Exploring Science

Author:  Chris Neidecker

When my children (now ages 15, 19 and 22) were around 4 years old, they begged me to read, and then re-read, “The Magic Schoolbus” books to them. The science teacher in the series, Ms. Frizzle, encouraged her students to explore their world, saying things like “Take chances. Make mistakes. Get messy!”

In Wesley Preschool’s pre-Kindergarten science program, we encourage our students to do the same (minus the exciting travels on a magical bus) as we explore a different science topic each week. We start by encouraging the children to share what they already know and to ask questions about what they wonder. We offer hands-on activities that allow students to explore materials related to the topic and talk about what they’ve observed and discovered.

Wesley is a play-based preschool, so while we encourage questioning, predicting and testing, we don’t enforce a rigorous scientific method. We let each child’s natural interest and curiosity lead his or her activities. For example, a sink or float activity will start with a large group activity in which students make predictions about what will sink or float. We test the predictions and talk about the results. Later, in small groups, each child will use the sink or float materials in his or her own way. Some will simply put objects into the water to see what floats, some will try making a boat out of popsicle sticks or foil, and a few will stir the water vigorously, just to see what happens. Meanwhile, a teacher stands by to support each child’s discovery by asking questions and gently guiding…and to make sure the splashing doesn’t get out of hand!

We extend our learning in many ways. We often incorporate math activities, such as counting, sorting, and patterning, into our day. Sometimes, dramatic play helps us connect with a topic, such as why birds migrate, or how walruses protect their babies. Our process art activities are often related to the science topic, but there’s always room for creative expression in whatever direction the child’s imagination takes him or her. We observe, care for, and love our class pet, a dwarf hamster.

Our students build with blocks and other building materials and explore various sensory materials as well. The children use many kinds of tools: scissors, hole punches, scoops, hammers, screws, clipboards, magnifiers, tweezers, balances, whisks, funnels, test tubes, ramps, pipettes, measuring devices, and more. Using these tools exercises fine motor muscles and promotes problem solving skills — both individual and collaborative.

Books are an important part of our curriculum. While non-fiction books present interesting information about our science topic, we also value fictional works that connect the topic to children’s lives and interests. We choose books that encourage idea sharing, vocabulary building, movement, vocal participation, and quite often, laughter. Music and movement help teach science concepts and build math skills in a fun way!

If you are a parent who understands the educational value of messy materials, but prefers not to have them in your home, we’ve got your back! We are happy to include messy, hands-on materials like slime, playdough, paint, glue, food coloring, homemade lava lamps, and pumpkin innards in our curriculum. We encourage the children to enjoy using messy materials, but we respect the choice of those children who decide to abstain from touching slimy, oozy, or otherwise “icky” things that don’t agree with their sensibilities.

At some point in the year, we offer each child a Science notebook, for documenting whatever they’ve enjoyed in Science class each week. Most children draw whatever they are interested in and able to draw, and some add writing. Whether it’s a scribble or a stick figure, or both, we applaud all attempts at drawing and writing. Some children are ready to write a word or two, but when they have more to say than they can write themselves, we transcribe their eager dictation. Sometimes the teachers’ brains and hands can barely keep up with an excited student’s narrative!

Of course, mistakes happen, or things don’t go as planned, especially with new materials and activities. A child can feel frustrated or disappointed at such times. Mistakes and setbacks are not only a part of everyday life, but they present a great opportunity to learn. We help children deal with the feelings that arise when things go awry, applaud the child’s effort, and try to inspire another try. We encourage students to try new things, but we also have familiar favorites like playdough, blocks, puzzles, a play kitchen, dolls and free-form art supplies.

In fact, many of the activities and routines on Wesley’s science day will be very familiar to our students, because they are built on the same foundation as Wesley’s regular pre-K classes. Children learn through play, become part of a caring community, and steadily grow their curiosity, confidence and a life-long love of learning. In addition, Wesley’s science program aims for our students to develop a true love for learning about how things work in their world. I think Ms. Frizzle would love Wesley Preschool’s science program!