Can science be taught to kids younger than 5? If you ask most people thirty years ago this question, the answer would have almost definitely been, “No, they are too young to grasp the concepts of science. Wait a few years, they are too busy playing.” If you pose the question now, unfortunately many people may still agree with this, but the preschool educational community would beg to differ (as well as our allies).
I have been teaching preschool for over 6 years now. I love it. It is truly the most amazing opportunity in the world. Each day, I get to spend my time with children who have never had a teacher before me or my teaching staff. Imagine that for a moment? Being the first teacher in a child’s life. We get so used to the idea of having teachers (especially as life long learners) but here in preschool, I am the first teacher. In many ways, they form their opinions of teachers based on me, so I better be creating a lasting positive impression of who I am as a teacher!
These kids have never socialized in a structured way with their peers, they have not yet learned the in’s and out’s of being a person in this world. They are still forming their identities. I am entrusted to be this gatekeeper (the one who either creates a positive, encouraging environment or not).
This is a role I do not take lightly but the kids would never know this nor do they need to. You see, my class is not about me, it never is and it never will be. It is about them. My role is a facilitator. I help facilitate their play, learning, socializing, emotional development, language acquisition, dual language plans, cultural acquisition, negotiation skills, critical thinking, empathy, remorse, kindness, problem solving, behavior plans, special needs, development, respect, anti-bias and anti-racist learning’s through real life stories and scenarios (as well as a million other things that we do in Early Childhood Education).
The reason why I describe myself as more of a facilitator than a teacher is this: if my students feel that the only one who can teach or answer questions is me, the teacher, than I am doing them a disservice. I would be constructing walls for them where they may perceive adults to be the all-knowing and kids to be the all-asking but not knowing (and in a scenario like this, students are not encouraged to be critical thinkers). I facilitate their learning basically like this (and you will see how this applies to the probing questions of science) in this real life exchange with my student Salif (name changed)-
Brandon- “…..and that’s why Jupiter is so big!”
Salif- “Teacher Brandon, does space go on forever?”
B-”Wow Salif! That’s an amazing question! What do you think?”
S- “Well, I don’t really know.”
B- “You don’t really know because none of us know.”
S- “What do you mean, no one knows? Someone knows, right?”
B- “Well, there are scientists all across the planet who are trying to answer the very same question that you just asked. You are a scientist, just like them! When you ask big questions like that, it shows that you are thinking very hard about things you want answers to and that’s what science is all about; asking questions that we may not have the answers to yet and the journey of trying to find those answers is what people have done for millions of years.”
S- “I’m a scientist!”
B- “That’s right you are! So whaddaya say buddy, shall we try and answer some questions about the universe? I think you have some friends in the class that are also scientists and may help out fining some answers with us. Who can join your team to search for answers?”
S- “Well Kathleen is a scientist and she loves the planets too. I think Pluto is her favorite. She can help! HEY KATHLEEN!!” (and he runs off to collect his newest partner in the search for one of the biggest scientific questions ever posed).
Why have I illustrated this conversation? It shows the importance in how adults talk with children. Many, many teachers in my field get tired of too many questions or too many kids demanding their attention. These teachers would have handled the conversation maybe something like this-
Teacher X- “…and that’s why Jupiter is so big!”
Salif- “Teacher, does space ever end?
Teacher X- “Yes. Space is infinite, which means it goes on forever. We know it began 13.7 billion years ago in an event called the big bang. That was a point where all of the stuff in space was all crunched together and when it exploded it spread out in all directions and that is where all of the galaxies and stars and planets comes from.”
Teacher X- “Ok kids, now let me tell you about Saturn!”…..
So you see, Teacher X gave what is a logical and sound scientific answer but what she also did was she denied the student the opportunity to explore this concept for himself. She taught him something she knew (or thinks she knows) rather than facilitating his learning. This was a moment in time, where the student asked one of the most perplexing questions known to man (a question many deep thinking college kids never even pose) and he was not given the chance to dig in and find out for himself. Instead he was fed a theory. That’s it. Merely a theory from adult astronomers. Sure, it’s a pretty sound theory but none the less, an adult theory. Salif would have not explored this topic further because he was not encouraged to. The conversation was not there. He asked a question, she gave a closed ended question and that was that. Was she being rude? No. Was she annoyed? No. She just gave an answer and moved on. Teachers do not even realize what learning opportunities are lost when dialogue is not formed or when the discussion ends with an adult answer rather than a child thought.
Look back at my real life conversation with Salif in a moment. You will see that the “answers” I give are all open ended. They are designed to encourage a deeper level of thinking on his part. Open ended questions longer than 3 exchanges open the conversation up and provide an opportunity to have the child really inquire and dig deep for his or her own answers. Ok, go back and read my exchange and then Teacher X. I’ll wait for you……..
Ok, did you do it? Good job, friend! Ok, by now you should see the power of facilitating and open ended questions. Now let’s talk deeper about how important it is for preschoolers to learn science (and I’m not just talking about why leaves fall, I’m talking much deeper stuff too like, “How do plants use our star the Sun as food?” Or, “Why do we always drink cow milk at lunch time?” Both of these are real questions that have been posed by children, openeing up massive scientific dialogue between the children and our teaching team.
So why is science so important in preschool? Won’t they get it all throughout school and be just fine? Well, yes they will learn about science but without preschool science a few things happen (or don’t). Let me explain:
Without science in preschool and the first 5 years of a child’s life, she will not be as excited to learn science later in school (or may not feel encouraged to do so):
When kids and teachers build a model volcano and “make it erupt”, there is much more happening than the children watching liquid spill out of the top. If they have a facilitator teacher who encourages deep thinking about the processes of the chemical reaction, then that group is now talking about Chemistry (introduced in high school). If that teacher asks why the “lava” flows up and then back down the sides and flows into a puddle where cracks had formed, we are now talking about Earth sciences of geologic forces, tectonic pressure and gravity at work (taught in middle, high school and college freshman courses).
Empower the young through science and you make a lifelong scientist:
So you want more people of color and women in the advanced sciences? Start in my class. I teach in a class of children who are (in this order of demographics) Chinese, White, Black, Vietnamese and Latino with the gender population at about 50/50 (19 students all together). If my team and I can get this group of young scientists to truly believe they can do anything in life and it is an idea that is reinforced throughout schooling, then you have yourself some very skilled and talented bright minds who will be ready to tackle things like Malaria and interplanetary space travel when they grow up. Think I’m exaggerating? I’m not. I have a former preschooler who is now in 2nd grade. He swears to everyone he meets he will grow up and be a pilot. He already flies real model planes with adult enthusiasts weekly (youngest of the crowd by at least a decade) and builds Lego space planes. Where did this all start? As he said directly to me and his parents “Teacher Brandon’s class!” Keep it up young one, I’ve got my eye on your future. May you have teachers that never dissuade you and encourage your deeper growth within aeronautics and engineering. You can be anything you set out to be.
Science helps create children who understand the world they live in and seek answers for the things they don’t understand:
Wonder, amazement, curiosity, excitement. These are all words we use to describe young children, so why would we not capitalize on these attributes? Teacher’s science lessons really begin to get in depth in elementary school but even then, we are talking about broad overviews and lecture; not scientific inquiry and exploration for answers. Elementary school teachers give answers, a preschool facilitator helps the children create answers. We have an expression in the pre-K world; there are no wrong answers. Any answer is a good one when kids are thinking because you as a facilitator can encourage deeper thinking and deeper understanding. If we tell kids, NO that’s not right or No, don’t be silly, you will see that that child will cease to ask and will cease to know. You see where this can lead to by now.
If we wait to teach science to children after preschool we miss this window of excitement, wonder and curiosity. Sure, kids are still excited and curious about the world around them. I still am and I’m well beyond preschool but the point is this. IF we can use the first 5 years of a child’s life as an opportunity to plant all the seeds of science and then future teachers facilitate deeper and deeper learning as the years go on, then we will be looking at this next generation of American minds who once again lead the world in scientific exploration. Who knows how much we impact or who will grow up to cure AIDS or walk on Mars but I can tell you this; without the facilitation of deep learning in the early years, it is an uphill battle rather than a scientific journey. Encourage the sciences in all the kids around you in your life. Science surrounds them. Help them to see it.