Teaching and learning activities: Everyday science in the early years

A new research-based series encourages early years educators to take advantage of teaching and learning opportunities in everyday activities to improve young children's scientific knowledge, skills and understanding.

Science in the early years, published by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER), includes four free resources that educators can use to develop children's science inquiry skills and monitor their learning. The step-by-step activities – exploring plants, mixing liquids, floating and sinking, and light and shadows – can also be used by parents whose children are learning at home.

The series was co-authored by ACER Research Fellow Christine Rosicka and ACER Senior Research Fellow Gayl O'Connor. It's aimed at helping preschool and Foundation to Year 2 educators incorporate the latest research into science learning and development into their learning programs.

‘Science isn't just about learning facts, it is a way of thinking and developing skills so that we can understand the world,' Rosicka and O'Connor say. ‘Introducing science in the early years can harness children's curiosity and build on their knowledge of science concepts, which is further developed as they experience the world around them.'

The authors emphasise that science in the early years doesn't have to be daunting for teachers, or students. ‘It need not involve additional work to develop new activities, or money for special or new equipment. Many common activities in early years education, such as painting, classifying, cooking, building and sorting, have a basis in science.' The important thing, they explain, is to highlight and discuss the scientific nature of these activities.

Links, integration and learning from mistakes

The first paper in the series, Early years science and integration, discusses the importance of science in the early years. It illustrates how science relates to broader outcomes in the Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF) and the subject-specific strands of learning in the Australian Curriculum ­­– and links between the two. The paper also explores how integrating science into other aspects of learning can help develop literacy and numeracy skills.

Science inquiry skills are a key aspect of the EYLF and F-2 Australian Curriculum, but the authors say they don't need to be taught in isolation – cleverly integrating science into current teaching programs means that science skills and content can be covered simultaneously.

Research shows that developing the science inquiry skills of observing, predicting, checking, recording and communicating can teach young children that it is acceptable to fail and that learning can come from making mistakes. ‘Young children are more accepting of mistakes and failure and fostering these characteristics from a young age through the experimental nature of science provides opportunities for children to learn from failure,' the paper says. ‘Introducing science activities to young children and allowing them to make mistakes could build their confidence to take risks in their later education. Scientific learning from the early years also supports young children's development of critical thinking skills.'

Supporting and developing early science understandings

Part two of the series, Science inquiry skills, explores how to incorporate science contexts and content in the early years, why science inquiry skills are important, and strategies for developing these skills in young learners.

It highlights research suggesting children have started to reason and think in ways that support science understandings, even before they start kindergarten. Science inquiry skills also describes children as active learners who make meaning from their experience – so it's important to go beyond simply entertaining or amazing them with science, and develop their skills and understanding early on.

The authors say an inquiry-based approach allows children to design and carry out their own investigations, while the strategy ‘observe, predict, check, and record' can be used to scaffold activities. ‘Science at this level should also include activities in which children can experiment to test their ideas, measure, collaborate and communicate.' They add that, whatever the approach, it is important to be consistent so that skills and understanding can be developed across different concepts.

When introducing young learners to science inquiry skills, the paper says teaching should be intentional and explicit (such as modelling questioning and prediction), and help students see themselves as scientists and successful learners.

Finally, the authors remind educators they shouldn't just be focusing on science inquiry skills: ‘… it is also vital that “science content” (topics) and “concepts” (understandings and relationships) are introduced in early years science learning.' The paper shares examples of common topics, such as the classification of living things, and some cautions when introducing the topic to young learners.

Knowing what children can do and understand

In the third paper, Monitoring children's learning, Rosicka and O'Connor explain the importance and value of monitoring young children's science learning, and share developmentally appropriate methods of monitoring.

‘It is important for educators to invest their time in improving their knowledge of what children can do and understand,' the authors say. ‘Evaluating children's science understandings helps educators to plan for the science skills and knowledge that need to be covered.' Educators can use this knowledge to correct misconceptions and adapt future teaching and learning activities to better meet children's needs.

Methods to monitor young children's science skills and knowledge include educators creating ‘learning stories' featuring write ups and photos, using narrative stories and cartoons to inspire discussions, and children creating drawings and models. The paper says monitoring tasks can be incorporated into activities, so that educators can respond to children's actions and discuss their understanding. Keeping portfolios and recordings of discussions and activities has been found to help educators gain a better understanding of a child's abilities.

Monitoring tasks should be linked to early years science learning outcomes and focus only on science skills and knowledge (rather than, for example, numeracy or literacy skills). Educators are reminded that effective tasks provide children with the opportunity to apply the skills they have learnt and show what they know.

Professional development and working together with children

The final instalment in the series, Educator facilitation, focuses on the critical role of educators as facilitators of science learning, strategies for facilitating learning, and how educators can build their own skills and confidence in this area.

Facilitation can include providing active, hands-on learning opportunities, modelling and supporting children's language, or scaffolding their interactions with provided materials – such as use of equipment in a science corner. ‘For example, the proper use of a balance scale might not be obvious to young children. Once they are shown it works there is a greater chance that children will develop a related inquiry skill (observing, describing, comparing, questioning, predicting),' the paper says.

Rosicka and O'Connor emphasise that early years educators aren't expected to know everything across all science topics, and instead should be open to working together with children to help make connections and find answers collaboratively. On the topic of professional learning, they say educators should be supported by both pre-service and in-service professional development programs, while centre-based or school-based learning opportunities is another strategy to consider.

All four papers in the series and accompanying learning activities are available to download at https://research.acer.edu.au/earlyyearsscience/

Stay tuned: Teacher will be speaking with one of the authors, Gayl O'Connor, for an upcoming podcast episode to further explore the power of integrating science into the early years and how educators can engage children in meaningful science activities and discussions.

References and related reading

O'Connor, G., & Rosicka, C. (2020). Science in the early years. Paper 2: Science inquiry skills. Australian Council for Educational Research.

O'Connor, G., & Rosicka, C. (2020). Science in the early years. Paper 4 Educator facilitation. Australian Council for Educational Research.

Rosicka, C., & O'Connor, G. (2020). Science in the early years. Paper 1: Early years science and integration. Australian Council for Educational Research.

Rosicka, C., & O'Connor, G. (2020). Science in the early years. Paper 3: Monitoring children's learning. Australian Council for Educational Research.

The authors of this series say ‘it is important for educators to invest their time in improving their knowledge of what children can do and understand’. As an early years educator: What strategies do you use to monitor children’s science understanding? Do you use the knowledge you’ve gained to discuss and correct any misconceptions with young learners? How does you knowledge of what children can do and understand inform your future planning?