As early childhood educators, no matter what program we teach in or administer, we want to help children build knowledge of the world through experiences, teacher-supported investigations, and direct teaching. A conversation I had recently with a teacher made me think about how we balance direct teaching with open exploration:
Teacher: So, as I thought more about your question about what scares me about teaching this new science unit, I think I crystalized it more. I hate to be the one shoving information down to the children. I love it when they discover new things—learn something exciting. When I don’t know the information as well, I am not as comfortable with their discovery process. I’m sure that’s being an old dog learning new tricks, but I think that’s more what I’m feeling.
Peggy: One thing that comforts me when I am teaching children and I want them to get science content knowledge as well as experience, is remembering that this is just a beginning not high school graduation. They will have time to learn more facts and understand the concepts. I am not their only chance! Thank you for being brave and exploring new territory. The NSTA position statement on Early Childhood Science Education affirms that children are capable, often more capable than we teachers realize. When we check for understanding through conversations, reflecting on photographs, or having them draw and talk about their picture, we can find out if our teaching is effective.
I was reminded of how children will continue to build their understanding as they move through their school years when following a discussion on the NSTA physical science education listserv about teaching ninth graders about sound. I thought, “Children begin that work in infancy and I help them build on it in their preschool years!” The NSTA member listservs provide a wonderfully supportive community for growing as a teacher of science.
Given how much the two-to-three year olds that I work with love to use musical instruments, I thought exploring how metal objects sound in water would capture their interest and focus. This activity was inspired by the work of Alec Duncan, early childhood educator (and musician) in western Australia, who uses many instruments, makes instruments and explores sound in unique ways. Alec has a wealth of information and experience that he generously shares on his social media sites, including a blog post and video about making sound at the water table.
Very interestingly, both the 2-3 year old and the 4-5 year old children did tap on the metal bowls but they were mostly interested in stirring and mixing and creating imaginative meals! While stirring and pouring, they observed the flow of the water and we briefly discussed volume–how much water could fit, interweaving science and math into the imaginative play about making meals. I wonder what the next step might be? Add measuring cups with numbers on them? Make the water deeper? Add real drumsticks instead of chopsticks to promote more tapping?
Like the teacher in the conversation quoted above, I feel I may be going too fast, trying to impart information before the children have had time to understand the properties of the objects and water through open exploration. I’m going to re-read the “Resources” section in Exploring Water with Young Children (Young Scientist series) by Ingrid Chalufour and Karen Worth to refresh my understanding of science inquiry in early childhood. “Inquiry is about questions, but it is hard for children to ask questions about something if they haven’t had a change to get to know the thing or the materials or the event, whether it is balls rolling, snails, or water flow. 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.”
What next steps would you suggest?
Chalufour, Ingrid and Karen Worth. 2005. Exploring Water with Young Children (Young Scientist series) St Paul, MN: Redleaf Press.