Recently, I was lucky enough to join my family for a seaside trip to South Carolina. After months of talking about the sandy beaches and salty ocean, my preschool-aged niece was excited to finally experience everything she had heard about with her own five senses! No matter how often we described the feeling of sand between our toes or the weightlessness of riding the waves in the Atlantic, it was difficult for her to make connections without actually experiencing it herself. All week, I could see these new experiences providing her with rich language, early science concepts, and filling her brain with background knowledge she will carry with her for years to come.
We know children learn best through hands-on activities. By providing opportunities that allow them to engage all of their senses, they are able to have meaningful experiences that help build connections to the real world. So how do we help those children who have yet to visit the beach experience these elements in authentic and meaningful ways? Bring it to the classroom, of course! Here are some awesome ways to bring seaside fun and learning into their everyday environment:
Sand can be an easy addition to any sensory table! You can find play sand in most toy or home improvement stores. Kinetic sand on table top trays can be a great alternative for classrooms without a sensory table. Add a variety of tools & buckets from a local dollar store, and even some water to experiment with. The children can create and build just like they are at the beach!
Know any friends or family heading to the beach? Ask them to bring back a bag full of shells! Adding real shells to your math or science learning area with some magnifying glasses and scales opens up an opportunity to explore math concepts and increase observation skills. Also, using descriptive words to talk about shell textures can help build rich language.
Did you know the largest Great White Shark recorded was 20 feet long? Most are only about 13 feet long, which is still pretty giant compared to the children in our classrooms! Using painters tape, create a 13 foot long outline of a shark on your classroom or hallway floor, allowing your students to see just how huge a shark would be if they encountered one in real life. Allow them to use a variety of classroom materials to explore measurement. They will love answering questions such as “How many Legos long is this shark?”
Set up some experimentation of salt water vs. fresh water. Children can do a little taste-testing, and play with the idea of “What sinks and what floats?” using different materials in the classroom. I love this salt water experiment.
When we bring in authentic materials, it helps children connect concepts and understand our learning themes in a tangible and meaningful way!
Recently I had the opportunity to observe a teacher during outside time. This teacher was actively engaged with the children as she supervised her class. She took the time to stop and interact with them, constantly asking open-ended questions. As she walked around the playground she made comments to a small group of children using funnels and buckets in the sand box. At her next stop she helped children collect rocks and then sort them. She helped as children gathered and tossed leaves up in the air to watch them swirl around in the wind. The children giggled as she joined them in their shadow dancing/jumping game.
As I debriefed with the teacher after the observation, one of the areas in which she requested support was science. I asked about past activities. Which activities she felt went well, which activities didn’t go well and why. With excitement in her tone, she dove right into telling me about her butterfly project last spring and how the children loved observing the daily progress of the transformation to the release of them on the playground. Then she discussed a volcano explosion demonstration that flopped. I believe reflection is an important part of the planning/teaching process in ECE (and even life in general). Understanding which element was successful or unsuccessful, why it went wrong, or how it could have been done differently is a great strategy for an educator to continuously grow in this field. After reflecting for a few moments, she said the volcano flopped because the children weren’t interested in it. As we began to problem-solve WHY the children weren’t as interested in the volcano as they were in the butterflies, she stated, “Because it’s not a real life experience for them. It’s not something they see in their everyday world.” I immediately thought, BINGO! If it’s not meaningful to children, they’re not going to be engaged. One of my favorite things in ECE is adapting and even disguising learning concepts through topics of interest for children and of course play interactions.
As I read her my notes from the playground observation, she realized science was everywhere! Through her engagement and open-ended questions she was already fostering those early science skills. As we continued to reflect on that morning, she was able to make connection between those activities and the Early Learning and Development Standards (ELDS). Here’s what we discovered:
Cognition and General Knowledge: Sub-domain: Science
Exploring sand using funnels and buckets= ELDS strand: Science inquiry and application. Topic: Cause and effect
Collecting and sorting rocks = ELDS strand: Science inquiry and application. Topic: Inquiry
Investigating leaves being tossed in the air= ELDS strand: Earth and space science. Topic: Explorations of the natural world
Jumping shadows= ELDS strand: Physical science. Topic: Explorations of energy
Science in early childhood education is fostering a world FULL of wonder. While creating this world of wonder, your classroom doesn’t have to look like a science fair. So when you’re planning for your children, reflect on what is happening around them. What do you see them interested in and what are they asking questions about? What are they experiencing in their everyday world and how can you expand on it?
We often encourage children to be scientists. We ask open-ended questions to encourage the children to hypothesize. We ask children to predict outcomes and graph responses. But some teachers struggle with science, thinking of their own experiences dissecting worms or experimenting with magnets. But science is everywhere! And it’s appropriate for every age group, even infants and toddlers.
I get super excited when thinking about science in early childhood. Physics and chemistry aren’t just topics for high school. With infants and toddlers, physics is all about the basics: how can I make the ball move? Can I roll it with my hands? If I put this block at an angle, will the car roll down? I want to get on the slide. How do I move the other child to make room for me?
And we’re doing chemistry with infants and toddlers every day. If physics is how to make something move, chemistry is about how to make something change. When working with play dough, how can I make it flat? When feeding myself food, what happens when I mix the mashed potatoes with the applesauce?
Science is more than dissection and magnets. It can be as simple as rolling a ball or as complex as a cooking experiment. It can also be about exploring what is unfamiliar. Once when I was observing in a classroom, a child came over to me and started touching my arms, face and hair. Soon, more children came over. The teachers looked a little nervous but I assured them it was okay for the children to explore. Because I looked different than the teachers the children saw every day, they were curious. This is science. Even though the children were not verbalizing their thoughts, I can imagine they were hypothesizing what my hair felt like. They may have been comparing the feeling to past experiences. They may have been thinking this does not feel like my teacher’s hair.
By allowing children to explore we are encouraging children to think beyond their current knowledge. Simply by rolling a ball, exploring new foods (or new people!), we are inspiring scientific thinking that will help them their whole life.
If you were to ask a group if they were good at reading, there would be very few who would admit to not reading well. In contrast, if you were to ask about their comfort level with math and science, many would say that they harbor a strong dislike for these subjects. Fewer people value or feel competent in math and science and it is socially acceptable. It’s a sad fact, and this attitude often surfaces first in school!
Many of us remember the anxiety of timed tests, conceptual learning through books and worksheets and the droning lectures we often received in math and science classes. Adults can unintentionally undermine children’s math and science ability and attitudes when they say things like, “Math is hard,” or, “I didn’t like science, either, when I was in school.” Although you can’t make a child enjoy science and math, you can encourage them to try new things and appreciate the value in everyday experiences.
Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) is an exciting new initiative in the afterschool field. Many afterschool teachers are nervous about tackling science and math activities because they feel that they have to have all the answers. But STEM is not focused on concepts and vocabulary! STEM is about informal learning building on children’s interests. It’s about the experience and being able to answer the question: What would happen if? Or, what do you think? It’s hands on and minds on, where children can openly manipulate materials without a recipe or demonstration by an adult. By providing these informal experiences, it’s hoped that children will gain a greater understanding and make connections when they hear concepts taught during the school day. Best of all, it’s fun!
How can we begin to foster this sense of wonder in school age children? 4C for Children offers many STEM workshops, which you can view and register for on our online catalog (under “School-age”). Time Warner Cable has also invested in Connect a Million Minds, a STEM project where teachers and parents can browse countless opportunities for learning. It’s speculated that 80 percent of jobs will require math and science skills in the next decade. In order to prepare children with 21st century skills, it is our job to provide STEM learning that is exciting, creative and fun.
Recently, I attended a “train-the-trainer” at the Louisville Science Center on science activities for young children called “Do Science Everywhere,” and that’s just what it was about: how to do science everywhere and how to show child care providers that many of the activities they are doing every day are opportunities to do science. During the course of the training it became clear that science activities are not hard and can be done with everyday supplies, which means saving money! That’s a big motivator these days.
There were two experiences from the training that had a real impact on me, and both had one clear message: that it is our job to “encourage wonder.” I’d like to write about the first, which was an “exhibit challenge” where the instructors gave each pair of partners a picture of a museum exhibit in the Science Center. We were to find the exhibit, play and determine what learning was taking place. The most impactful part was that we were also to come up with ways for child care providers to implement the same learning in their classroom. It was clear that we were not to come up with ways to “re-do” the same exhibit only on a smaller scale, but to think about what was being taught and how it can be taught in a different way using resources child care providers have access to.
My partner and I had the “Go H2O” exhibit. It was all about water, where it goes, how it flows and the cycle of evaporation and rain. It was demonstrated by blue balls that rolled down ramps controlled by interactive buttons. The balls were lifted by a mechanical contraption into the clouds where a tube would send them back down to the beginning. Learning about the water cycle was something we felt confident could be done in a center or a home environment, and we imagined providers could create a water center with tubs and/or sensory tables, complete with rocks, tubes and tunnels. Children could learn about evaporation by putting jars of water out and making daily measurements in a class journal. My partner and I also discussed taking the children outdoors and observing plants, recording the dryness or wetness of the ground around.
I would strongly encourage any parents, child care providers or teachers to look at museum exhibits in the same manner that my partner and I did. You can bring the same wonder and curiosity that comes from a museum to your program or home. Be a “co-explorer” with the children in your care. You don’t always have to give the answer the children are looking for or even know the answer for that matter. By exploring alongside the child to find the answers they are looking for, you are encouraging wonder.
A child in your program might say, “I know that worms come from the rain because every time it rains there are worms on the sidewalk.” While our first impulse might be to kindly explain where worms really come from without telling the child that he or she is wrong, being a co-explorer means we’re doing more. Plan some experiences for your classroom to find out if the child is right and do them together, maybe dig around in the dirt or watch the rain the next time it falls to see if worms are coming down. Always look for ways to allow children to make their own discoveries of the world around them. Children are born scientists; they already have lots of questions and want to explore. It is simply our job to let them.