15 November, 2023 | Posted by Dr Marguerita Magennis

Play Supporting Young Children’s Introduction to Science Concepts

In the enchanting realm of early childhood education, fostering a love for learning is akin to planting seeds of curiosity that bloom into a lifelong journey of exploration and creativity.

There is often a critical stance taken when we discuss involving young children in the world of science and introducing what is often seen as concepts for older children to those in early education.

As young minds eagerly absorb the world's wonders, introducing science concepts becomes a delightful adventure. In this blog post, we delve into the realm of STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics) to discover engaging ways to captivate the imaginations of children aged 2.5 to 5 years.

From simple experiments to interactive Play, let's unravel the magic of introducing our littlest learners to the captivating world of science.  

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Science Education for the Early Years 

The consensus among researchers underscores the importance of instilling science and scientific thinking in children during their early formative years.

This early exposure not only contributes to the development of children's self-competence and motivation but also ignites a sustained curiosity for advancing their scientific understanding.

The positive influence of early science education is evident in its correlation with improved learning outcomes during later stages of schooling. It is essential, however, to recognise that not all forms of early science instruction are equally effective for young children. 

When contemplating science education for young children, articulating the intended learning outcomes becomes pivotal. Notably, research indicates no significant long-term advantage when children are extensively taught specific scientific facts. Information presented in isolation from a child's immediate context and cultural background tends to fade rapidly from memory. 

A successful approach to early science education centres around embracing scientific processes for optimal results. By placing these processes at the heart of learning, young learners acquire foundational science skills and develop critical life skills.

These fundamental science skills encompass making astute observations, scientifically articulating observations, engaging in measurement, classification, interpretation, prediction, and drawing meaningful conclusions.

Nurturing these skills lays the groundwork for a purposeful and enduring early science education journey for our youngest learners, fostering a deep appreciation for the world's wonders.   

The refinement of science process skills is significantly bolstered through social interaction, underscoring the vital role of versatile and multimodal communication skills in this developmental phase.

In early science education, the pedagogical approaches diverge from those typically employed with older school-age children. Instead, a play-based methodology emerges as a highly effective and engaging strategy for instructing young minds in science while concurrently nurturing crucial social and emotional skills. 

In this context, early science education demands a departure from conventional instructional methods. Recognising that young children thrive in play-based environments, educators leverage play as a dynamic conduit for imparting scientific concepts.

Through play, children absorb scientific knowledge and cultivate essential social and emotional competencies.

This immersive and interactive approach allows children to seamlessly relate scientific principles to their daily experiences, imbuing the subject with relevance and personal significance.

In essence, by integrating play into early science education, educators create an enriching and holistic learning environment that lays the foundation for a lifelong appreciation of scientific inquiry. 

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Learning Through Play

Engaging in play provides an avenue for children to grasp essential scientific processes and sparks curiosity through diverse experiences, whether outdoors or indoors (Bruce, 2016). In outdoor play, the natural environment becomes a rich backdrop for scientific exploration.

Nature walks, observing insects, or collecting leaves are interactive experiences that seamlessly integrate with science education (Magennis, 2022). The outdoor setting stimulates scientific curiosity and nurtures a connection between children and their surroundings. 

In parallel, indoor water play introduces a sensory dimension to scientific exploration. Activities involving pouring, measuring, and experimenting with water captivate young learners and serve as a dynamic medium for honing scientific process skills.

As children engage in water-based play, they naturally apply measurement, observation, and prediction principles, laying a foundation for scientific thinking. 

Dramatic play, a cornerstone in early science education, allows children to embody the role of scientists. According to Vygotsky, assuming roles in play enhances children's performance and facilitates the acquisition of skills not typically utilised outside of playful contexts.

Introducing props like lab coats, magnifying glasses, or pretend laboratory equipment enhances the immersive experience, creating an environment where children can explore scientific concepts while enjoying the imaginative aspects of play. 

However, orchestrating these diverse activities requires thoughtful planning. Educators are pivotal in integrating inquiry-based learning into outdoor explorations, water play, and dramatic scenarios.

Stories act as educational scaffolds, guiding children through combined play and inquiry experiences.

While these methods prove effective in fostering scientific curiosity and skills, the implementation demands creativity, effort, and an understanding of the unique balance between structured learning and the spontaneous joy of play. 

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Exploring Science Concepts Through Play

These activities evolve through play; if children play with water, ensure that suitable materials are provided to experiment in this way (Magennis, 2021).

Fill a container to the brim with water and drop in stones so that the children will see the water overflow and begin to determine if the rocks took up some space – i.e. displacement.

Regardless of whether the terminology is evident, the concept emerges as the child considers what has happened and often asks questions about why. Children with more experience with this will be better able to think critically and evaluate the results.  

An important thing to remember is the need to provide various opportunities for children to explore.

During these opportunities, children explore, investigate, and even fail, but remember, through experiencing failure, children learn new things.

So, allow for losses but encourage children to experience failure positively, to try again, and to predict or consider why something hasn't worked as they thought it might (Magennis, 2021). 

Watch the short video below which demonstrates a 'sink or float' activity at Portobello Montessori School.


Basic Concepts of Science

Observation and the senses this innate quality children engage with from an early age. Newborn babies listen and observe their surroundings.

Children use their senses; for example, tiny babies hear and learn the sounds of their mother's home; they begin to use these senses to determine what is happening around them.  

Giving children objects and items to explore encourages this observation. Give a child an apple or an orange, for example, they begin to explore the shape, colour, size, texture, and taste; is it soft or hard, squishy or solid?

Lots of exploratory concepts and questions emerge, even when the child doesn't have the words to express what they see or experience.  

These are the first steps in gathering and storing information, which they will then retrieve and reuse when required in other situations (Vygotsky).

The same principles can be applied to sand, water, toys, and outdoor environments as the child ages and continues to learn to use this observation skill – drawing on their senses to learn new things, explore and evaluate situations, and develop new concepts. 

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Comparison Once children have been provided opportunities to explore, their innate curiosity encourages them to compare to look for similarities and differences in these objects and experiences. They match and identify things as being the same shape, colour, taste, and weight having similar attributes, i.e. ridges, bumps, being edible or not, as the case might be. 

Even very young children and babies engage in these comparisons, often unnoticed by the adults, as children mouth objects, exploring if they have a taste and whether they are hard or soft, thus building on the initially observed concepts and beginning to see connections. It is a critical stage in the early development of scientific ideas. 

Classification and sorting– Classification is a higher level of engagement and thinking. Children begin to order and sort objects and experiences based on similarities. During this grouping and sorting activity, children compare at a higher level. They do more than identify blocks, for example, but through deeper engagement and thought processing, the child will recognise that some blocks are of different shapes, sizes, colours, and weights. Therefore, they will order these based on similarities and differences (Magennis, 2021). This higher order of thinking is essential for scientific thinking and concepts to begin to develop.   

Measuring As children are provided with opportunities to explore and investigate objects and activities, they develop emerging concepts of measurement, size, weight, and length. Here, we see a crossover between science and early maths and engineering, where children begin to identify and differentiate based on size and weight and explore how different objects can be used, developing problem-solving abilities.  

Communication  With the younger child, they will share their observations through discussion, learning that it is essential to share their views, findings, or discoveries with others. There are numerous ways of disseminating results; for example, talking to children as they explore can encourage them to share their perspectives, thoughts, and views or discuss their ideas (Magennis, 2021). Allow or encourage children to draw what they have seen; for example, one block is bigger than the other, and you can quickly determine their level of understanding based on what they produce in terms of size and shape. 

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Inferring  Children will retrieve the information they have already stored or experienced (Vygotsky); this level of thinking allows children to draw on already gathered information and determine or predict what they think might happen in a given situation. For example, the flowers in the window are dry and withered, so the practitioner asks the children to consider why. What is causing these flowers to droop - children recall watering the plants; they understand that they need sunlight to grow but also need water as they remember information from previous experiences of planting seeds, and therefore, with consideration, the children will be able to determine that the flowers need watering. This ability to infer what is causing the problem and recall previously stored information demonstrates the emerging concepts of the scientific mind. 

Predicting Children should be provided with opportunities during their Play to make guesses or predictions based on what they see or have previously experienced (Magennis, 2021). For example, as we can see in our Montessori Preschool, asking a child to predict what will happen next as you prepare to drop an apple into a bucket of water – will it sink or float? Based on prior experience, the child might answer correctly, but younger children might not. It is crucial, however, to encourage the child to attempt to make a prediction and then proceed to drop the apple into the water so they can see what happens.   

To truly understand a concept, children need to retain and recall the memory of the experience (Vygotsky). Therefore, by providing hands-on experiences in outdoor environments, children have opportunities to explore naturally emerging concepts and reinforce skills that they can apply in later life in STEAM learning. 

Hadzigeorgiou et al. (2015) highlight that physical science concepts are developed through hands-on experiences, indicating that children learn about "motion" language much faster when physically involved in the movements.

Therefore, sliding down that slippery bank provides more than a fun experience for the child; it reinforces concepts of speed and motion and underpins their future understanding of science and maths.

The child gains a much stronger knowledge if they explore and act out this experience. Again, this isn't entirely a new concept or limited to the child's experience alone; most people benefit from active learning opportunities and kinaesthetic learning, as it is a natural characteristic of our brains' functions. 

Remember, Every Day is a Science Day! 

Every day, we experience situations which involve us recalling and exploring solutions.

Science is everywhere; it is not something we do with children, but rather something that children encounter as they engage with their daily experiences, both in and outside preschool.

Emerging science concepts can be seen in the simplest of situations, for example, a bug creeping out from under a stone on a nature walk – why was he under the rock? Branches swaying in the breeze, what is making them move? Why are apples different sizes? Where does rain come from? And so on.

These naturally occurring situations help develop the scientific and inquisitive mind; they help the child begin to question why things happen, look for answers, and infer and predict why something might be.

As practitioners, we recognise opportunities to enhance this process, regardless of the child's age.  

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Further Reading 

Bruce, T. (2016) The Origins and thinking behind Play Based learning, in Education, Early Education.  

Çiftçi, A, Topçu, M.S., & Foulk, J.A (2020). Pre-service early childhood teachers' views on STEM education and their STEM teaching practices. Research in Science and Technological Education. https://doi.org/10.1080/02635143.2020.1784125 

Crawford, B. & Capps, D. K. (2018) Teacher Cognition of Engaging Children in Scientific Practices. In Dori Y.J. et al. (eds.), Cognition, Metacognition, and Culture in STEM Education, Innovations in Science, Education and Technology.  

Hardiman, M. (2009) 'Neuroeducation: Learning, Arts, and the Brain', John Hopkins University, Summit.  

Hadzigeorgiou, Y. (2015) Young Children's Ideas about Physical Science Concepts, in Research in Early Childhood Science Education, Springer 

Martín-Páez, T., Aguilera, D., Perales-Palacios, F. J. & Vílchez-González, J. M. (2019). What are we talking about when we talk about STEM education? A review of the literature. Science Education, 103(4), 799–822.  https://doi.org/10.1002/sce.21522 

McClure, E. R., Guernsey, L., Clements, D. H., Bales, S. N., Nichols, J., Kendall-Taylor, N. & Levine, M. H. (2017). STEM starts early: Grounding science, technology, engineering, and math education in early childhood. Retrieved from http://joanganzcooneycenter.org/publication/stem-starts-early/ 

Nancekevill, S.E. (2019) Maybe they're born with it, or maybe it's an experience, in Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol 112 - 2 - 221 - 235.  

NYCI (2020) 'STEAM in Youth Work Support Services; Report on a final evaluation survey', Science Foundation of Ireland (SFI). 

Find Out More

Portobello Institute’s Early Years department has qualifications ranging from level 5 to level 9. We offer:

Other courses you may be interested in include:

Visit our Early Years & Montessori department for more.

You can book a consultation to speak with our expert advisor, Jennifer Matteazzi, about any of our Early Years & Montessori courses. Call her directly on 01 892 0031 or email jennifer.matteazzi@portobelloinstitute.com.


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