Science centers—effective and engaging

Child holding up a flowering maple tree twig to view with a hand lens.While handling and examining objects from nature, such as sea shells, pinecones, rocks, and plant leaves, children may encounter patterns and experience properties of different materials. Without additional experiences with these objects children may not learn that structures grow in nature or develop an understanding of the complex relationships in nature—how a leaf grows from a stem or the relationship between plants and the earth they grow in.  A “science center,” where these kinds of objects are made available for children, may be a table, shelf, or just a basket. There may be a fish tank or worm box. These objects and living organisms are gateways to extended science explorations that can happen anywhere in an early childhood program—in the classroom, during “science time” or center time in any center, on the playground, or on a field trip. When children are no longer interested in the objects as science center objects, move them to other locations. Shells can become scoops for water in a tub and pine cones can make interesting impressions in play dough.

If you have a specific location for natural materials sure to leave room for any “finds” that children want to share.  A few days after new objects related to an exploration of a larger topic are placed on the science center, add tools for looking closely and for drawing to renew children’s interest in the objects and open opportunities for talking with children about what they see and think. Magnifiers, paper and crayons, a digital camera, and most importantly, people to talk with as they share their ideas, will extend initial observations into science explorations. Think about how the ideas they share can be explored more fully in additional situations, such as, in a sandbox or on a woodland trail, in the block center or in a book, or using paints or wire to make their ideas visible.

The July 2018 issue of Science and Children is focused on the topic of science centers. Read it now so the ideas related by authors can simmer this month and bring clarity to designing an effective and engaging science center that will support young children’s learning about scientific concepts.

Take a look at this science center and think about how young children might use it. Would you make any changes to the organization of materials? What support, that is not shown, would be helpful to make it possible for children to use and learn about the objects on the table? Do your children need a science center, and if so, what do they need in it?

A child height table crowded with plants, microscope, hand lenses, calculator, scale, worm bin, books, fish tank, magnets, pretend bird nest, and sound shakers.

PS–while you are reading the July 2018 issue of Science and Children, notice that journal Editor Linda Froschauer is saying good-bye: “My heart will be with Science and Children always. That’s what happens when you become involved in an initiative that impacts the lives of so many people.” Thank you, Linda, for making my work as The Early Years columnist more effective and more engaging.

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One Comment

  1. Peggy Ashbrook
    Posted August 2, 2018 at 9:04 am | Permalink

    If you are planning to have your children explore magnetism, take a look at Page Keeley’s July 2018 Formative Assessment Probes column, “Using Formative Assessment Probes to Develop Elementary Learning Stations.” Keeley describes learning station probes for open exploration and investigating the properties of magnets and magnetic interactions. Great questions to help focus children’s thinking.

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