14 June, 2021 | Posted by Marguerita Magennis

Science All Around Us: Supporting Concepts of the Scientific Mind in Early Education

portobello montessori class children painting

During a recent webinar session with students, I was somewhat surprised to hear their views on how children develop concepts in respect of science and technology in early education.   

The discussion itself evolved from something completely different, but it struck me that there is a lack of consistency and perhaps understanding, around how interconnected these emerging concepts are, something which I felt was particularly pertinent when it was coming from some of the most important people working with children in early education today. 

Of course, I am very aware of the important and valuable role that we as practitioners play in these young children’s lives in terms of social and emotional, cognitive and holistic development.   

However, the realisation, that for some these concepts are seen as separate entities which need developing on their own at a particular time and place in the child’s life or education, was somewhat concerning.   

That lack of understanding that science isn’t a subject we need to engage children with, but rather it is something that is evident in different aspects of our day and which children encounter in their environments through play, whether it is planned or not, was particularly interesting.

Seven Basic Concepts of Science 

This got me wondering how many people are aware that there are seven main basic concepts of science that evolve during those initial developmental stages and evolve from the child’s innate curiosity.

Concepts that not only relate to scientific exploration but underpin evolving concepts in other areas of life skills as well, such as organising, language, communication and social skills.

1. Observation and The Senses

This innate quality is one that children engage with from an early age. Newborn babies listen and observe their surroundings.

Children use their senses, for example, small babies hear and learn the sounds of the home, their mother, they begin to use these senses to determine what is going on 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.

There are lots of exploratory concepts and questions emerging, 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, outdoor environments as the child gets older and they continue to learn to apply this skill of observation – drawing on their senses to learn new things, explore and evaluate situations, and develop new concepts. 

2. Comparison

Once children have been provided with opportunities to explore, their natural 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, the same colour, the same taste, 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, hard or soft, thus building on the initially observed concepts and beginning to see connections.

This is a very important stage in the early development of scientific concepts. 

3. Classification and Sorting

Classification is a higher level of engagement and thinking. Children begin to order, sort objects and experiences based on similarities.

During this grouping and sorting activity, children begin to compare at a higher level, they do more than identify blocks for example, but through deeper engagement and thought processing, the child will identify that some blocks are different shapes, sizes, colours, weights, and therefore they will begin to order these based on similarities and differences.   

This higher order of thinking is essential for scientific thinking and concepts to begin to develop. 

4. 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, weight and explore how different objects can be used, developing problem-solving abilities.

These concepts can be developed by simply encouraging children to explore their surroundings, allowing them to lift, look and touch different items they encounter.   

Initially, a measurement for the younger child is based on observations, identifying the difference.

For example, one block looks bigger than the other, but as the child’s abilities develop, they will begin to want proof, they might weigh the blocks to see which is heavier or using a measuring tape or ruler to find evidence to prove the stance they are taking, that one block is longer, bigger, wider than the other. Again, the scientific mind beginning to emerge with the need for evidence to support their hypothesis. 

5. Communication

With the younger child often, they will share their observations through discussion, learning that it is important 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 perspective, thoughts, views, or discuss what they are thinking.

Allowing or encouraging 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. 

For younger children who might not have the vocabulary to share insights into the size, as the adult, you can determine that this is noted if they draw two different sized blocks showing the emerging concepts of scientific thought, differentiation and the ability to critique and evaluate situations.   

Older children might keep a journal or make charts to show differences they have noted.  For example, a weather chart measuring the rainfall for each day. 

6. Inferring 

Children will retrieve information that 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 recall 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. 

7. Predicting

Children should be provided with opportunities during their play to make guesses or predictions based on what they see, or what they have experienced previously.   

For example, asking a child to predict what is going to 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 well give the correct answer, but younger children might not.   

It is important 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 does happen. 

These activities evolve through play, if children are playing with water ensure that suitable materials are provided so they can begin to experiment in this way.

Filling a container to the brim with water and dropping in stones so that the children will see the water overflow and begin to determine the stones took up some space – i.e., displacement. 

Regardless of whether the terminology is evident, the concept is beginning to emerge as the child will consider what has happened, and often ask questions about why.   

Children who have more experience with this will be better able to think critically and evaluate the results.  

Exploring Science Through Play

Very often when science is mentioned, comments come back about the child’s age and ability, but it is very important that we remember there is more to science than engaging with chemicals.  

We think science and we automatically think of the scientist with their goggles and white coat, we think about scientific terminology, when in fact children begin to engage with science very early on in their lives with no need for the language or terminology to disrupt their initial engagements.  

Every opportunity to explore and investigate or to communicate and infer meaning into a given situation is the beginning of the scientific mind emerging.

We can see a crossover with emergent literacy and communication skills, social skills, and numeracy; but science is still evident when the critical mind comes to the fore to solve a problem or to infer or predict the outcome. 

An important thing to remember is the need to provide a variety of opportunities for children to explore. It is during these opportunities that children explore, investigate and even fail, but remember, through experiencing failure children learn new things.

So allow for failures, 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.

Disappointment can be minimised through providing different opportunities during play, so that children have experiences of objects that float and sink in the water tray; that the child has had an opportunity to grow plants and understand that they need water to survive.  

Encourage children to experiment with different sized objects so that they can begin to observe and use their innate senses to determine the differences and remember it is important to discuss this with them.

This provides the foundations on which the scientific mind develops and ensures there is prior experience from which children can make predictions about what might happen next.

Every Day is a Scientific Day

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

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

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 stone?  

Branches swaying in the breeze, what is making them move?  

Why are apples different sizes?  

Where does rain come from?  

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

As a practitioner, our role is to recognise opportunities to enhance this naturally occurring process, regardless of the age of the child. 

About The Author

Marguerita Magennis, Course Coordinator Masters in Early Childhood Studies & Lead Lecturer BA Hons degree Early Childhood Studies at Portobello Institute. Read more on her blog Dr M's Thoughts here.

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