Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Exploration Not Demonstration


For the past few years, there’s been a push to integrate science and technology into early childhood classrooms. But in play based programs, especially those based on Constructivist or Reggio philosophy, scientific exploration has been the core of the curriculum all along. Exploring, observing, questioning, predicting, and testing hypotheses – even if no one calls them “hypotheses” – has always been the essence of what children do when they play.

Still, the push to define play by traditional curricular areas can lead teachers to set aside times to “do science”, often in a way that’s simply a modified science experiment from older grades. Following directions to achieve a specific result isn’t scientific exploration. Watching as the teacher demonstrates a phenomenon isn’t scientific exploration. Even if each child has a turn to add one thing to a mixture, or to turn or press one button, that isn’t scientific exploration. Scientific exploration and logical, mathematical reasoning happen when the child is actively exploring an object, a material, or an idea. In play based programs, exploring, observing, questioning, predicting, and testing hypotheses – even if no one calls them “hypotheses” – has always been the essence of what children do when they play.

One of my favorite science explorations is baking soda and vinegar. Not by “making a volcano”, where children watch in anticipation for the reaction they’ve been told to expect (which isn’t actually a “volcano”, since the physics of lava is very different from the chemistry of baking soda and vinegar). Instead, my goal is for the children to explore the materials and figure out what will happen when they mix baking soda and vinegar together.

I set up the activity for my four-year-olds with bowls of baking soda, small spoons and trays. They filled the trays and instantly noted the similarities between the unnamed “powder” and flour.



When the trays were filled, I put out bowls of vinegar with eyedroppers. I had colored the vinegar with liquid watercolor to make it more visible and easier for the children to observe what happened as they mixed.


Initially, the main interest was using the eyedroppers to mix the colored liquid – or “bubble water”, as one of the children called it. They were so focused on the color mixing, they didn’t notice right away when some of the vinegar touched the baking soda.



But once they noticed that someone had made something happen, their goal became to figure out what happened and make it happen again.


The children used the droppers to move vinegar into the baking soda, and then used spoons to move the baking soda into the vinegar – each time observing the reaction that took place, and when the bubbles subsided, exploring the texture of the wet baking soda and wondering what other things they could mix together. This was science – and was much more meaningful and engaging than a demonstration led by a teacher.






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