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Should Preschools "Teach" Science?

Rebecca Hill

Published on: June 09, 2014

preschool girl holding butterfly and magnifying glassEach spring Constance Bratton’s Owl Class nurses a number of chrysalises as they grow into caterpillars. The 4-year-olds learn the stages of growth and what a caterpillar eats. They read Eric Carle’s book The Hungry Caterpillar, then they draw pictures of butterflies. When the caterpillars mature, the children carefully touch their pudgy fingers to the wings of the new butterflies and then release them into the spring day.

Children as scientists

Experts agree: Children are natural scientists. Watch any child outside. They wander the park or yard, looking for bugs, flowers and other enticing discoveries. These kids are curious. They are explorers. They are dying to know; question after question ensues. 

A preschool teacher for over 26 years, Lori Steuer teaches the Dolphin Class, which, along with Bratton’s Owl Class, is offered at the Irvington United Methodist Church in Indianapolis, Ind. She has heard thousands of these questions. 

“If you think about the questions that a child will ask during the school day, 95 percent of those questions are science-based,” said Steuer. “Almost any conversation that a child begins with a question can lead you to science.”  

Now, some schools are taking advantage of the natural intersection of preschool and scientific curiosity by creating science curricula designed to ignite young minds. 

Preschool standards are not created equal

Across the United States, preschool programs range from day-care centers to public school programs, and federally funded Head Start programs to religious and community-based programs.  

While most of us agree that preschool is a critical step in a child's education continuum and produces long-term educational benefits, the inconsistency of programs is glaringly apparent and may impact kids' academic achievement.

In K–12 education, increased accountability to improve student achievement has driven ongoing school reform efforts. But in early childhood education, efforts to compel accountability have been slower to catch on. In 2002, the Bush Administration started the Good Start, Grow Smart program, a federal initiative designed to improve early education by requiring states to develop “voluntary early learning guidelines” in language and literacy skills. Since then, most states have implemented these guidelines even though they have not been embraced by everyone in early childhood education.   

Preschool learning guidelines provide direction in areas of child development targets, program quality, teacher qualifications, curriculum and instruction. Though guidelines differ from state to state, the majority of states have used K–12 standards as a guide, or built learning guidelines on existing kindergarten standards, though this is not always the case. As a result, what is covered and what is not covered by guidelines and subsequent curricula can be a crapshoot; what preschoolers are actually being taught doesn't always match up.

The growing movement among cities, including Seattle, to provide universal preschool is having an impact on preschool standards. Seattle’s Preschool for All initiative explicitly sets standards for providers to develop and deliver high quality programs and includes funding for professional development, as part of the implementation plan.  

Pre-K science standards 

Not all preschools have a prescribed science program or even use science standards designed for preschool science needs. Since standards are designed to articulate what students are expected to learn, the question becomes what exactly should preschoolers be learning about science and how should they learn it. Though a majority of states have expressed interest, fewer than a dozen states (including Washington) have adopted the K–12 Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which do not include a pre-kindergarten component. Still, with a strong STEM (science, technnology, engineering and math) focus permeating the nation, some states are aligning their pre-K science standards with NGSS, the Common Core or other standards.  

According to Jason Sachs, director of Early Childhood for Boston Public Schools, Massachusetts has very strong pre-K standards that were adopted along with the Common Core. Their science standards, which include earth and space, life and physical sciences, are also in alignment with the Next Generation Science Standards.

New Jersey’s pre-K science standards are in sync with the Common Core. Students focus on inquiry skills, earth science, matter, energy, technology, and other living things.  

Oklahoma is in the middle of adopting pre-K standards that are in alignment with the NGSS, says Rebecca Spinks, science academic coordinator of Tulsa Public Schools. “They are currently under review by our legislature and will hopefully be fully adopted by Fall 2014-2015,” she said. Though it has adopted the NGSS, Washington state has not yet adopted science standards for pre-K, says Molly O’Connor, director of communications for Thrive by Five in Washington.  

Most preschools in the U.S. do not have designated science content standards, according to Kathy Cabe Trundle, department head of STEM education at North Carolina State University, who conducted a 2009 study on the subject. 

Peggy Carlisle, chair of the preschool and elementary committee for the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), believes that the now is the time to focus preschool classrooms on science. Recently the NSTA released a position statement advocating science learning for preschoolers as an important means of laying the foundation For K–12 science education and beyond.    

“We felt that preschool science learning should be a focus in this nation, given that STEM has risen to a high level,” said Carlisle.  “Our thought was, by having a position statement that truly focused on early childhood science education, we could encourage an interest in science, and support preschool teachers and parents when they see their children interested in the world around them.”

In committee discussions, one particular aspect became apparent, Carlisle said. Preschool children must have inquiry-based, hands-on science in order to develop their understanding of science.  

Some teachers, however, worry that imposing science standards on preschool students might inhibit their ability to grow and understand science concepts before they are ready. Nikki Jones is a preschool teacher at Porter Elementary in Tulsa, Okla. She is not a big fan of standardizing science.

“The majority of our focus should be on social and emotional development,” Jones said. “If we start ignoring this, and push academic standards, we may forget that these students are not capable of abstract things that we are asking them to learn.” 

Tom Hobson who authors the Teacher Tom blog and teaches preschool in Seattle, agrees, saying that standardization leads to a “one-size-fits-all way of learning,” which is incompatible with how he believes his students should learn science. “It is much more important for children to develop the habits and skills of exploration and discovery that comes from free play,” said Hobson. 

Inquiry-based early learning science curricula

In preschool learning, play and hands-on learning is a huge component, so inquiry-based science is a natural for these children who are already curious about the world. Kathy Conezio, co-author of the Science Starts curriculum and science advisor for Sesame Street Television, has been working with preschoolers for over 30 years. She's found that allowing preschool children to work through concepts on their own with a longer period of play helps them learn more.

“We did a unit on how things move using cove molding for ramps. Day after day they would build things and figure out what would work and what would not work,” Conezio said. "The longer they had the materials and played with them, the more they learned."

Hobson believes that play or inquiry-based science is “by far the best way for children to learn science.” “Young children are scientists. In fact, it can be argued that free play is the scientific method,” said Hobson. “Free play sparks curiosity, which is the core motivation of all scientific discoveries.”  For example, when children play with water, they are experimenting with the nature of liquids, learning about gravity, physics and chemistry. Then, when they move onto natural aquatic places, they take this learning even deeper and broader.  

While science learning may foster curiosity, it also provides helpful approaches to all learning, says Gera Jacobs, a professor of early childhood and elementary education at University of South Dakota and president of the National Association for the Education of Young Children. “Projects based on science topics provide a wonderful way for children to learn in all curriculum areas. They can read, write and do math related to the topic. They can use art and writing to demonstrate what they are learning,” said Jacobs.

Kathy Conezio agrees, saying that a child’s deep interest in science provides “a natural place for language, literacy and math development.” 

Teaching the teachers

A drawback of deliberately bringing science learning to preschool is that some preschool teachers may not have the confidence to teach science, says Dawn Sparks, a math and science coordinator in Educational Service District (ESD) 105 in Yakima, Wash., and a science teacher for 26 years. One reason for this lack of confidence is that teacher qualifications and training differ from state to state, and so consistent professional training requirements or qualifications don’t exist for teachers.

“A lot of preschool teachers don’t have four-year college degrees, so they don’t have much experience with science and are not comfortable with it,” said Kirsten Nesholm, preschool science coach for Seattle Public Schools. ”Once they have teacher training in science, they feel a lot more comfortable teaching science.” 

In most state-funded preschools or Head Start preschools, parents may find that some teachers have an associate’s degree, while other's have bachelor’s degrees in early childhood education or a related field. Some states also require that preschool workers have a nationally recognized certification, such as a certificate from the Council for Professional Recognition or National Early Childhood Program Accreditation. If preschools are connected with a public school, those preschool teachers must be licensed to teach early childhood education. 

Further, many preschool teachers tend to be more comfortable teaching literacy, rather than science. Sparks addresses this in teacher training by encouraging teachers to think about how they can begin with science concepts and then focus on the literacy components by reading books about science.  

The most necessary aspects for success are teacher preparation programs and professional development that help teachers understand how to have a good inquiry-based science program, says Jacobs. Providing hands-on experiences for teachers will help them be able to provide hands-on experiences for children.  

No matter what is necessary to foster science learning, it means nothing if high quality preschool is not accessible to all children, says Trundle. Because of the diversity in programs, standards, and curriculum, achieving this goal will be difficult.

The first step, says Trundle, is to get kids into good preschools with teachers well-trained to provide quality early childhood education. The next step is to train them in science education. 

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