Heat and energy: what can young children understand?

A cat lying on top of a radiator near a window.My cat has moved to the top of the radiator for the winter, at least when the boiler is on and warm air is moving up through convection from below. With a house temperature of 66*-68*F, I would also like to lie on it, hopefully with some sunshine radiating light and warmth through the window. “Radiating,” is that a word that children can understand? What vocabulary should we use to talk about the movement of “warmth” from one place to another? For preschool children we can begin with “”heat,” “hot,” “cold,” “warm,” “cool,” and “moving,” adding “transfer” as we have occasion to use it while talking with children about their experiences. For teacher background information about heat, read “Cool Facts About Heat” by Stephanie Chasteen on the Ohio State University online magazine for elementary teachers, Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears

As a preschool teacher I am not confined to teaching concepts and vocabulary during a “unit” but can engage children in discussions and re-visit activities throughout the year. In summer, we might feel heat radiating from a metal sliding board or the blacktop. The metal and blacktop were warmed as they absorbed the radiation from the sun. Year round, we can experience the changing temperature of a cup of hot (warm) chocolate, a baked potato or a hard-boiled egg cooling down in our hands as the heat transfers to our hands and the surrounding air.

Another way of exploring the transfer of heat is to melt an ice cube in our hands. In the January 2006 Science and Children’s Early Years column I wrote, that “…keeping a child’s attention while a solid melts completely can be a challenge. That is why when exploring melting, it’s worth it to repeat the experience a few times with various substances, including chocolate and wax.” If melting ice doesn’t arouse a child’s curiosity, maybe melting chocolate will! Early childhood teacher and author Marie Faust Evitt engages her students in an activity involving heat transfer called “What is Your Cold Count?” where children make predictions. See photos on the Facebook page for her book, Thinking BIG Learning BIG.

In addition to providing experiences where children can observe the transfer of heat from one material to another, engage them in conversations and discussion about what they noticed and what they think about it. Heat is energy that is moving, going from one place to another. There is no rush for children to understand the concept of energy–it is enough to talk about the movement of heat. The Next Generation Science Standards Kindergarten performance expectation about energy, K-PS3-1, is, “Make observations to determine the effect of sunlight on Earth’s surface,” something children can do as they feel rocks or sand in sunlight and in shade. 

Cover of the journal February 2015 Science and Children.The February 2015 issue of Science and Children focuses on the Crosscutting Concept, Heat and Energy. The Teaching Through Trade Books column, “Understanding Matter and Energy” by Christine Anne Royce, and the Science 101 column, “How Should We Label Different Kinds of Energy?” by Bill Robertson are two resources that can help us understand the concept of energy, a fourth grade performance expectation in the Next Generation Science Standards. Read the Disciplinary Core Ideas in the box below the performance expectations to learn more about energy. Appendix E of the NGSS, “Progressions Within the Next Generation Science Standards” has progressions in student thinking about energy. A Framework for K-12 Science Educationa free download, the foundation for the NGSS, has an extensive section on energy, pages 120-130.

 Cat lying in the sunshine coming through a glass door.Misconceptions may be held by children, and they may also be confused by words have different meanings or usages in every day and in scientific contexts. Jessica Fries-Gaither wrote aboutCommon Misconceptions about Heat and Insulationon Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears. Fries-Gaither notes that, “many of these misconceptions are persistent and even developmentally appropriate. With the proper experiences and informal exploration in elementary school, students will be prepared to tackle these misconceptions in later years.”

In writing about this topic I turned to the NSTA online community for guidance. I wanted to check my understanding and find out what others thought young children can understand. Both the email listserv for NSTA members and the open-to-all forums in the NSTA Learning Center are terrific tools for connecting and learning from colleagues. Thank you all!

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