Explore, investigate, experiment, and inquire: What do we call it when young children “do” science?

Child pointing to a cricket on the groundLearning about the natural and human built world begins at birth, if not before. The early childhood years, usually described as including children from birth through age eight, are a time when new experiences build brain connections that form the foundation for later connections.  The way we provide experiences for children may open or close parts of the world to them. Saying, “That’s nasty, put that down,” to a child holding a dead insect may cut off an interest in learning about this diverse group of animals. An adult with a strong fear of insects can still support children’s interest by saying, “Put it in a tissue and you can show it to everyone at circle time.” Doing a science demonstration while children watch may make them curious but if they don’t get to handle the materials themselves, their curiosity may not be satisfied. Unless they too get to manipulate the materials in ways they think of to try, they may get the idea that such exploration is not for them.

Do children learn science knowledge and the nature of science from exploring, investigating, experimenting, or in some other way? Early childhood educators may use different words to describe the work their young students do to learn about natural phenomenon, including, “testing your ideas,” “messing about,” “trying out an idea,” “exploring,” “figuring it out,” “experimenting,” and “investigation.” Does the term you use mean the same as a different term used by another early childhood educator? Does “messing about” mean children are “experimenting,” and what do they do, think about, and talk about when they are engaged in these behaviors? How do the words we use describe what we want children to do and learn?

Children standing around a puddle with rain drops falling.To me, “exploration” is when a child (or adult) has an open-ended experience with materials such as clay, or a phenomenon, such as rain, and is able to work with materials, make changes, and make and record observations.  I think of “messing about” in the same way, exploring all kinds of phenomena (the objects, materials, places, living things, and events that a child might explore). “Investigation” is when an exploration becomes focused with the help of discussions with adults and leads to a question, such as, “What will happen if I…?” and children test their answers to a question by manipulating the materials or making additional observations. “Trying out an idea” can be a focused exploration. In experimenting, also known as making a “fair test,” one factor is varied and all other factors are kept the same so comparisons can be made to see if or how the outcome was affected by the differences in that one factor. An experiment might be testing to see which tape will hold a piece of paper on the wall the longest, with using the same kind of paper, the same size piece of tape, and the same wall but only varying the kind of tape—transparent office tape, painters’ masking tape, duct tape, or packing tape. 

Child's drawing of a caterpillar.When I work with children I want them to build their understanding of materials, places, and phenomena by having time to explore and mess about. I work to support their science inquiry about a question by asking what they think and what they will do to find out. I want children to have time to look at their drawings and other documentation, describe their work, and tell what they might do next or what they still wonder. Early childhood science educator Cindy Hoisington says, “Drawing out and acknowledging children’s current ideas made them available for investigation. Children were able to revise their old ideas and construct new knowledge because their ideas had been at the heart of the experience and they had collected the evidence.”  

First page of the NSTA position statement on early childhood science educationIn the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) Position Statement on Early Childhood Science Education the NSTA “affirms that learning science and engineering practices in the early years can foster children’s curiosity and enjoyment in exploring the world around them and lay the foundation for a progression of science learning in K–12 settings and throughout their entire lives,” and “recognizes, however, the importance of exploratory play and other forms of active engagement for younger children from birth to age 3 as they come to explore and understand the world around them. 

Here are resources that define commonly used terms to describe children’s work in learning about the natural and human built world. Please add additional resources in a comment and tell us why they are useful.

Exploration—open, focused, and messing about, and investigation

Childen playing with scoops and tubes at a water table.“Exploratory play is about finding out,”  Karen Worth and Sharon Grollman affirm jn Worms, Shadows, and Whirlpools; “When it is focused on materials and events—trying to find out how to make something happen—it is very much about science” (page 159).  The first-hand experiences in Exploring Water with Young Children (Chalufour & Worth and all, 2005) are described as open explorations that lead to focused explorations as children investigate a specific question or test a single idea. “Inquiry is about questions, but it’s hard for children to ask questions about something if they haven’t had a chance to get to know the thing or the materials or the event…so the first stage in the framework is to engage, notice, wonder and question—it is a time for children to play, to see what they already know, to mess about in a rich environment with little direct guidance or structure” (page 95).  

Philosopher David Hawkins borrowed the phrase “messing about” (from a character in classic children’s literature) as a way to describe the unguided exploratory work he felt should be the beginning of science learning. Hawkins noted that children with “an insufficient acquaintance” with a phenomenon need to have experiences with the phenomenon before they can analyze their observations (1965).

As their unguided exploratory work develops, children may become interested in a specific question. Investigating a phenomenon to answer a specific question will be more focused than the open exploration that came before. During an investigation, “Your role is to deepen children’s understanding by asking probing questions, encouraging children to represent their work, and creating opportunities for discussion and reflection.” (page 9 Grollman & Worth, 2005)


First-hand exploration and a “fair test”

The word “experiment” is often used in casual conversation to mean “trying things out” as in, “I think I will experiment with playing soft music during nap time.” In science, “experiment” has a different, specific meaning—to conduct a “fair test” where some factor is manipulated to see how that affects the outcome and all other factors are kept the same. This could be a fair test to see how much water is best for growing bean plants from seeds, using all the same kind of seeds that are planted in the same kind and amount of soil, in the same kind of container, and placed on the same windowsill—the only different factor is the different amount of water given to each plant. The outcome from this test compares the growth of bean plants that received different amounts of water.

Open explorations don’t require control of some factors and are not experiments but they are fundamental experiences for building beginning ideas about the natural world. During first-hand explorations of many kinds of materials, situations, and locations, children build on their prior experiences, making observations to answer questions or test solutions to problems, and use those observations to support their explanations. Children may not completely understand the concept of a “fair test” before grade 2.

Child holding an earthworm.A child’s first-hand exploration of earthworms may lead them to explain, “Worms don’t like the light,” without ever conducting a fair test of this idea. To support children’s understanding of a fair test, we can ask, “What can we do to confirm this idea, to see if earthworms really prefer darkness?” If a child answers, “Because they always go down into the dirt,” my next question might be, “How do you know they are getting away from the light—maybe they just like the way soil feels better than air.”  Giving worms a choice between an area in light or an area in darkness (that are otherwise identical in temperature, material, and moisture content) may not occur to children so that fair test can wait for another time. Providing many different first-hand experiences will build children’s understanding of the properties of different materials (matter) and foster their approaches to problem-solving. 

Science and engineering practices—not a single “scientific method”

In defining eight “science and engineering practices” the A Framework for K-12 Science Education (NRC 2012) emphasizes that scientific inquiry is both using skills and learning facts. This foundational document for the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) has this to say about a scientific method:

“…a focus on practices (in the plural) avoids the mistaken impression that there is one distinctive approach common to all science—a single “scientific method”—or that uncertainty is a universal attribute of science. In reality, practicing scientists employ a broad spectrum of methods, and although science involves many areas of uncertainty as knowledge is developed, there are now many aspects of scientific knowledge that are so well established as to be unquestioned foundations of the culture and its technologies. It is only through engagement in the practices that students can recognize how such knowledge comes about and why some parts of scientific theory are more firmly established than others.”

The eight practices of science and engineering that the Framework identifies as essential for all students to learn are: 

1. Asking questions (for science) and defining problems (for engineering)

2. Developing and using models

3. Planning and carrying out investigations

4. Analyzing and interpreting data 

5. Using mathematics and computational thinking

6. Constructing explanations (for science) and designing solutions (for engineering)

7. Engaging in argument from evidence

8. Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information 

Read more about these practices in the NGSS Appendix F – Science and Engineering Practices

The Nature of Science (NOS)

 NGSS matrix presents eight major themes and grade level understandings about the nature of science.Preparing ourselves to help children understand natural phenomena using science and engineering practices includes learning about the Nature of Science. By developing our own accurate idea of what science is, what  types of questions science can answer, and the strengths and limitations of scientific knowledge, we will be better able to help children understand the nature of science. Learn more by reading Appendix H – The Nature of Science in the Next Generation Science Standards, particularly the K-2 column of “Understandings about the Nature of Science” matrix. On the matrix, basic understandings of the NOS are described:

Science investigations begin with a question. Scientist use different ways to study the world. 

Scientists look for patterns and order when making observations about the world. 

Science knowledge can change when new information is found. 

Scientists use drawings, sketches, and models as a way to communicate ideas. Scientists search for cause and effect relationships to explain natural events. 

Science knowledge helps us know about the world. 

Science assumes natural events happen today as they happened in the past. Many events are repeated.

People have practiced science for a long time. Men and women of diverse backgrounds are scientists and engineers.  

Scientists study the natural and material world. 

Like understanding experimentation, understanding the nature of science develops over time. Researchers V. Akerson and L. A. Donnelly ask, “However, what is unclear is whether young children can actually develop appropriate understandings of NOS—are they developmentally ready to conceptualize the ideas that are recommended in the reforms?” (Akerson, Roth, & McDuffie, 2006). 

Experiment or Fair Test

The University of California Museum of Paleontology’s “Understanding Science” website is a “fun, accessible, and free resource that accurately communicates what science is and how it really works — and that helps K-16 teachers reinforce the nature and process of science throughout their science teaching.” This is their wording but I fully agree! I find the section “Fair tests: A do-it-yourself guide” especially helpful in understanding that experiments control many factors and compare outcomes between groups. “An experiment is a test that involves manipulating some factor in a system in order to see how that affects the outcome. Ideally, experiments also involve controlling as many other factors as possible in order to isolate the cause of the experimental results.”

In the Science Teacher column, “The Prepared Practitioner: What Is an Experiment?” (2008),  Alan Colburn describes experiments being judged on how well the experimenter controls variables. I agree with him that, “As teachers creating informed consumers of scientific information, we owe it to our students to help them understand the varied ways scientists investigate the world.” Our children might not yet be making choices about which vaccinations they need to prevent illnesses, but they are building an understanding of what to base their choices on—someone else’s say-so or evidence from a clear process of collecting data.

Child using a magnifier to look at a plant.

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One Comment

  1. Cindy H
    Posted February 27, 2018 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    Thank you for so articulately defining the key terms often thrown around in science education. your post gives us all an opportunity to think more deeply about what these terms mean and why and how we are using them, especially in our early childhood classrooms!

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