A wonder-ful place

Hedda SharapanAre you hearing what I’m hearing these days? There’s a lot more emphasis in early childhood on science and the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) curriculum. At the same time, I’m also hearing that lots of teachers aren’t nearly as comfortable with science as they are with literacy.

But science with young children doesn’t have to be scary for us, even if it wasn’t one of our favorite subjects in school. In fact, “science” in early childhood isn’t about teaching facts. It’s about nurturing curiosity. And we’re good at nurturing -- and children are good at being curious. Because science is everywhere, you’re probably doing a lot to nurture curiosity already and don’t realize it.

Here are the kinds of everyday things you can do to nurture children’s curiosity:

Listen to children’s questions.

I know how challenging it can be when children ask questions like “What makes the thunder noise?” But think of it as another opportunity to show you care about what they’re thinking. That’s something you do all day long -- and it’s an important part of nurturing.

Just by saying “That’s an interesting question,” you’re supporting children’s attempts at trying to figure things out. The world can be so new and so confusing to them. We want children to know that questions are connected to learning. Fred Rogers even wrote a song about curiosity: “Did you know that it’s alright to wonder? Did you know when you wondering you’re learning...about all sorts of wonderful things!” (listen to the song "Did You Know?")

Ask-it Basket

A friend of mine who works with young children told me about her “Ask-it Basket.” When a child asks a question she can’t answer, she writes it down on a piece of paper and puts it in the “Ask-it Basket.” Maybe later on they’ll find the answer. Maybe not. But I thought it was a great way to show children that questions are valuable – even if we don’t have answers.

Use children’s questions to encourage their thinking.

I almost always hear a sigh of relief in our Let's Explore workshop when I say that often the best response when you're stumped by a child’s question is, “I don’t know. What do you think?” In fact, we’re stimulating scientific thinking when we ask open-ended questions like, “I wonder how we could find out?” or “What did you notice about it?” or “Why do you think that happened?” Isn’t that what scientists do? They use a question as a jumping off point to the next question, as they try to figure things out.

Of course I sometimes hear about children’s theories that are totally offbase – and even funny, like “Thunder comes from clouds bumping into each other…because they don’t have eyes.” But you’re not there to correct them and feed them facts. They probably wouldn’t understand you anyway, even if you had answers. But if you let them know their ideas are interesting, you’re stimulating their thought process, their language development, their problem-solving, and their ability to focus their attention and look carefully. All of those skills are important for school readiness.

So maybe including “science” with young children isn’t so different from the other things you do with them and the other conversations you have with them. It’s more about letting them know their ideas are important – and that the world is a “wonder-ful” place!

P.S. I'd love to hear from you about what children say when you ask them “What do you think?” or about any thoughts you may have about introducing science to young children.

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