I sat on the porch step as two-year-old Alyson brought me rocks. They weren’t particularly spectacular rocks. Just driveway rocks. But for Alyson they were special. They were rocks she had picked out and wanted to keep.
Soon Alyson’s rock collection moved into the house with a special place on the bookshelf. Her rocks were divided in a way known only to her. It wasn’t long before the division began to take a shape that was recognizable to others—she was sorting by shape, by size, or by color.
When Alyson was about three, we began to buy rock books, all kinds of rock books. Soon she was able to match her rocks with pictures in the book and even learn some of their names.
Now almost a teenager, Alyson continues to collect and learn about rocks. How rocks break, how they are formed, what they are used for.
Will she become a geologist or archeologist? I don’t know. But I do know that she is learning science, and her curiosity continues to be developed. It all began with a two-year-old’s rock collection.
Preschoolers are naturally curious. Since every day is a new experience for them, they often flit from one thing to another. On occasion they become enamored with something and stick with that subject for days or weeks or a lifetime, just as Alyson has done with rocks. This is a good time to begin building a foundation in science.
Scientists use a method of examining a problem, amazingly called “the scientific method.” A simple form of teaching this method to young students is to ask a question, guess at an answer, test the guess, and discuss what was learned.
Science inquiry starts with what preschoolers do best: asking questions. Why? And how does that work? One of the first science questions Alyson asked was, “Why is the sky pink?” She didn’t know she was asking a science question. I could have gone into a long explanation about atmosphere, light rays, color spectrum, and so on. But at the age of two, being told that that God painted the sky was enough. Next she wanted to know how God paints the sky. So we talked about light rays from the sun. She learned about the sun moving through the sky and rising and setting each day. Nothing complicated, nothing formal, just asking questions and giving simple answers.
When your little one asks a question, instead of quickly answering it, let the adventure begin when you ask your child, “What do you think?” Sometimes you’ll get a great story that has nothing to do with the original question (quick, go write it down and savor it later!). At other times, you’ll get a real answer. Now you and your child can begin checking to see if the answer is correct. Don’t worry if you don’t know the answer. Learn with your child. Another important lesson will be taught in that process: how to learn.
Collections are a good beginning. It doesn’t matter what is collected—rocks, leaves, bugs, buttons, little pieces of paper. What is your preschooler interested in? The collection may stop after a few days. Don’t worry; put it away. If your child asks for it again, bring it out. If not, maybe the interest has gone. But don’t fret, learning has taken place.
Children like to make discoveries. Left on their own, they often find out how things work or what they do.
Remove all the commercial toys from an area and put in blocks, rocks, dirt, water, and plants, and children will create their own science laboratory. Watch preschoolers in the bathtub with nothing more than water and various bottles. As young as two, they will begin to experiment with the water. Filling the bottles, watching the bubbles, emptying the bottles, and transferring the water from one bottle to another. It’s not long before they begin to ask questions: What causes the bubbles? Why won’t the water fit in this bottle? Where does the water go when I pull the plug?
When relatives ask what to get your child as gifts, suggest items such as a magnifying glass, bug jar, magnets, ant farm, or garden tools (ask for real ones, not plastic that breaks with easy use). As you encourage your child’s discovery, these types of learning toys will often be on the gift wish list in the years ahead.
Seize the Moment
What can you do to teach your preschooler science? Mostly nothing. Don’t plan science class twice a week. In fact, don’t plan anything except to leave enough leeway in your schedule for natural, unhurried learning to take place. See how the natural curiosity of your child develops. Maybe there’s no interest in rocks or leaves, but rather curiosity about birds and bugs. Capture the learning moments as they come.
There are plenty of things you can do to encourage scientific thinking without formal science lessons.
- You can, of course, track weather on a calendar and begin the foundation of learning about the seasons as well as weather in general.
- How many times a day do you and your child use your five senses? Just asking a question like “What does peanut butter taste like?” will open up discovery about taste and smell.
- Go watch the grass grow. Okay, so you can’t literally watch a blade of grass grow, but there’s a lot to be learned by getting on your stomach on the ground to see what’s down there.
- Don’t be afraid to allow your little one to get dirty. There’s a lot to be learned by digging to see what’s under the ground. Later, you can talk about health and hygiene while cleaning up.
- Is your preschooler learning the alphabet? Instead of using the standard alphabet words as examples, how about using the names of insects, plants, or birds? This will be a learning experience for you as well as you try to find a plant or bird to go with x, y, and z!
Be careful to not overload your preschooler. Preschoolers don’t have to know the fine details of a science principle. When the question “How does the bird fly?” is asked, details of aerodynamics probably aren’t the best answer. “The bird uses its wings” may be enough for a four-year-old. A more curious child might ask how a bird floats without flapping its wings; a simple explanation of wind holding it up will do. And you can use a paper airplane to demonstrate. Answer the question your child is asking, not the question your science teacher asked.
Don’t discount traditional experiments. Kids love to watch something they’ve planted grow. There are several ways to do this: a seed in a cup, a seed along the side of a clear glass, a carrot top in a dish of water, an avocado seed, a pineapple top in some water. Many of these won’t become cherished plants to save forever. The learning here is about how plants grow—not the responsibility of caring for a garden.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions yourself. “I wonder why the frogs croak at night.” When your preschooler answers, “Because he’s afraid,” don’t immediately correct the answer. Savor the moment. Ask another questions instead: “Why do you think the frogs are afraid?” Maybe pure science principles aren’t being learned, but scientific methods are.
Science isn’t just black tables filled with test tubes and Bunsen burners. It’s the process of learning about God’s creation. Don’t let your own experiences or fears stop you or your child. God gave our little ones a natural curiosity to explore His world. Let the natural wonder of a child go so you can both learn about the world God has given us. Who knows—twenty years from now your little rock collector may be a grown-up scientist.
Susan K. Stewart began teaching her children in 1981 and is considered a pioneer in modern homeschooling. Her latest book is Preschool: At What Cost? You can read more about early learning at her blog, www.betterthanpreschool.com.
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