Role of Parents and Caregivers in Supporting Science Learning for Young Children

January 1st, 2016

This Knowledge Base article was written collaboratively with contributions from Scott Pattison and Elsa Bailey. This article was migrated from an older version of The datestamp does not reflect the actual publication date.


Parents and other primary caregivers are among the most influential factors in young children’s learning and development (Institute of Medicine & National Research Council, 2012; National Research Council, 2000; Weiss, H., Little, P., Bouffard, S., Deschenes, S., & Malone, H., 2009). According to the National Research Council (National Research Council, 2000):“Decades of research confirm that parents and families account for the majority of variation in child development outcomes, even for families in which children spend the bulk of the day in preschool or daycare.”

Through conversations and interactions in everyday settings and designed environments such as children’s museums and science centers, young children regularly learn about and engage with science with their parents and other family members during conversations and interactions in everyday settings and designed informal learning environments, such as children’s museums and science centers (Callanan & Jipson, 2001; Callanan & Oakes, 1992; Callanan, Siegel, & Luce, 2007; Crowley, Callanan, Jipson, et al., 2001; Duschl, Schweingruber, Shouse, & National Research Council, 2007; Fender & Crowley, 2007; National Research Council, 2009; Rigney & Callanan, 2011; Valle & Callanan, 2006).

Findings from Research and Evaluation 

Understanding the role that parents play in supporting science learning for young children is an active and ongoing area of research. Broadly, parents are believed to support science learning both directly, by scaffolding learning and modeling, and by supporting interest during science-related interactions (Alexander, Johnson, & Leibham, 2013; Barron, Martin, Takeuchi, & Fithian, 2009; Crowley, Callanan, Jipson, et al., 2001; Fender & Crowley, 2007; Frenzel, Pekrun, Dicke, & Goetz, 2012; Leibham, Alexander, Johnson, Neitzel, & Reis-Henrie, 2005; Tenenbaum & Leaper, 2003; Valle & Callanan, 2006), and indirectly, by providing science learning experiences and resources (Alexander, Johnson, & Kelley, 2012; National Research Council, 2009). Several important areas of study include:

  • Children’s questions (e.g., Callanan & Oakes, 1992; Chouinard, Harris, & Maratsos, 2007; DeLoache, Simcock, & Macari, 2007; Kelemen, Callanan, Casler, & PĂ©rez-Granados, 2005)
  • Parent explanations (e.g., Callanan & Braswell, 2006; Crowley, Callanan, Jipson, et al., 2001; Crowley & Jacobs, 2002; Fender & Crowley, 2007)
  • Linguistic cues (e.g., Callanan et al., 2007; Rigney & Callanan, 2011)
  • Interest support (e.g., Alexander et al., 2012; Pattison, 2014; Renninger, 2007)
  • Gender (e.g., Alexander et al., 2012; Crowley, Callanan, Tenenbaum, & Allen, 2001)

Informal science education programs and exhibits designed to support science learning for young children must carefully consider and support the role of parents and primary caregivers in this learning process. Educators should also be aware that cultural assumptions and expectations related to parenting can shape how informal science education institutions and professionals perceive the role of parents and how parents and caregivers from different communities behave in different settings (Ceballo, Huerta, & Epstein-Ngo, 2010; Garibay, 2009; National Research Council, 2000, 2009; Tenenbaum & Callanan, 2008).


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