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A Gentle Reminder About Science

When it comes to teaching science, early childhood educators have tremendous impact and influence on shaping the thoughts and opinions of children. Research shows that most children have formed an opinion (either positive or negative) about science by the time they reach the age of 7. That puts a tremendous amount of responsibility on early childhood professionals… – Steve Spangler

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Why incorporating science in the preschool day is important, and why it’s a struggle for many early childhood teachers.


When it comes to teaching science, early childhood educators have tremendous impact and influence on shaping the thoughts and opinions of children. Research shows that most children have formed an opinion (either positive or negative) about science by the time they reach the age of 7. That puts a tremendous amount of responsibility on early childhood professionals… – Steve Spangler

We all know that science is important.

But it doesn’t always get the attention it deserves.

  • A US study [1] published in August, 2017 looked at 67 Head Start classrooms for children ages three to five. The study found that while 99 percent of preschool teachers engaged in literacy instruction three to four times a week, only 42 percent engaged with science that often.
  • Another study [2] found that preschool teachers devoted only 4%-8% of their instructional time to ‘promoting science experiences’.
  • According to this study [3], elementary teachers spend just 6% to 13% of their instructional time teaching science.

While the focus on science will vary from country-to-country, centre-to-centre and teacher-to-teacher, it’s common to find science playing second fiddle to other teacher-led experiences in early childhood centres.

It probably shouldn’t…

Why Early Childhood Science Education is So Important

Early childhood is a time when children begin to develop knowledge and skills for engaging in science. Young children have the capacity to engage in and learn from scientific thinking. They are naturally curious about the world around them and have often been referred to as natural scientists because of their tendency to seek out and integrate information. Although children pursue information in ways similar to scientists, teaching and engagement in scientific reasoning and processes are necessary to further cultivate children’s thinking about science.

Preschool science education provides critical opportunities to augment children’s curiosity about the world while helping them acquire tools for developing nascent reasoning skills. Early experience with science may help children avoid misconceptions about the world that inhibit science understanding and reasoning later in their education. In fact, children who engage in teacher-guided scientific exploration in early childhood have a better understanding of science concepts later in life. Perhaps most important, early experiences with science are helpful in fostering positive attitudes about science in all areas. Clearly early childhood is an opportune time for teachers to engage learners in science. – [1]

Cast our eyes around the internet and it’s easy to find explanations for why science benefits children at preschool level.

  1. Science responds to children’s need to learn about the world around them. Science is everywhere. Children are keen scientists (and love it). Science responds to their interests, disruptive behaviour diminishes and cooperation increases.
  2. Science involves children in their learning. Hands-on science is all about getting involved, asking questions and having discussions. Children’s interests become evident and can be used to guide further progress.
  3. Hands-on science activities engage all the senses: touching, observing, smelling, tasting, listening, talking.
  4. Science experiments develop fine and gross motor skills.
  5. Science provides a rich knowledge base for other learning areas: literacy, numeracy, language.
  6. Science and the scientific process help develop life skills:
    • Communication
    • Critical thinking
    • Working together
    • Problem solving; trial and error
    • Predicting and describing
    • Teamwork
    • Cooperation
    • Patience and perseverance
    • Scepticism

It’s a consistent message:

  • science is important in early childhood,
  • science is very beneficial for children, and
  • children (through play) are natural and willing scientists.

Yet, science seems to take a back seat…

So, Why Aren’t Teachers Doing More?

One explanation for the under-representation of science in early childhood is offered by the research in [1] below. That suggests the biggest factor is teacher self-efficacy.

A teacher’s self-efficacy is defined as “their perceived capacity to effectively educate children”. According to the research, teachers need to feel confident in their own ability before they can feel confident in teaching specific content.

It’s not what the teachers know, but what they feel they know.

The research concludes that many teachers do not feel they have the knowledge necessary to effectively engage with science, and some may even have negative feelings toward science originating from their own schooling.

If we are to improve U.S. children’s science learning, we must provide quality opportunities, in teacher education programs and professional development offerings, for early childhood teachers to develop knowledge and skills in science. [1].

Of course, there can be other explanations too; like pressure from families and centre leaders to focus on literacy or numeracy, or possibly teachers seeing science as something separate from (and secondary to) from their main curriculum: to be incorporated when and if time permits.

Whatever the reason, science does not have the profile it deserves.

The answer seems to lie with more focus on science, more encouragement for teachers and more science professional development.

The development of high self-efficacy and high instructional support in the area of science is vital for supporting quality science environments and practices in early childhood classrooms and thus cannot continue to be ignored as part of preservice and in-service development and education programs for early childhood educators. [1]

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