How young children learn science
This Knowledge Base article was written collaboratively with contributions from Amy Grack Nelson, Kevin Crowley, Scott Pattison, Elsa Bailey and CAISE Admin. This article was migrated from a previous version of the Knowledge Base. The date stamp does not reflect the original publication date.
This article addresses science learning of early childhood and preschool children in informal and free-choice learning environments, such as museums and science centers, with a focus on the everyday interactions of these children five years and younger with parents and family members.
Findings from Research and Evaluation
Research over the last 50 years has fundamentally changed how educators and scientists understand the cognitive abilities of young children (Institute of Medicine & National Research Council, 2012; National Research Council, 2000a, 2000b, 2009). It is now broadly recognized that preschool children have well-developed theories about the natural and social worlds and that even at a very young age, these children are capable of complex, scientific reasoning (Cook, Goodman, & Schulz, 2011; Klahr, Zimmerman, & Jirout, 2011; National Research Council, 2000a, 2000b, 2009; National Science Teachers Association, 2009). Most importantly, even before entering school, young children demonstrate motivation, curiosity, and an intense drive to explore, learn, and control their environments (Klahr et al., 2011; National Research Council, 2000a, 2000b). In short, young children are active and native science learners who, with the encouragement and support from adults, will eagerly explore, experiment with, and learn about the natural, physical, and social world around them (National Research Council, 2001).
Young children think like scientists in many ways. The Next Generation Science Standards (http://www.nextgenscience.org) outline eight practices that resonate with how young children learn about and engage in:
Asking questions (for science) and defining problems (for engineering)
Developing and using models
Planning and carrying out investigations
Analyzing and interpreting data
Using mathematics and computational thinking
Constructing explanations (for science) and designing solutions (for engineering)
Engaging in argument from evidence
Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information
Research suggests that “The actual doing of science or engineering can also pique students’ curiosity, capture their interest, and motivate their continued study; the insights thus gained help them recognize that the work of scientists and engineers is a creative endeavor—one that has deeply affected the world they live in” (National Research Council, 2012).
Not only are young children capable of engaging with science in the early years, but researchers have consistently documented how children regularly learn about and engage with science throughout their lives (Duschl, Schweingruber, Shouse, & National Research Council, 2007; Institute of Medicine & National Research Council, 2012; National Research Council, 2000a, 2000b, 2009). Important contexts for early childhood science learning include:
Everyday settings, such as talking with parents or exploring the natural world (e.g., Callanan & Oakes, 1992; Callanan, Siegel, & Luce, 2007; Tenenbaum & Callanan, 2008; Tenenbaum & Leaper, 2003);
Designed informal learning environments, such as visiting a children’s museum or science center (e.g., Callanan & Braswell, 2006; Crowley, Callanan, Jipson, et al., 2001; e.g., Fender & Crowley, 2007; Rigney & Callanan, 2011); and
Formal education institutions, such as preschool (e.g., Ritz, 2007).
Through these experiences, children develop science-related interests (Alexander, Johnson, & Kelley, 2012; Pattison, 2014), gain knowledge of science topics and activities (Crowley & Jacobs, 2002; Fender & Crowley, 2007), and practice science skills and the use of scientific tools and language (Callanan et al., 2007; Rigney & Callanan, 2011). Emerging evidence suggests that these early learning outcomes can have long-term implications for children once they enter school and may form the foundation of differences in science engagement and participation across genders (Alexander et al., 2012; Alexander, Johnson, & Leibham, 2013; Alexander, Johnson, Leibham, & Kelley, 2008; Crowley, Callanan, Tenenbaum, & Allen, 2001; DeLoache, Simcock, & Macari, 2007; Johnson, Alexander, Spencer, Leibham, & Neitzel, 2004; Leibham, Alexander, & Johnson, 2013; Neitzel, Alexander, & Johnson, 2008)
Directions for Future Research
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