What makes a scientist?
Is it a degree from a prestigious university? A lab coat, perhaps? Is it a boundless cache of knowledge based in one discipline or another?
Or is it simply any person who engages in activities meant to glean knowledge about the world around them? Someone driven by pure curiosity–a deep desire to understand, predict, learn and grow?
From the moment a child enters the world as a brand new infant they are, by design, the world’s greatest scientist. At birth, humans are born with all the neurons they will ever have; an astonishing 100 billion of them, to be exact. That is twice as many as adults end up with. Through a process called synaptic pruning, our brains actually get rid of weaker synaptic connections. And though our brains will double in size from infant-hood to adulthood, the greatest rate of brain development happens in our first three years of life.
Young children are naturally curious about the world around them. By default they are learning from the moment they open their eyes. Whether it is with their environment, their toys or their caregivers–every single interaction is creating new pathways in their brains.
So how do we as educators ensure that the children in our classrooms are being given the best opportunities possible to nurture their scientific nature? The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) offers these simple tips:
- Value Their Questions
According to some researchers, young children ask an average of 73 questions per day. That is 73 opportunities for you to encourage them in their learning–or to shut them down and stop that curiosity in its tracks. You don’t need to know the answer to every single question they ask, of course, but acknowledging them and showing them that you value their desire to learn is the first step. You can do this by encouraging them to share their own ideas. Ask them what they think the answer might be. Then show them how to go about finding the answers by researching, doing experiments or asking others for their input.
- Explore and Find Answers Together
It might mean throwing your lesson plan out the window for the day (or even a week or more!) but following your students’ lead will always lead to rich learning experiences and engaging activities. Plan an experiment together, brainstorm how you can find the information they need or make a list of what you already know vs what you need to find out.
- Give Children Time and Space
Resist the temptation to jump in and immediately offer the “right answer”. Children need to learn how to solve problems and hone their critical thinking skills. Kids are as capable as adults allow them to be, after all, and given enough time and a supportive teacher to guide their learning, they will be successful. And their success will be that much sweeter when they find it on their own.
- Embrace the Mess
Learning should be messy. That’s right. A messy kid is a kid who has fully explored their environment and learned a LOT while doing it. So take a deep breath, the make like Elsa and let it go.
- Learn From Your Mistakes Together
Model for your students the best way to come back from a perceived failure. Show them that it’s okay if things don’t go their way and encourage them to troubleshoot, problem-solve and then get up and try again. Practice makes progress!
- Invite Curiosity & Support Further Exploration
Set up your classroom in a way that allows children to experiment and try new things. In the typical Reggio Emilia classroom, many teachers use “provocations” as an invitation to play and explore. This might be paper and paint accompanied by unconventional materials to paint with. It might be magnifying glasses and natural objects with books on plants or animals. Remember that while a teacher may have a specific idea about how they anticipate their students will explore the materials, we must allow for flexibility and allow the children to lead the way.
Additionally, we can model curiosity for our students by “wondering” things as a way to spark their interest. The next time you see a child at the water table, try commenting “I wonder how many scoops of water it would take to fill that bowl”. In the dramatic play area you could try “I wonder what ingredients I would need to bake a cake.”
- Encourage Children to Record Their Observations
Observing is a very important scientific skill–we can teach children how to track their observations in many different ways. This could be done by drawing or writing, taking photos or dictating to an adult so they can record it for them. Encourage your students to make notes about the things they are seeing and learning through their experiments.
- Talk About the Scientific Method
Explain to your students what it means to observe or make a hypothesis. Encourage them to ask questions and search for answers, then share their results with each other. Use words like hypothesis, observation, experiment and data with them–then stand back and watch as they take the reins on their own learning!
Following these steps in your classroom will lead to children who are independent thinkers with great problem solving skills. We, as teachers, can empower them to take charge of their own learning and help them to become the next generation of world-changing inventors and researchers!
For more information from NAEYC on science in the early learning classroom check out the NAEYC website
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