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How young children learn science

January 01, 2016

This Knowledge Base article was written collaboratively with contributions from Amy Grack Nelson, Kevin Crowley, Scott Pattison, Elsa Bailey and CAISE Admin. This article was migrated from a previous version of the Knowledge Base. The date stamp does not reflect the original publication date.

Overview 

This article addresses science learning of early childhood and preschool children in informal and free-choice learning environments, such as museums and science centers, with a focus on the everyday interactions of these children five years and younger with parents and family members.  

Findings from Research and Evaluation 

Research over the last 50 years has fundamentally changed how educators and scientists understand the cognitive abilities of young children (Institute of Medicine & National Research Council, 2012; National Research Council, 2000a, 2000b, 2009). It is now broadly recognized that preschool children have well-developed theories about the natural and social worlds and that even at a very young age, these children are capable of complex, scientific reasoning (Cook, Goodman, & Schulz, 2011; Klahr, Zimmerman, & Jirout, 2011; National Research Council, 2000a, 2000b, 2009; National Science Teachers Association, 2009). Most importantly, even before entering school, young children demonstrate motivation, curiosity, and an intense drive to explore, learn, and control their environments (Klahr et al., 2011; National Research Council, 2000a, 2000b). In short, young children are active and native science learners who, with the encouragement and support from adults, will eagerly explore, experiment with, and learn about the natural, physical, and social world around them (National Research Council, 2001).

Young children think like scientists in many ways. The Next Generation Science Standards (http://www.nextgenscience.org) outline eight practices that resonate with how young children learn about and engage in:

  • Asking questions (for science) and defining problems (for engineering)

  • Developing and using models

  • Planning and carrying out investigations

  • Analyzing and interpreting data

  • Using mathematics and computational thinking

  • Constructing explanations (for science) and designing solutions (for engineering)

  • Engaging in argument from evidence

  • Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information

Research suggests that “The actual doing of science or engineering can also pique students’ curiosity, capture their interest, and motivate their continued study; the insights thus gained help them recognize that the work of scientists and engineers is a creative endeavor—one that has deeply affected the world they live in” (National Research Council, 2012).

Not only are young children capable of engaging with science in the early years, but researchers have consistently documented how children regularly learn about and engage with science throughout their lives (Duschl, Schweingruber, Shouse, & National Research Council, 2007; Institute of Medicine & National Research Council, 2012; National Research Council, 2000a, 2000b, 2009). Important contexts for early childhood science learning include:

  • Everyday settings, such as talking with parents or exploring the natural world (e.g., Callanan & Oakes, 1992; Callanan, Siegel, & Luce, 2007; Tenenbaum & Callanan, 2008; Tenenbaum & Leaper, 2003);

  • Designed informal learning environments, such as visiting a children’s museum or science center (e.g., Callanan & Braswell, 2006; Crowley, Callanan, Jipson, et al., 2001; e.g., Fender & Crowley, 2007; Rigney & Callanan, 2011); and

  • Formal education institutions, such as preschool (e.g., Ritz, 2007).

Through these experiences, children develop science-related interests (Alexander, Johnson, & Kelley, 2012; Pattison, 2014), gain knowledge of science topics and activities (Crowley & Jacobs, 2002; Fender & Crowley, 2007), and practice science skills and the use of scientific tools and language (Callanan et al., 2007; Rigney & Callanan, 2011). Emerging evidence suggests that these early learning outcomes can have long-term implications for children once they enter school and may form the foundation of differences in science engagement and participation across genders (Alexander et al., 2012; Alexander, Johnson, & Leibham, 2013; Alexander, Johnson, Leibham, & Kelley, 2008; Crowley, Callanan, Tenenbaum, & Allen, 2001; DeLoache, Simcock, & Macari, 2007; Johnson, Alexander, Spencer, Leibham, & Neitzel, 2004; Leibham, Alexander, & Johnson, 2013; Neitzel, Alexander, & Johnson, 2008)

Directions for Future Research 

Further Reading

Duschl, R. A., Schweingruber, H. A., Shouse, A. W., & National Research Council (Eds.). (2007). Taking science to school: Learning and teaching science in grades K-8. Washington, DC: National Academies Press. (http://www.nap.edu/catalog/11625/taking-science-to-school-learning-and-teaching-science-in-grades)

Institute of Medicine & National Research Council. (2012). From neurons to neighborhoods: An update: Workshop summary. Washington, D.C: National Academies Press. (http://www.nap.edu/catalog/13119/from-neurons-to-neighborhoods-an-update-workshop-summary)

National Research Council. (2000). From neurons to neighborhoods: The science of early child development. Washington, DC: National Academy Press. (http://www.nap.edu/catalog/9824/from-neurons-to-neighborhoods-the-science-of-early-childhood-development)

NGSS Lead States. (2013). Next generation science standards: For states, by states. Washington, DC: National Academies Press. (http://www.nextgenscience.org/next-generation-science-standards)

References 

Alexander, J. M., Johnson, K. E., & Kelley, K. (2012). Longitudinal analysis of the relations between opportunities to learn about science and the development of interests related to science. Science Education, 96(5), 763–786. http://doi.org/10.1002/sce.21018

Alexander, J. M., Johnson, K. E., & Leibham, M. E. (2013). Emerging individual interest related to science in young children.

Alexander, J. M., Johnson, K. E., Leibham, M. E., & Kelley, K. (2008). The development of conceptual interests in young children. Cognitive Development, 23(2), 324–334. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.cogdev.2007.11.004

Brenneman, K. (2011). Assessment for preschool science learning and learning environments. Early Childhood Research and Practice, 13(1). Retrieved from http://ecrp.uiuc.edu/v13n1/brenneman.html

Callanan, M. A., & Braswell, G. (2006). Parent-child conversations about science and literacy: Links between formal and informal learning. In Z. Bekerman, N. C. Burbules, & D. Silberman-Keller (Eds.), Learning in places: The informal education reader (pp. 123–137). New York: Peter Lang.

Callanan, M. A., & Oakes, L. M. (1992). Preschoolers’ questions and parents’ explanations: Causal thinking in everyday activity. Cognitive Development, 7(2), 213–233. http://doi.org/10.1016/0885-2014(92)90012-G

Callanan, M. A., Siegel, D. R., & Luce, M. R. (2007). Conventionality in family conversations about everyday objects. New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development, 2007(115), 83–97. http://doi.org/10.1002/cd.184

Cook, C., Goodman, N. D., & Schulz, L. E. (2011). Where science starts: Spontaneous experiments in preschoolers’ exploratory play. Cognition, 120(3), 341–349. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2011.03.003

Crowley, K. D., Callanan, M. A., Jipson, J. L., Galco, J., Topping, K., & Shrager, J. (2001). Shared scientific thinking in everyday parent-child activity. Science Education, 85(6), 712–732. http://doi.org/10.1002/sce.1035

Crowley, K. D., Callanan, M. A., Tenenbaum, H. R., & Allen, E. (2001). Parents explain more often to boys than to girls during shared scientific thinking. Psychological Science, 12(3), 258–261. http://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9280.00347

Crowley, K. D., & Jacobs, M. (2002). Building islands of expertise in everyday family activity. In G. Leinhardt, K. Crowley, & K. Knutson (Eds.), Learning conversations in museums (pp. 333–356). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

DeLoache, J. S., Simcock, G., & Macari, S. (2007). Planes, trains, automobiles-and tea sets: Extremely intense interests in very young children. Developmental Psychology, 43(6), 1579–1586. http://doi.org/10.1037/0012-1649.43.6.1579

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Fender, J. G., & Crowley, K. D. (2007). How parent explanation changes what children learn from everyday scientific thinking. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 28(3), 189–210. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.appdev.2007.02.007

Fisher, P. H., Dobbs-Oates, J., Doctoroff, G. L., & Arnold, D. H. (2012). Early math interest and the development of math skills. Journal of Educational Psychology, 104(3), 673–681. http://doi.org/10.1037/a0027756

Institute of Medicine, & National Research Council. (2012). From neurons to neighborhoods: An update: Workshop summary. Washington, D.C: National Academies Press.

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National Research Council. (2009). Learning science in informal environments: People, places, and pursuits. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

National Research Council. (2012). A framework for K-12 science education: practices, crosscutting concepts, and core ideas. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

National Science Teachers Association. (2009). NSTA position statement: Parent involvement in science learning. Retrieved from http://www.nsta.org/pdfs/PositionStatement_ParentInvolvement.pdf

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