Hands-On Science for Young Children
By Tanya Eggers

Do you know a child who is not completely full of questions? As educators and parents, it’s easy to tune out the barrage of inquiries—but wait—could we be missing valuable teaching moments full of motivated learners? The resounding answer is, YES! What may be a never-ending supply of trivial questions may, in fact, be a complex science investigation. “Teachers can stimulate curiosity by asking questions themselves, and by responding with warmth and enthusiasm to children’s inquiries” (Trawick-Smith, p. 205). Those who work with young children have the unique opportunity to facilitate powerful learning experiences and inspire deeper investigations that will validate and empower children to learn. Hands-on science activities and investigations are essential components of any early childhood setting, and they help lay the foundation for life-long learning and healthy development.

Before educators can embark on designing an effective hands-on science program for young children, it’s important to know a bit about how a child’s brain works. The brain is a pattern-seeking machine, and science is the quest to recognize and classify naturally occurring patterns. Jensen, author of Teaching with the Brain in Mind, says, “Using the pattern-detecting and pattern-making areas of the brain is critical to proper development” (p. 96).

Children are naturally equipped to learn through observation and investigations. Every experience, every word, every toy deeply impacts her understanding of her world and the connections she makes. Every time a child learns something new, the brain rewires itself based on the child’s understanding. Every time the child repeats a task or a skill that particular neural pathway is reinforced and strengthened. “Learning changes the brain because it can rewire itself with each new stimulation, experience, and behavior” (Jensen, p. 13). Providing varied and multiple opportunities for a child to use what she has just learned are important ways to help build efficient connections in the brain. It may be as simple as providing blocks to drop and knock over once you’ve noticed that the child is dropping a cup from the highchair. The more a neural pathway in a child’s brain is used, the stronger it becomes; conversely, if it is not used, the pathway can be lost.

In early childhood it is equally important that science activities be hands-on, child-driven, authentic, and active. Developmentally, young children learn and understand best from what they can see, touch, feel, and manipulate. Providing safe, readily available materials that children can experiment with is one of the most important steps towards effective hands-on science investigations.

Effective educators use a child’s own natural curiosity and questions to fuel science investigations. Another way to explore science concepts is with informational books and stories infused with science concepts like weather, water, animals, etc. Science activities and investigations are also a great way to build oral vocabulary, develop reading readiness, and fuel literacy development.

Basic Science Concepts and Application
Science is not just a set of facts that have already been discovered by others; it is a process – a way of thinking and understanding the world. It is observing, predicting what might happen, testing those predictions, and making sense of observations. “Children acquire scientific knowledge by ‘construction’ not by instruction (Kamii & Lee-Katz, 1983). They must create an explanation of observed phenomena or the outcomes of the experiments internally—an explanation that holds personal meaning” (Trawick-Smith, p. 203). As children are exploring the scientific process, teachers can pose open-ended questions that may spark more questions or a new direction to explore. “Good quality education encourages the exploration of alternative thinking, multiple answers, and creative insights” (Jensen, p. 16). Allowing and encouraging young children to explore the scientific process—rather than only using direct instruction that emphasizes science facts and prescriptive experiments—will promote the development of thinking skills such as organizing and classifying, problem solving, reasoning, and logic. Here is one way to explore the scientific method with young children in a fun and effective way.

Grow a Garden
There are many different ways to grow a garden no matter where you are located. Here are a few ideas to give children hands-on experiences and opportunities to use the scientific method. To begin, find either a garden plot or provide containers such as:

  • Wooden box
  • Half a wood barrel
  • Plastic tub
  • Single pots, terra cotta or plastic

Scientific Process
Children can observe the growing cycle from seeds, to plant, to flower, and to seeds again. They can also observe plant parts and explore the similarities and differences between plants such as colors, shapes, relative size, and textures. Children can also observe the effects of environmental elements such water, light, temperature, and much more.

Teachers should ask children open-ended questions that do not require a single right answer to promote guessing and prediction. Encourage children to guess which plants will come up first and which will grow to be the tallest.

Promote child-driven investigations based on the children’s own questions by providing various materials—seeds, soils, pots, lighting, and water situations, etc.—to be used in their own experiments. Teachers can record children’s observations and questions generated by their experiments. They can also provide paper, journals, pencils, and crayons for the children to record their own observations as their experiments progress. Encourage children to use drawings and inventive spelling.

Children learn best from their own interpretations rather than from their teachers telling them what the facts are. Therefore, teachers should continue to promote open-ended questions encouraging children to process and draw conclusions about what they have seen in their experiments. This process will lead to more questions and to further experiments.

There are many other science activities that foster the development of the basic understanding of science concepts. Here are a few to get you started:

  • Adopt a nearby pond
  • Put up a bird feeder.
  • Make a classroom aquarium or terrarium, or have a class animal, reptile, or bird.
  • Study ants, tadpoles, or butterflies
  • Cook together to explore measurement and cause and effect.
  • Explore water play: what floats, what doesn’t.
  • Explore the five senses (touch—texture, tastes—sweet/sour, sounds—high/low tones, volume, etc., smells—identify onion, orange, banana, etc., and sight—notice visual differences)

When children learn by doing and experimenting they retain what they learn in a uniquely accessible way. Scientific exploration promotes the development of problem solving skills, recognition of cause and effect, and organizing and classifying. These explorations lay the foundation for future understanding of more complex science concepts later. The ability to solve everyday problems through trial and error is essential for science and self-confidence. So go ahead, have fun, get your hands dirty, and inspire a young child to explore, question, and investigate. Empowering a young child to be a generator of knowledge is a special gift that will help lay the foundation for a life-long love of learning.

References and Resources
Bowden, M. (1989). Nature for the very young: A handbook of indoor & outdoor activities. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons.

Department of Education brochure for parents: http://www.ed.go/pub/parents/Science.

Jensen, E. (1998). Teaching with the brain in mind. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Ross, M. (1995). Sandbox scientist: Real science for little kids. Chicago Review Press.

Trawick-Smith, J. (1994). Interactions in the classroom: Facilitating play in the early years. MacMillan Publishing Co.