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Never Too Young for Science
by Judith B. Saks
For 4-year-olds, what could be more fun than playing with water? And from a science educator's point of view, what could be more powerful than tapping children's fascinations?
In a Head Start classroom at Dominion High School in Loudoun County, Virginia, children dressed in purple smocks are exploring the concept of volume by pouring water from a bucket into another container with a line marked by masking tape. Using beakers and liter containers, they pour water in or take water out, repeatedly trying to judge how much liquid they need to fill the container to the mark. "They are learning to use the tools in ways that were intended—and maybe in ways that were not intended. But they are excited about learning, and that's wonderful," says teacher Kathleen Miller.
In Loudoun County public schools and select schools in two other states, an innovative preschool science program provides such activities to help children begin to think critically and solve problems. The curriculum, steeped in research about how children learn, capitalizes on their natural curiosity and trains teachers and parents to arouse that curiosity.
Teachers can choose from 21 activities in a toolbox that contains experiments, questions, and suggestions to stimulate children's thinking. In one activity, students learn to observe and compare by making a fruit salad, discussing the similarities and differences in the pieces of fruit, and counting the number of pieces of each type of fruit they add to the salad. They talk about following a recipe and what happens to the number of pieces when some are eaten. In another activity, children use a pan balance to weigh objects, determine which are heavier or lighter, and sort them by weight.
The activities can be integrated seamlessly into the preschool day, allowing teachers to take advantage of "teachable moments" to reinforce or extend concepts, says Odette Scovel, science supervisor for the Loudoun County schools. To help children develop literacy skills—another important goal of the program—teachers read them science-related books and encourage them to talk about what they are doing as they work together on science projects.
Supported by a 2-year, $50,000 grant from HHMI, the program partners the Loudoun County schools and Florida's Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, whose staff also work with preschool science teachers at the Miami site of the Children's Home Society of Florida, which serves thousands of children eligible for adoption or foster care. Selected preschool classes in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, also use the program. The grantees collaborate with the curriculum's developer, Cognitive Learning Systems (CLS), also of Harrisburg.