In preschool classrooms around the world, children build structures with blocks, knock them over, and start again. In Cindy Hoisington’s Head Start classroom in Roslindale, Massachusetts, children also build with blocks. But before they get the pleasure of watching their structures tumble, her students are documenting what they’ve built. Sometimes they photograph the structures; sometimes they draw them with paper and pen; and sometimes they create small-scale replicas of their large structures with foam blocks and glue.
“The point is to get the kids to look at their buildings through a scientific lens, to consider the scientific properties of their structures,” explains Hoisington. “The pictures provide us with a visual way to reflect back. So we’ve been asking questions like, how come this tower stands up and the one you made before didn’t? Which way do you place the blocks to make the structure stable? How many cylinders have you used in this structure? How many in that? What would happen if we tried to build this with foam blocks instead of wood?”
Hoisington and her students are undertaking this scientific exploration as part of a unique curriculum development project known as the Tool Kit for Early Childhood Science Education. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the Tool Kit project brings preschool teachers together with educators at EDC to develop a full set of quality science materials for preschool classrooms. At the end of the four-year project, the staff will also draft a set of national standards for preschool science education.
The new curriculum and standards will fill a significant void in the field, as quality science instruction in preschools is virtually nonexistent. “Traditionally, preschool teachers emphasize language development and social growth, so science hasn’t played a big role in the curriculum,” explains project co-director Karen Worth. But she believes that both language and social development advance more quickly when children are intellectually engaged with the world around them. “Children have a natural spontaneous curiosity that drives them to investigate,” she says. “They need to exploreand that need doesn’t begin at age 6 when they enter kindergarten.”
But what kind of scientific understanding are very young children really capable of? In order to answer that question, the Tool Kit team began its research in the classroom itself. “We brought together a group of preschool teachers—five strong, thoughtful teachers from around the countryto introduce a philosophy of inquiry-based science teaching as well as some quality science materials,” explains project co-director Ingrid Chalufour. “Now the teachers are back in the classroom working with these materials and observing very carefully what the children do with them and what depth of inquiry they can reach.”
Over the course of this year, the teachers will conduct three science units with their studentsthe first involving structures, the second water, and the third a life science. The project staff chose these areas of focus because they represent major scientific disciplines and because they employ materials that are familiar and available in virtually all preschool classroomsblocks, a water table, and plants or animals. The teachers’ careful observation of their students’ interaction with these activities will inform the development of the curriculum materials and the new standards.
The initial results from the unit on structures are promising, as teachers develop interesting strategies for engaging their students with important scientific concepts like gravity and balance. “I visited classrooms where for an hour, children would be building structures, drawing pictures of them, explaining their work,” Chalufour says. “I observed one group of girls who had constructed cubes out of straws and connectors and then built towers with them. They went on to draw pictures of their structures with the correct number of straws represented. This is the depth of work that teachers rarely see in preschool classrooms.”
In other activities children have used blocks to explore basic geometric properties by looking at how the differently shaped pieces fit together. They record their findings on clipboards that they carry with them throughout the unit. “In these activities students are developing scientific ways of thinking that involve investigating, documenting, and sharing ideasways of thinking that are useful at all ages and in all academic disciplines,” Worth says.
In addition, teachers are recognizing some exciting changes in their classroom dynamics. They report that the children are more successful with collaboration and group work, and are more willing to ask and answer questions. And the children’s communication skills have improved as they use language and visual representation to describe their work.
Though most young children seem immediately comfortable in an environment of observation and exploration, many of their teachers are not. “Even accomplished preschool teachers can be nervous about teaching science because they don’t come to the classroom with that kind of expertise,” explains Chalufour. In addition, she feels that many teachers need to enhance their skills in the kind of careful observation and communication with children that effective inquiry-based science instruction requires.
“This sort of instruction involves talking to children and helping them communicate what they are learning,” Worth explains. “Meaningful scientific investigation happens when teachers play an active role in the student’s worknot a didactic role, but a questioning role. Instead of saying ‘Does anyone know why that fell over? Well, I’ll tell you.’ They say, ‘I wonder how you can get that to balance?’”
What the staff hopes will emerge from this development phase of the project is a set of classroom materials that are prescriptive enough to guide teachers in the new territory of scientific inquiry and careful observation of student work, yet open-ended enough for teachers to take the lessons in the many different directions their students’ inquiries will lead them. “We see this as both a professional development curriculum and a classroom curriculum,” says Worth. “Our materials will guide teachers in the practice of observing students closely and building the lessons around those observations. We hope that the teachers themselves will grow professionally by using this.”
Originally published on July 31, 2000