At first glance, Jane Parfitt’s pre-K classroom at the Highland Park Child Care Center in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, looks like any good preschool classroom. There’s the writing center and book corner, the dramatic play area, the blocks, easels, and cubbies. There’s the alphabet strung on the wall, along with quilts and family pictures.
But look closer and you’ll notice something unexpected: Around the room are images of the preschoolers doing science. One poster features Parfitt’s students building elaborate ramps with rolling balls. Their engineer-style drawings depict the structures with notations on the speed the balls travel. Another poster displays hand-drawn diagrams of the life cycle of a sunflower, along with photographs of the children planting seeds in the school garden. A third depicts children engaged at the water table, deploying tubes, pumps, and turkey basters to investigate the effect of air pressure on water flow.
Thanks to Parfitt, these students have become expert observers, questioners, and recorders.
They document what they learn and share it with others. In other words, they behave like scientists.
Parfitt is cultivating scientific habits of mind among her little five year olds, something few preschool teachers today know how to do. But just as she has long understood the importance of starting early with literacy and numeracy, she now sees the potential of starting early in science too.
But most preschool teachers simply don’t know enough about science to teach it well. “In the past, the assumption was that preschool teachers didn’t need content knowledge,” says Joanne Brady, director of EDC’s Center for Children & Families. “Well, we disagree. We think science literacy is critical among teachers. A serious investment in children requires a serious investment in teachers.”
Parfitt is a student of EDC’s Foundations of Science Literacy, a college-level science course for preschool teachers. She is learning how to make important concepts in the physical sciences accessible and fun for preschoolers. “With their innate curiosity about the world around them, young children are eager to engage in science inquiry,” explains Ingrid Chalufour, lead developer of Foundations.
Parfitt welcomed the opportunity to shore up her knowledge of the physical sciences. And after more than 20 years in preschool classrooms, she finds that Foundations has reinvigorated her teaching and expanded it in new directions.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve been a science student,” says Parfitt. “So I really appreciated learning more about some of the science concepts behind what we see going on all around us. I have a better understanding of those concepts now, and I have a better idea of how to teach them to children.” She adds, “We were so excited to get new ideas for how to use the balls and ramps and the water table with the children.”
Parfitt has also noticed a change in her students. “They are more focused, and they notice more,” she says. “We hear a lot of experimenting and ‘Look at this!’ They know I might ask them to draw what they are seeing, so they pay close attention and look for significance. They are becoming very keen observers.”
Brady sees the course as an important step in the national effort to close the achievement gap in science: “Teachers need content knowledge about the physical sciences so they can begin to learn how best to teach that content to preschoolers—and the most disenfranchised students are the most critical to reach early.”
Originally published on May 15, 2007