For more than 40 years, Ingrid Chalufour has reached out to young children and their families in a variety of early childhood settings. She began teaching as a VISTA volunteer, opening a kindergarten for the children of Mexican immigrants in Brownsville, Texas. In Maine, she drove a bus through rural communities to bring a morning of structured preschool to children who had few options. “I learned that even half a day a week can make a difference in the life of a child,” she says.
Chalufour later worked with language-delayed children and their families through Maine’s early intervention program. She taught Head Start in Lowell, Massachusetts, and eventually became director of education for Associated Daycare Services in Boston. In 1990, EDC recruited her to work on a Head Start training program, and since then she has been central to many early education initiatives here, including the Young Scientist series and its companion course for teachers, Foundations of Science Literacy.
While science education has recently made its way back to the top of the national agenda, educators at EDC have always made it a priority. Ingrid Chalufour and her colleagues have been bringing quality science instruction to the country’s youngest and least-advantaged learners—preschool students in Head Start programs and child-care centers.
Why introduce science at such a young age?
Young children are naturally curious about the world around them, and they love to theorize about it. Their minds are already on a scientific track, so why not maximize the opportunity? It is particularly important to start early with less-advantaged children because they fall behind so quickly.
What’s different about your approach to preschool science?
Traditional preschool science lessons tend to be one-shot activities. Typically, a teacher does a science experiment and the children watch. Too often, the experiment looks more like a magic trick. Our approach, developed in the Young Scientist series, is active and unfolds over time. It is inquiry-based and focuses on developing children’s conceptual understanding of science. We teach children to ask questions and use evidence.
Can young children really understand scientific concepts?
Absolutely. Research is showing that young children are capable of abstract and conceptual thinking, though most early childhood teachers haven’t been trained to teach to that yet.
Describe a good preschool science lesson.
We’ve found that taking a narrow slice of content and going deep is more effective with children than covering many different topics. For example, our Discovering Nature unit begins with children going outdoors to learn about nature in the context of their own environment. They might be looking at grass growing between cracks in the sidewalk, but they will likely find some ants or worms there, too. They collect a variety of plants and animals from their neighborhood and make a temporary home for them in their classrooms, where they have many opportunities to study them. They can look at them closely with magnifying glasses, draw them, and read about them. The children study these living things in their classrooms, but ultimately they return them to their natural habitat. We instill in them a respect for living things as well as teaching them science.
What are the barriers to quality science instruction in preschool?
Teaching science can be a stretch for preschool teachers because many do not have a background in science. In fact, many are uncomfortable teaching science. We also find that even those who know some science have trouble designing appropriate experiences for young children.
How do you help teachers enhance their science knowledge?
We developed a college course called Foundations of Science Literacy, which provides in-depth professional development in science. The course combines classroom teaching about fundamental science concepts with intense mentoring, so teachers get support in bringing what they learn to their classrooms. Engaging teachers with the science is essential to our approach. We recently received a grant from the U.S. Department of Education to test the impact of the course with Head Start teachers in New York State.
Is interest in preschool science growing?
Yes. We have come through a period where early childhood education was focused almost exclusively on literacy and math at the expense of science. But we’ve found that good science instruction integrates many skills. In science, children learn to carefully observe and record what they see. When they draw how water flows through a tube, for example, or what a worm looks like, they are developing the kind of symbolic representation that precedes writing.
Science also provides great opportunities for vocabulary development, which we know is critical to school success. When children are learning about the world around them, they are motivated to express themselves—to talk, read, and write. We emphasize inquiry—the process of asking questions and testing answers. One of the most valuable things children get out of in-depth science investigations is an understanding of how to learn.
Originally published on April 17, 2009