What Parents Talk About When They Talk About Learning; A National Survey About Young Children and Science

Guest blogger Cindy Hoisington is an early childhood science educator at Education Development Center Inc. in Waltham, Massachusetts. She brings to her work more than 20 years of experience teaching young children, developing educational materials, and instructing and mentoring early childhood teachers. Cindy is a member of the EDC/SRI research team working on the CPB/PBS Ready to Learn Initiative, which is funded through the US Department of Education. Welcome Cindy!

As an early childhood teacher, or a parent of young children, do you generally like science and think you are “good” at it? Or does just hearing the word “science” make you sweat? (I’m assuming that since you are reading this blog, you have at least some interest in science!) Which science topics do you most enjoy exploring with children and which do you avoid? Do you like investigating earthworms or does the prospect of picking one up make you shudder? Do you relish collecting and categorizing rocks or does the thought of it bore you to tears? What about observing the moon over time? Or taking things apart and putting them back together?

EDC photo/Burt Granofsky

Think about your interest, motivation, and (I hope) your passion for doing, learning, and teaching science and how it developed.  If you are anything like the hundreds of science students, science educators, and even famous scientists like those described in Sherry Turkle’s book Falling for Science; Objects in Mind, it is likely that your own attitudes were shaped not at school, but at home, and in a family that provided “stuff’ for you to explore, nurtured your curiosity, and proudly encouraged your investigations, ideas, and interests. Neil deGrasse Tyson, prominent astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History, has said, “I am where I am not because of what happened in school but in spite of it.” He credits his mother with nurturing his early interest in science by providing him with opera glasses to look at the night sky and by taking him to museums on the weekends. 

Father and child outside. Child looking through a cardboard tube

EDC photo/Burt Granofsky

What does this mean for a teacher’s work with young children? As the world becomes increasingly science- and technology-oriented, all students will need to be proficient in science, whether they choose careers in agriculture, health, education, science, or any other field. STEM education has become a national priority and early childhood teachers are being asked to think more deeply about the quantity and the quality of the science experiences they provide, particularly for their black, Latino, and female students and economically-disadvantaged children.

Science in early childhood now incorporates a focus on big science ideas (like properties of matter; motion and forces; characteristics and needs of living things) and children’s use of science and engineering practices (like asking questions and identifying problems; planning and carrying out  investigations; and constructing explanations and designing solutions).  However, in these critical early years, teachers also need to nurture children’s attitudes toward science (like curiosity, persistence, and self-confidence about science), and their motivation to do and learn it. These attitudes develop early, and impact a child’s science achievement well into the future. One way teachers can promote children’s’ positive scientific attitudes is by connecting with their students’ families about science in the same way they do regarding social skills or literacy. The first step is to find out more about how families of young children think about science and science learning. By doing so, teachers can help families maximize their potential in supporting children’s scientific inquiry and attitudes. 

A newly released national study, What Parents Talk About When They Talk About Learning; A National Survey About Young Children and Science uncovers parents’ beliefs and attitudes about science and gives educators a place to start in making home/school science connections. Researchers spoke with over 1400 parents across the country with diverse economic situations and educational backgrounds. Below are a few of the findings with brief suggestions for how teachers might use this information to partner with families.

EDC photo/Burt Granofsky

  • Almost all parents want to be involved in their children’s learning but many feel that science is less important to support at home than literacy and social skills development.

Although the term parent involvement has traditionally meant parents coming into the school to support school activities, a more current view of parent engagement refers to linking parents to the learning that is happening at school in a variety of ways (phone calls, emails, or classroom social media sites). Provide family-friendly resources about children’s learning using sites such as NAEYC for Families. Talk directly to parents about the increasing importance of science in children’s lives and their role as models in developing their children’s science attitudes, motivation, interests, and achievement. Display photos of people using science, engineering, and technology (reflecting the races, ethnicities, cultures, and languages of your students) in white, blue, and pink collar jobs and careers that are familiar to your families. Point out that doing science involves language (as children talk with and listen to others about what they are doing, noticing, and thinking), reading (reading stories related to science topics and doing research in nonfiction books), and writing (drawing and writing and/or dictating about their observations). Science also supports social skills as children share materials, work together during investigations, and share their observations and ideas with each other.

EDC photo/Burt Granofsky

  • Fewer parents feel “very confident” in their ability to support their children’s science learning than in other areas.

Unconfident parents report not knowing much about science and feeling unprepared to answer their children’s science-related questions. Even parents who report feeling “very confident” may benefit from guidance in supporting inquiry. Communicate with families about science as an active process that includes exploring, observing, and talking with their children about their evidence-based ideas (even if they are not scientifically correct) and how these experiences support curiosity, persistence, and self-confidence in doing and learning science. Take and display photos and/or videos of your students actively exploring; talk with parents about the science children are doing; and make connections to home activities. Let parents know that they support their child’s science abilities and attitudes when they encourage them to observe insects or collect leaves; notice how cooking ingredients change when mixed; or share their ideas about how rain falls or where butterflies go in the winter. 

Child and mother digging in a leaf pile outside

EDC photo/Burt Granofsky

  • More than half of parents report engaging their children in science-related learning activities daily. 

Although they are sometimes unsure about how these activities relate to science, many parents do engage their children in exploring outdoors, in cooking and building activities, in using science-related videos and digital games, and reading science-related books. This should be exciting news for early childhood teachers, who often feel that it is a challenge to get parents engaged in supporting children’s school learning. Remember that involvement is a two-way street. Seek out information from parents about their home activities, and whenever possible, make connections to a classroom science topic (for example, picking vegetables in grandma’s garden is related to observing plant parts in the classroom). Making these connections helps children make connections between separate activities and deepen their understanding of concepts (all plants have parts that help them survive and grow). It may also encourage them to approach future plant experiences from a science point of view. Making these connections explicit for parents gives them positive messages about what they are already doing and encourages them to do more. 

Child looking at a beetle larva using a magnifier

EDC photo/Burt Granofsky

  • 7 out of 10 parents say that knowing what young children need to learn, and/or having ideas for using everyday materials, would help them do a lot more science.

The more ways you can link parents to classroom science investigations, the more they can extend these experiences at home. Keep parents informed about topics, concepts, and skills children are being introduced to at school and provide ideas for related activities they can do at home with everyday materials (freezing and melting ice cubes or building with containers of different sizes and shapes connect to investigations of solids and liquids). Give parents high-quality resources for supporting science at home such as Peep and the Big Wide World parenting videos and activity ideas and 4 ways to explore science with your child. Provide ideas for sentence starters parents might use as they interact with their children like “What do you notice…?” and “What do you think about…….?”

Children’s attitudes toward science are shaped at an early age and have a lasting impact on their motivation to do and learn science. Because of the close, nurturing relationships they have with their children, families are uniquely positioned to support children’s science inquiry and thinking, nurture their curiosity, and shape their developing attitudes toward science and science learning. By forging relationships with parents around science, teachers can provide their students with the best possible foundation for education, work, and life in the 21st century.

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