preschool science activities involve the use of science tools–like magnifying glasses, rulers, and balance scales. Once your child becomes familiar with using such tools, keep them available throughout the day, not just during preschool activities (Gelman and Brenneman 2004).

Make preschool science activities an opportunity to learn the scientific method

Scientists develop hypotheses to explain the world. Then they ask themselves what ought to happen IF their hypotheses are correct. Testing these predictions–and analyzing the results–is the essence of the scientific method.

Some science activities permit kids to explore on their own—-without making them conscious of the scientific method. These activities are valuable, but kids can also enjoy more structured activities that explicitly teach the scientific method. Rochel Gelman and her colleagues recommend introducing kids to the terms

• Observe

• Predict

• Check

For more illustration, see these preschool science activities about ice.

References: Preschool science activities

Bonawitz E, Shafto P, Gweon H, Goodman ND, Spelke E, and Schulz L. 2011. The double-edged sword of pedagogy: Instruction limits spontaneous exploration and discovery. Cognition. 120(3):322-30.

Buchsbaum D, Gopnik A, Griffiths TL, and Shafto P. 2011. Children’s imitation of causal action sequences is influenced by statistical and pedagogical evidence. Cognition. 120(3):331-40.

Das Gupta P and Bryant PE. 1989. Young children’s causal inferences. Child Development 60: 1138-1146.

Gelman R. 1990. First principles organise attention to and learning about relevant data: Number and animate-inanimate distinction as examples. Cognitive Science 14: 79-106.

Gelman R, Bullock M, and Meck E. 1980. Preschooler’s understanding of simple object transformations. Child Development 51: 691-699.

Gelman R and Brenneman K. 2004. Science learning pathways for young children. Early Childhood Research Quarterly 19:150-158.

Gelman R and Lucariello J. 2002. Role of learning in cognitive development. In Pashler, H., and Gallistel, C.R. Stevens’ Handbook of Experimental Psychology, Third Edition, Vol.3. Wiley: New York., 10, 395-443.

Gopnik A. 2012. Scientific thinking in young children: theoretical advances, empirical research, and policy implications. Science 337(6102):1623-7.

Piekny J and Maehler C. 2013. Scientific reasoning in early and middle childhood: the development of domain-general evidence evaluation, experimentation, and hypothesis generation skills. Br J Dev Psychol. 31(Pt 2):153-79.

Rosengren KS, Gelman SA, Kalish CW and McCormick M. 1991. As tim goes by: Children’s early understanding of growth in amimals. Child Development 62: 1302-1320.

Winnett DA, Rockwell RE, Sherwood EA and Williams RA. 1996. Explorations for the early years: Grade pre-kindergarten. Menlo Park, CA: Addison-Wesley.

image of girl with magnifier © Azit

Content last modified 12/12