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How to Teach Science to Preschoolers

Published in ChicagoNow, January 25, 2016

When was the last time a teacher pulled you into her classroom so excited to show the work of her students? It happened to me last week at Cherry Preschool when teacher Ann Donoghue stopped me as I was leaving and said, “You have to see what our kids did last week. It was so cool!”

And indeed, it was. She showed me the catapults the children created to shoot marshmallows across the room. Of course, this was an idea she and co-teacher Julie Rapisarda came up with as a mini science lesson.

But she was even more excited about a series of ideas that came directly from the children. You see, young learners really have many excellent questions and an innate desire to find the answers. Good early childhood educators will listen to what the kids want to know and find ways for them to pursue their interests through developmentally appropriate, hands-on, play-based activities.

The class had been growing two amaryllis plants, but one of them died. Rather than chalking that up as a fail and tossing the dead plant, the teachers allowed the children to take it apart, examine it, and play with the pieces. Of course, the stem was interesting because it was hollow and thus became a periscope and talking tube.

But as the flower died and crumbled, the bits were discovered to be good to use as a dye. The roots also interested the children, so they learned about how plants grow under the soil.

In addition to growing the amaryllis plants, the teachers planted wheat grass. Again, this was their idea to show the children how plants sprout and grow.

But here’s where child-centered learning took over. The kids wanted to grow their own wheat grass to take home. When the seeds they planted in their individual cups didn’t sprout, they asked why. They concluded the difference was that the soil in the large classroom planting was covered with mulch. How could they do this for their individual cups? What could they use? After trying different things, they discovered popcorn kernels worked.

But now, the children posed a mathematical challenge. How many kernels were left in the huge container they had used for their plants? The teachers proposed guessing first, so a mini-lesson in estimating took place. Now the kids were on a quest for the real answer. But how could four-year-olds count such a large number of objects? The teachers knew these pre-kindergarteners at best had one-to-one correspondence (the ability to really count objects) for a small number of kernels.

Here’s a secret about good early childhood educators. They never throw out what may look like junk to most of us. You never know when or how it could be useful. So, they pulled out the plastic sheet pictured above and helped the children count out ten kernels for each small indentation and drop them into a pool of glue to ensure they stayed put.

Voila! Now the teachers helped the children count by tens and add up the grand total. Of course, the kids couldn’t do this counting and adding by themselves yet. But by counting out sets of ten with their teachers and seeing the kernels presented this way, they now understood what 1,447 looks like.

All of this learning came from the children’s interests and thirst for knowledge. Your preschooler could learn a bit about trees in different seasons like this:

Or she could be taught the way children learn best, in developmentally appropriate play-based preschool settings like Cherry Preschool in Evanston, Illinois. The Atlantic confirms this in Erika Christakis’s article The New Preschool is Crushing Kids. In it, Christakis cites how the lunacy of the current educational climate has hurt our preschoolers. Instead of learning through exploration and free play, many of our young kids are filling in worksheets in a teacher-directed and controlled environment.

As recently reported by Lisa Miller in New York Magazine, the result of this inappropriate approach to educating young learners has been a disaster. A study at Vanderbilt University showed that the didactic and rote memorization of facts that characterized Tennessee’s state pre-K program was an epic fail. Children in these classes were judged to be less curious, verbal, and engaged in learning since STEM and deadly direct instruction marched into their preschools. By first grade, these young learners were turned off. They disliked school and learned far less than children who were permitted to learn through play and exploration.

Over the past decade, many early childhood programs have been sucked into the worst aspects of our standards-based, test-centered approach to education. All children deserve the opportunity to learn in play-based settings that respect the way young children learn best.


by Laurie Levy
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