They didn’t even know they were doing science

Some of the best science educators I ever met were preschool teachers. Some of the most natural scientists I ever met, where a group of two year-olds. I learned more from those teachers and children about how to teach science than I did from my entire PhD program in education [1]. 

There’s a story I like to tell about how I was humbled by a group of toddlers. My son attended what my husband and I called the “hippy daycare.” This was a child development center attached to the University of Oregon where I am an employee, and at the time, my husband was a student. The daycare follows the Regio Emilia [2] philosophy of early childhood development.  What this means functionally is that the kids spend a lot of time working on long term projects, mostly art focused projects, based in children’s interests.  

The early upshot of this was lots and lots of brown paintings. It turns out, small children do not like to limit themselves to one color at a time on their brushes. I became very adept at discerning yellow-based browns from red-based browns from blue-based browns. One project I witnessed involved 8 crawling infants gleefully rummaging  through a full a three foot wide pile of semi-shredded paper. It made sense in context. 

One of the things that the teachers at my son’s school [3] would often lament was their lack of expertise in science. I heartily disagree. This is the story that I think best encapsulates just how good they were at science.

Image Credit: B. Todd

Image Credit: B. Todd

One morning as I was dropping off my son in the wobbler room (1 ½-2 ½ year-olds) another one of the children, I’ll call him Ned, brought a leave to one of the teachers. It had fallen off of a sort of succulent plant that had thick waxy leaves. He wanted to know if it could be put back on.

Now if Ned had brought the leaf to me, I would have kindly said that, “No, the leaf can’t go back on. But the plant will be OK. Let’s put this in the trash.” 

The teacher did not say that. The teacher said, “I don’t know, what do you think?”

In a matter of moments, Ned had the children circled up around the plant brainstorming. Kids being dropped off rapidly abandoned their parents to join the session. I stood back and watched, intrigued. Each child offered a suggestion. After several had been offered the teacher had the children assess each suggestion. My son, who was at the time obsessed with construction and a plastic toy hammer he used on EVERYTHING, helpfully suggested, “AMMA! AMMA!”

“What do we think about hammering the leaf on?”

After a brief scrunch faced moment, he agreed that maybe hammering the tree would not be a good idea and joined the growing contingent in favor of taping the leave back on to the tree. 

Mind you, these kids were mostly under two years old and didn’t have many words, but they had some sign language and a long history together. The communication was surprisingly effective and the teachers never gave answers, always putting it back to the kids to problem solve and decide on a course of action.

Over the course of three days the children tried multiple types of tape, glue, and putty. They rummaged through the classroom supplies to find potential adhesives, worked together to get the leaf back on the plant stalk, and then waited to observe each attempt. Checking in multiple times daily to see if there was any progress. Near the end of the third day they circled up again. Out of tape and glue, the teachers asked the children what they wanted to do next. Ned took the leaf, stuck it into the soil in the pot and returned to the group. “What do we think about putting the leaf in the dirt?”  With a collective shrug and a few words the group agreed that it was, “good enough.”

Let me break this down, science style. 

1)   Generate a question – How can we put the leaf back on the plant?

2)   Investigate – The children examined the leaf, the plant, and the resources at hand.

3)   Hypothesize – Attaching the leaf back to the plant might permit the leaf to continue to live and grow.

4)   Plan – The children brains-stormed techniques and selected a set of approaches to test (glue and tape)

5)   Test – They tried each approach in succession and collected data

6)   Analyze – They looked at the results, determined that their approaches had failed and developed an alternative.

7)   Share – Teachers and students took photographs, made drawings, and added the story to their journey books.

A perfect science project, complete with failure and revision! Instead of simply being told the leaf was dead, they designed, tested, and confirmed that there was no available method for reattaching it to the plant. I really can’t think of a more elegant experiment or learning device.

The teachers led this activity with care and thought. Instead of rushing in and giving answers, they gave their students tools and prompts to help them through a largely self-guided inquiry. The kids weren’t left wondering why the leaf had to be discarded. They proved empirically that there was no method at hand for saving it. This experiment had ripple effects in the room. The children took more care with the plants, but also were pragmatic when leaves occasionally fell off. Eventually, after the leaf shriveled up in the pot, they took it out and discarded it. They knew from observation, however, that the plant would be OK if it lost a few leaves. 

I love this story. Over the years he was there, my sons teachers often asked me to visit the room to present science activities. I was happy to do it when time permitted. After all, I had access to microscopes and a few other cool instruments they didn’t have in the classroom. When I would visit, they would often lament that they weren’t more competent at leading science and every time, I laughed and assured them, they were setting their students up perfectly to be little scientists. 

After working with my son and his classmates during his preschool years, I’ve come to the conclusion that very young children are natural scientists. They ask questions about everything and rarely accept easy answers. They want to see, smell, touch, and hear WHY the world works the way it does and are only satisfied when they can try things themselves [4]. They are surprisingly, delightfully, skeptical when it comes to natural phenomena. As they learn new things they start making connections to their lives and seek out more information. Though it is true, sometimes they just want to run around and shriek a lot.

There was a dark side to this discovery for me. We know from research, and I’ve seen it myself, by the time these children hit middle school, their attitudes toward science have typically changed dramatically. While they all enjoy a good science show with fire and fizzy chemicals, very few of them enjoy science class or look forward to learning science. The interest drop in STEM at this age is dramatic and disturbing. Not just because we aren’t doing enough to foster a love of science in children, but because along the way, we are actively removingtheir natural joy and facility for scientific investigation. Thatis a sobering thought.


[1] To be fair my grad program wasn’t tryingto teach us how to teach anything. They were making us into researchers, primarily quantitative researchers.

[2] You’ve probably heard of Waldorf and Montessori, well Regio Emilia is the Luke Hemsworth of early childhood ed. Talented and handsome, but less famous than Chris and Liam.

[3] We never really called it “daycare” because it didn’t seem like just place to house kids during the day. It was a place of learning.

[4] Not great when you’re trying to keep them from touching hot/sharp things, but excellent for learning.