Science Programs Designed for Young Children

January 1st, 2016

This Knowledge Base article was written collaboratively with contributions from Scott Pattison and Josie Melton. This article was migrated from a previous version of the Knowledge Base. The date stamp does not reflect the original publication date.


Research findings in the field of cognitive science have implications for the design and implementation of science programs and exhibits in schools and informal settings.

Findings from Research and Evaluation 

How People Learn (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 1999) is one source that outlines three key findings to consider when working with learners of all ages:

  1. The first finding is that children come to learn with preconceptions about how the world works.  Children are not ‘empty vessels’ but have constructed their own explanations of phenomena based on their own experiences.  Since these initial ideas may be incorrect, children’s initial understandings must be engaged in order to identify these initial ideas and potential misconceptions.
  2. The second finding is that children must have both factual knowledge and an organized conceptual framework.  Children should be aware of how the topic fits into the bigger idea, which means that the facilitator should also have a general understanding of the topic and how it should be presented to children.
  3. The third key finding from How People Learn is that children need to control their own learning through metacognition.  This means that facilitators should guide students to reflect on their learning process following an experience.

Researchers have also identified strategies that can be utilized in a science experience to support science learning in children.  The following points were adapted from Effective Science Instruction: What Does Research Tell Us?, a publication intended to support classroom science instruction, but can also apply to settings outside the classroom.

Young Children’s Science Motivation

How can you hook a child’s interest and make the topic relevant to everyday life? Sharing a scenario where children may have experienced or wondered about this phenomenon can tap into a child’s innate curiosity. This can increase intrinsic motivation and provide more long-lasting learning.

Motivating children to learn about science can have short and long term implications for science learning.  Children have an innate curiosity about the world around them (Silverman, 1989) and if accessed, could motivate students to learn science in formal and informal contexts.  Children who are intrinsically motivated to learn about science may also develop long-term science interests and initiating a spark of interest may develop beyond a single investigation or activity (Tytler, 2006).  

This spark can be ignited in the following ways:

  • Hook interest with a relevant or fascinating story/scenario
  • Make it relevant to daily life – ‘have you ever wondered…?’
  • Present the topic as an investigation question that children will answer

Eliciting students prior knowledge

How can you find out what students already know about the topic? Opening up a discussion or providing a probe to allow children to share ideas can provide insight into what they already know and what misconceptions they might have about the topic. This can focus instruction on needed areas and limit teaching about what children already know.

Finding out what children already know and what misconceptions they hold is key to learning.

  • Children are not empty vessels.
  • Recognizing what they already know can limit repetition.
  • Recognizing misconceptions can help focus guided instruction/experiences.

Intellectual engagement with relevant phenomena

How can you set up an experience that will engage children’s interest and provide observations to support a claim about the topic? An engaging experience can help children construct new understandings about a topic and replace misconceptions.

Providing engaging activities that focus children on the relevant topic.  Data/observations collected should lead to an answer for investigation question.

  • Collect data or observations
  • Hands-on activities and investigations should be focused on an investigation question
  • Age-appropriate – set children up for success

Use of evidence to critique claims

How can you guide children to examine the observations/data to look for patterns and make a claim? Compiling observations and/or data and interpreting that data as a group can provide an opportunity for children to make a claim about their experience.

Guiding children to interpret the observations/data and make a claim about a topic.  That claim will usually lead to the answer to the investigation question.

  • Evidence is recorded and interpreted to make a claim
  • Scientific claims are supported by evidence


How can you guide children to make sense of their experience? Preparing questions to help students connect the experience with a new idea or claim can help children build new understanding about the topic. The key is to help children build their own ideas, rather than tell them what they learned.  Asking questions to help children reflect on their own learning process (what they thought before, and how the experience led them to what they think now) can help support this process.

Preparing questions to guide children to build their own understanding of the topic.  Questions should help children connect what they did or what they experienced with the investigation question.  Facilitators (parents, teachers, program leaders) can guide children through a metacognitive process, where they recognize their learning process or path.

  • Resist the tendency to tell children what they learned, rather guiding them to their own understanding of the experience and how it relates to the investigation question
  • Take children back to their initial ideas to see if and how they have changed as a result of the experience.
  • Often times sense-making is rushed or cut out of a lesson due to time constraints


Bransford, J.D., Brown, A.L., & Cocking, R.R. (Eds.). (1999). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, DC: National Academy Press. Retrieved from  

Banilower, E., Cohen, K., Pasley, J. & Weiss, I. (2008). Effective science instruction: What does research tell us? Portsmouth, NH: RMC Research Corporation, Center on Instruction. ( Sci Instruction Brief 2nd ed.pdf)

Children’s Ideas about Science and Making Sense of Secondary Science – Rosalind Driver, Ann Squires, Peter Rushworth, Valerie Wood-Robinson

Everyday Science Mysteries

K-12 Guidelines in NGSS

NSTA Recommendations for pre-K science learning

Silverman, M. (1989). Two sides of wonder:  Philosophical keys to the motivation of science learning. Synthese, 80(1), 43-61.

Tytler, R., & Symington, D. (2006). Science in school and society. Teaching Science, the Journal of the Australian Science Teachers Association, 52(3), 10-15.

Uncovering Student Ideas in Science – Page Keely

What’s Your Evidence – Carla Zembal-Saul, Katherine L. McNeill, Kimber Hershberger

Designing Effective Science Instruction:  What works in science classrooms – Ann Tweed

What is metacognition? Center for Teaching, Vanderbilt University

Parents and metacognition in a science museum paper/stem2012_18.pdf