National Science Teachers Association and NAEYC Join Forces to Enrich Early Childhood Science

The world of a young child is full of “wow.” Children are constantly observing, exploring and discovering phenomena around them. From those activities they build models of how they think the world works and make predictions from those models. That’s the essence of science, although we seldom use that term for what we see our children do every day.

Early this year a select committee of early childhood experts and the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) Board and Council came together to formulate a position statement emphasizing the vital importance of science learning in the preschool years. They reaffirmed a progression of experiences and skills that begins during ages 3 through 5 and its place in the overall mission of the association. And just last month the board of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) joined us by endorsing that statement. By sharing our perspectives and increasing the lines of communication between the associations, we begin an important collaboration.

Here are some key points from NSTA’s position statement, Early Childhood Science Education:

  • Young children have the capacity for constructing conceptual learning and the ability to use the practices of reasoning and inquiry (NRC 2007, 2012). In previous decades, many educators underestimated the capacity of young children to reason in the context of their physical experiences (structured play.) Today’s best practice calls for increased attention in this area.
  • Experiences can best contribute to science learning when an adult prepares the environment for science exploration, focuses children’s observations, and provides time to talk about what was done and seen (NAEYC 2013, p. 18). Key words here are “time” and “talk.” The NGSS practice of scientific argumentation begins at the earliest level. But first we listen.
  • Children need to have opportunities to engage in science learning in informal settings, such as at home with cooking activities and outdoor play or in the community exploring and observing the environment. Communicating with parents and other mentors is essential. They always want to support school experiences, but benefit when their educational partners help them see how best to bridge the home-school connection.
  • Young children need opportunities for sustained engagement with materials and conversations that focus on the same set of ideas over weeks, months, and years (NRC 2007, p. 3) A science experience isn’t like a flu shot; one experience doesn’t create lasting ideas. The progressions of experiences and investigations that occur again and again are key to building understanding and models that work.
  • The range of experiences gives them the basis for seeing patterns, forming theories, considering alternate explanations, and building their knowledge.. Multiple and varied experiences keep science constantly exciting. Physical, life and Earth sciences are all part of the 3-dimensional learning described by the Frameworks for K–12 Science Education.

An endorsement by our partners at NAEYC is, of course, exciting. But that vote is just the beginning. We will be working both within the association and with all early childhood educators to increase our understanding of and resources for this important level.

NSTA has already begun to expand its publications at the early childhood level. Editor Linda Froschauer has introduced many more articles for this level in Science and Children, and a column by Peggy Ashcroft continues to support teachers there. Resources like Page Keeley’s Uncovering Student Ideas in Primary Science (NSTA, 2013) help teachers increase their sensitivity to preconceptions and address them with the sorts of progressive experiences needed at this age. Workshops are planned all year and further publications will follow. The association has also partnered with both NAEYC and the International Reading Association as exhibitors and participants in their conferences, with cordial invitations to come to us as well.

But there is a lot more to be done. It is true all too often that the educators of older students misunderstand or underestimate the vital importance of high quality early childhood science education. Here’s an example I encountered in a conversation not too long ago: I was discussing a measurement activity for kindergarten students with a secondary teacher, who asked: “Did you use metric or English units?” I responded that it didn’t matter if these explorers used feet, giant steps or anything else that was handy because both Common Core and best practice emphasize that at this stage the important thing is to teach that things can be measured. My colleague really didn’t agree, but our conversation was rich and perceptive. In the months to come NSTA won’t just be developing professional development for early childhood educators but for all levels about these topics.

Another area where we need much more work is in the evaluation of trade books for young children and the way this evaluation can drive the market. NSTA has worked with the Children’s Book Council for 44 years to develop selection criteria and use them to identify the best literature at every level. But the choices for early childhood remain limited. In all those years there have only been a handful of books on physical science for preschool use. The books that appear on the media’s “best seller” lists often don’t meet these criteria. This year we join with the International Reading Association and Science Books & Films to offer a “Celebration of Literacy” in Richmond, Virginia October 18. Hopefully, with our new partnerships things will change.

It’s exciting to be part of these new endeavors. Although much of my career was spent at the secondary level, I returned to school after two decades to gain accreditation for early childhood–an eye-opening experience. (I often told my secondary colleagues that I must have been teaching “developmental 9th grade” all along!) I recommend that everyone who cares about scientific literacy take the time to “begin at the beginning” and take the time to see the world through the eyes of young children. Ask “why”…and then “why not.”

(We’ve started a special forum on the topic of Early Childhood Science Education in the Learning Center. Come join us there to extend the conversation.)

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