Supporting children to express their scientific discoveries

Finding out children’s ideas is an important step towards helping them to make progress. Techniques for enabling them to express ideas can take a variety of forms, limited only by our imagination and creativity as educators. Encouraging children to represent their ideas in the form of, for example, pictures, speech, movement, 3-D models and using mathematical tools helps them to reveal different aspects of their understanding.

Some of the many ways in which the early expression of science ideas can be supported has emerged from collaborative research with teachers and practitioners across a range of early years settings. The approach has been to start with the holistic practices of the early years and to find creative ways to explore the earliest foundations of scientific thinking within the more general, cross-curricular agenda of meeting the needs of the whole child. The direct experiences in handling and observing real objects, familiar in early years settings, provide great opportunities for supporting the expression of understandings.

Drawing of an aphid influenced by ideas about human feelings
Drawing of an aphid influenced by ideas about human feelings

The child in figure 1 has collected leaves outdoors. As he handles and sorts the leaves, an aphid arouses his interest. His teacher asks him to draw the bug to show what it looks like. His drawing shows an aphid with a smiley face. Children’s drawings might be influenced by imagination and feelings. On the other hand, they can provide a record of something that the child experiences in the real world. Both are valued.

It’s important for the practitioner to be clear about what is expected. In this instance, the teacher’s gentle questioning of the drawing is designed to encourage careful observation and the creation of an accurate observational record. ‘Can you draw how it looks?’ ‘Is your drawing just the same as your bug?’

Children’s attempts to show their ideas in the form of drawings help to reduce ambiguity and extend understanding by helping to bring aspects of objects to children’s awareness. Drawings may be annotated with some descriptive words that provide a further insight into children’s ideas.

While drawings based on observation of real objects are important, photos, soft toys and 3-D models of living things can provide additional information or unique access that would not otherwise be available.  Using this range of information sources, agreed features can be discussed and brought together in an amalgamated drawing.

Making a 'home' for a snail
Making a 'home' for a snail

Making their own 3-D models can be thought of as an extension of children’s drawn representations. A model allows the whole of the object to be available for discussion. The essential attributes to be included in the model and the relative position and size of different features can be made explicit. Early years experiences are likely to focus on observing animals, considering what they look like, how they move, what they need to live and how they might be cared for.  Developing an understand­ing of and respect for animals is an important part of the early years curriculum.

Fig 2 shows a child (36 months) making a ‘home’ for a snail she has found in the nursery garden.  The child reveals assumptions about the conditions that snails need in order to live as she constructs a ‘home’ for it.  She explains her reasons for each of the materials she wants to use to her teacher. ‘Plant pots to keep the rain and wind out.’ ‘Grass for food’. ‘A bottle top filled with water because the snail will be thirsty and like a drink’. The holes in the plant pot allow her to look inside to ‘see the snail is happy’.  She shows an understanding that the snail will need food and water to live.  Using words like ‘thirsty’ ‘hungry’ and ‘happy’ reveals how she draws on her own experiences to explain the snail’s needs.

Creating imaginary creatures to show ideas about parents and offspring
Creating imaginary creatures to show ideas about parents and offspring

Making 3-D models may reveal insights that may not emerge in other modes. Year 2 children, aged 6 and 7 years, were introduced to the resemblances between parent animals and their offspring through fictional stories. They were then invited to create for themselves imaginary parent pets and then to make offspring as they imagined they might look.

The art materials used in the models in Figure 3 engaged their interest and helped them to show in an imaginative way the size, shape and colour of their imaginary creatures along with specific features that they thought would be present in the offspring. Many children represented the parents as alike and the offspring as identical to the adults, only smaller.  A few children showed an awareness of similarities and differences between parents and offspring and suggested they could get features from either ‘mum’ or ‘dad’.

 Making a living chart to show differences between sunflower seedlings

Making a living chart to show differences between sunflower seedlings

Growing plants is a common experience in early years, offering opportunities for children to care for and explore the needs of plants. Practitioners in our research found that many early years children believed all plants of the same kind would grow to the same height and have the same number of leaves etc.

Children in the 3-7 year age range were encouraged to use observation and measurement to compare plants of the same kind. They took photographs and made drawings to show some of the differences they observed. They quantified differences by measuring height, root length or by counting leaves.

In one reception class, children ordered the collection of sunflower seedlings according to height. One or two of the children realised that some seedlings were the same height and tried to put them in groups (Figure 4). These attempts at grouping seedlings began to resemble the columns in a chart. Other children in the class were encouraged to compare the heights of the seedlings and place their own seedling in the ‘living’ chart. Their conversations resulted in moving some of the plants around until they were satisfied all plants of the same height were in the correct columns.

Children showed awareness of the tallest and smallest plants. One child curled up his body to re-enact the emergence of a seedling from the soil. Several used their fingers to draw in the air the outline shape of the curve in the chart.

Whilst acknowledging the importance of language for learning, other significant modes of expression are no less important as modes of expression. Used singly or in combination, the creative and imaginative encouragement of a variety of communicative modes in early years environments can help to reveal and develop children’s foundational science understandings.

The research and practical ideas in this blog are explored further in ‘Exploring science with young children: A developmental perspective’ Terry Russell and Linda McGuigan Pub. March 2016

 Linda McGuigan

Linda McGuigan

Dr Linda McGuigan, Honorary Senior Research Fellow and Independent Consultant - Centre for Lifetime Learning, University of Liverpool

References

Image credits: Linda McGuigan