Q&A From: Early Childhood Science Inquiry is a Journey (Not a Series of Unrelated Activities): Learning from the Research, by Peggy Ashbrook

Peggy Ashbrook and books for blog

Q&A from, Early Childhood Science Inquiry is a Journey (Not a Series of Unrelated Activities): Learning from the Research, by Peggy Ashbrook

We were fortunate to have Peggy Ashbrook present a webinar  about,  Early Childhood Science Inquiry on July 27, 2016. Many of the participants had questions that we were unable to ask Peggy.  She  was kind enough to answer them and they are posted below.  Here is a link to the recording: Early Childhood Science Inquiry is a Journey (Not a Series of Unrelated Activities): Learning from the Research.


Q.1. Sarah asked:  Is it possible for a list of items to be gathered for Science in an ECE classroom could be given to us?

A.1. The kinds of materials you use will depend on what your children are exploring—planting seeds and learning about plant growth? –Rolling objects on ramps to explore motion?

If you just need a very basic beginning set of materials, here is what I suggested for a family home childcare provider:

Magnifiers, 5.

Clear “bug” viewer boxes

A book to look at, read and discuss with children of different ages—1 copy of either What is a Scientist?


1 copy of Nature Spy

Both of these books have photographs of children engaged in science explorations that don’t need a lot of text.

I would also add a set of red, yellow and blue liquid watercolor paints but they aren’t typically sold singly, you have to buy a whole set of additional colors that aren’t part of a color mixing activity. Maybe a set of markers for each instead.

I would love to have each participant take home a set of blocks…

Here are a few more ideas from others:

A scale, perhaps a gram scale
Bug containers, maybe with magnifying lids
Bean seeds and little cups for planting them
A stop watch. Maybe a kitchen timer.


Q.2. Jeanette:  Love the storage area! Treasures abound!

A.2. Stuff will expand to fill the space provided!


Q.3. Jodie noted:  I know about the Next Generation Science Standards, and I’ve read them, but we don’t use them here in Australia 🙂

A.3. Yes, each nation has different standards for science education. Early Childhood standards also vary from state to state and from program to program. The Next Generation Science Standards is a K-12 learning progressions model.


Q.4. Leslie noted:  Because the standards are mostly K-12, early childhood folks wouldn’t necessarily know of them.

A.4. I should have defined what I mean by “early childhood”. Early childhood is variously defined as from birth to grade 3 or from preK to grade 2. I think the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) progressions showing how children understand each core idea at different ages are a valuable resource even if you teach younger children. Take a look at the Massachusetts preschool science standards.


Q.5. Jodie noted:  Knowing them [science standards in K] would make the transition from early childhood care and education services to formal schooling a smoother and connected process.

A.5. Agreed. The NGSS and the National Science Teachers Association’s position statement on Early Childhood Science Education also give preschool teachers ideas about how they may be intentional about teaching fewer concepts over time, rather than trying to “cover” all the science they know.


Q.6. Pauline noted:  We can read the standards—what we need to know is how you do this.

A.6. Yes, I hope that the examples I gave of children investigating sand, and the “snapshots” of moments in science inquiries where children were using the practices of science and engineering, were helpful in illustrating how to do this. Please take a look at the resource list and begin accessing those resources. The free to all NSTA Early Years blog posts that I write will give you some additional ideas.


Q.7. Maria noted:  Sunflower seeds are easier to see and easy to harvest.

A.7. Good point! Whether you use pumpkins, sunflowers, apples or green beans to open up to look for seeds will depend on what fruits are available in your area and in the season you investigate seeds in.


Q.8. Jodie:  Oh I love this book!

A.8. Here’s a link to the book: Worms, Shadows and Whirlpools


Q.9. Virginia asked:  Is there a resource page of grant opportunities?

A.9. I don’t know of any grant opportunities. This would make a great question to post in the Early Childhood or Elementary forums in the NSTA Learning Center—a free online forum. Register and then go to the forum section to post your question or look at others. https://learningcenter.nsta.org/

There are some resources listed in NSTA Reports.


Q.10. Pauline noted:  We need to be careful not to answer all of children’s questions. It is important not to answer those questions-the children need to discover their own ideas.

A.10. I agree! Give children time to make observations and have experiences. Only if they want a specific piece of information, such as, the name of a tool they are using, I tell that information. Ohterwise I wonder with them.


Q.11. J DeWitt wondered:  how are exploration and experimentation different in the preschool world?

A.11. There is a lot of overlap in the way the terms exploration, investigation and experimentation are used in science education. This can be different from the way these terms are used in everyday life. I think of science exploration as the opening of an investigation. Exploration allows children to experience materials, objects and phenomena, and to make changes. This leads to children trying to achieve a goal of some kind, or to answer a question that they may or may not verbalize, beginning an investigation. Because the way that “experiment” is used in everyday life differs from how it is used in science, I avoid using the term in preschool or in any situation where we are not doing a fair test. In everyday life we might “experiment” with different hairstyles or cooking with a new ingredient. In science, “experiments” are a fair test of a question or idea. In general, this means that you have an experimental setup that allows you to compare outcomes (differences that become evident), control variables (have only one thing vary between setups), avoid bias (i. e. “I like green so the green ball bounces best”) and have enough data to “distinguish chance from real differences” (do the experiment with enough setups to see if the results happen over and over). See the Understanding Science 101 for more detail about fair tests.

I agree that facilitation of children’s exploration is helpful sometimes, but standing back and letting them explore and supporting them with vocabulary to describe their work, and additional support as needed is just as important—in the beginning. Telling children what is happening is appropriate when you are describing your work, alongside them as they work, but we should not tell them what is happening with their actions or tell them all the facts we know because this diminishes how their contributions are seen.


Q.12. Pauline mentioned:  This would be an unusual thing in a New Zealand early childhood centre because the children are outside in the sandpit daily-the sand is often wet.

A.12. I had to bring a small box of sand indoors and let it dry thoroughly for some of the children to explore dry sand!


Pamela noted: That was a radiator not magnet board. I’d be concerned about that, radiators can get quite hot.

A: Yes, radiators can get too hot to touch. This one has a cover over it that allows air to circulate and become heated but prevents burning by keeping body parts away from the hot fins inside.


Q.13. Laura asked:  Do you have a favorite go to book for,experiment ideas. I teach three year olds.

A.13. Yes, my favorite books for how to approach teaching science in early childhood are Worms, Shadows and Whirlpools by Karen Worth and Sharon Grollman, and the Young Scientists Series books by Karen Worth and Ingrid Chalufour. If you use my books, Science Is Simple, or Science Learning in the Early Years, please intentionally choose activities that focus on the same idea or concept so children can explore this concept for a long period of time and have moments to reflect on what they previously observed and think about what it means.


Q.14. Mary asked:  Do you encourage use of computers to aid in science inquiries?

A.14. I do not encourage or discourage the use of computers. I use the internet every day to research questions about teaching, or about the interesting plants and animals I see on walks. I follow the advice of the organization Zero to Three at:  https://www.zerotothree.org/early-learning/screen-time and experts such as Fran Simon, https://www.gryphonhouse.com/books/details/digital_decisions and author-journalist Lisa Guernsey:  http://www.lisaguernsey.com/screen-time.htm


Q.15. Virginia asked:  So many of these skills (observation, inquiry, practice, etc) are natural skills we have from infancy and somewhere along the way we lose it. Are there any resources for developing science curriculums for very young children, infant/toddlers? particularly as a way to help parents encourage the development of later skills, like documentation and discussion.

A.15. There are many resources to help parents participate in the “serve-and-return” type conversations that encourage children to talk, wonder and verbalize their questions, such as:

Harvard University Center on the Developing Child

NAEYC for Families, Uncharted Territory: 10 Technology Tips for Preschool Parents

By: Laurel Bongiorno, Ph.D

PBS Parents has a website with science activities for babies and toddlers

Keep the activities open-ended, with the child’s ability to make changes in the materials in mind.

Our sponsor, Connect4Learning will talk about their comprehensive curriculum that is based on math and science.


Q.16. Anne shared a resource, Eastern Connecticut State Univeristy has a wonderful website with Investigations videos to share:  http://www.easternct.edu/cece/videos/

A.16. Looks wonderful, thanks for sharing!


Q.17. Keyanne commented:  We have some science standards for early childhood but as with all the upper grades literacy is pushed heavily for us. I am going to change that in my class this year

A.17. I know you will be able to integrate literacy skill acquisition into science explorations.


Q.18. Maria asked:  How can we recreate reality if our school doesn’t have natural settings or materials?

A.18. We all have at least very basic natural settings outside of our schools. Children can observe changes to the sky, notice plants in nearby planters or in the cracks in the sidewalks, and look for birds flying between buildings or hunting for food on the ground. I wish every school had a large open natural area with trees and bushes, dirt, sand and water for children to explore. I bring in materials from my yard—fallen leaves, interesting stones, dead butterflies, and seed pods for children to handle, draw and even take apart. We can ask families to contribute items too, making sure we check the safety of each item before giving it to the children.


Q.19. Sarah commented:  Coming from a 2 year old classroom, its hard to apply something designed for kids so much older but I do think they are a valuable resource for framing science at a level that works for my kids.

A.19. Yes, it is much easier to visualize how to implement a science, or any, exploration when we view children the same age as our class involved in the activity. I encourage you to try altering the strategies, and offer safe materials, in activities for older children with your students. And think how to extend the explorations that younger children do to challenge older children!


Q.20. Pauline asked:  I am interested in how you support children to inquire.

A.20. Begin first by reflecting on how you honor children’s questions, and their ability to explore. Do you encourage them to handle materials, make changes and see what happens? That is a good beginning. Do you listen when they ask questions, write their questions down so they know they have said something important, and later provide materials and time to investigate that question? Do you model how to express your wondering about something you observe, sense or think about? These are first steps to supporting children to inquire.


Q.21. Pamela asked:  Do you have any recommendations for providing these experiences for a wide range of ages? (12 months to 12 years)?

A.21. Because child development is not an altogether even process, something that will be safe and engaging to a 12-month-old may still be of interest to a 12-year-old but for a much shorter period of time. Where a 2-year-old would enjoy holding and tearing a fallen tree leaf, a 4-year-old could cut it with scissors and experience it in a different way. Fives could look closely at it using magnifiers, six-years-old and up could sketch the leaf, and older children could do all of that and read about trees and the function of leaves.

When my children were young, I used a playpen as the Lego center for the 5-8 year olds so the babies could safely play around them without putting small objects in their mouths.


Q.22. Anna Maria asked:  Many teachers read the standards and cannot visualize what they can look like with very young children.  This leads to academics//not developmentally appropriate curriculum.  How to help?

A.22. We have to provide time and guidance for all early childhood educators to examine their own practice and read about how to implement early childhood standards in developmentally appropriate ways. The NSTA position statement on Early Childhood (preK) science education is very descriptive about what that means. Resources listed on the handout also give examples of what these standards look like in practice in classrooms and other programs. See the University of Northern Iowa’s CEESTEM Ramps & Pathways website and the curriculum on Peep and the Big Wide World. The Eastern Connecticut State Univeristy’s website with Investigations videos suggested above also looks good:  http://www.easternct.edu/cece/videos/


Q.23. Stacy asks: Is it official? Is the old Scientific Method term now called Science Inquiry. My teachers are asking if they should now say that.

A.23. Yes, it is official, at least in the developmentally appropriate, science education research supported understanding that is presented in A Framework for K-12 Science Education (see the handout). We can talk about doing an investigation scientifically but there is no one method practiced by scientists or recommended for science students (see APPENDIX H – Understanding the Scientific Enterprise: The Nature of Science in the Next Generation Science Standards

Elementary through high schools may still require students to create tri-fold displays of their science investigations or experiments, using the Hypothesis-to-Conclusion, but this is a neatened up version of what they actually did, which is to use the Science and Engineering Practices to pursue a question.


Q.24. Mona asked:  Are there online professional development opportunities for science teaching in early years?

A.24. Yes, see the Early Childhood Investigations website for more webinars, and visit the NSTA website for free and fee-based professional development. Go to http://learningcenter.nsta.org/search/ and select the type of resource you are interested in.


Q.25. Yolanda asked:  I do not have a lot of experience with my one year old babies with science what would you suggest would be a start for younger ones

A.25. Provide babies with many opportunities to safely explore the natural and human-manufactured world through their senses—all of them!


Q.26. Laura asked: Any recommendations for books that we can use for kids with special needs.

A.26. “Special needs” is a very broad description so I do not have a specific recommendation.


Q.27. Pamela asked: Do you have suggestions for expanding on our garden exploration? We look at bugs and growing fruits/veggies/flowers…etc.

A.27. You might see if children are interested in how the “bugs” interact and depend on the plant, and vice versa. They can make observations that they see bees going to flowers, and birds pecking in the dirt—two different animals getting what they need. Have they felt the pollen from the plants’ flowers? Can they see the pollen on the bees’ legs? If you plant a member of the cabbage family—cabbage, collards, broccolis—you will likely have Cabbage White butterflies lay their eggs on the underside of the leaves and later find the green caterpillars making holes in the leaves as they eat. You can bring the caterpillars indoors in a container, along with their food source, and see the chrysalis and later the adult butterfly emerge.


Q.28. Jeffrise asked: Are there any suggestions for teaching physical science such as pushes and lever for 6-7 ages?

A.28. The public library is a wonderful resource. Those institutions often have early elementary age books explaining concepts in physical science. Sally Moomaw had written several wonderful science and engineering teacher resource books for early childhood, including More Than Magnets which has great physical science activities.


Q.29. Maria asked:  With the Internet and this new age of of technology how can we reach out to the older children to help them to explore science

A.29. I am a big fan of The Magic School Bus books and television series, and Bill Nye’s series. The “nature” shows on the many networks and online are another resource. Many apps say they are for educational purposes but do not allow the user to make many changes, making it a read/listen and memorize experience, and of course, they don’t engage with the real world.


Q.30. Yeshey asked: In planning professional development for ECE Teachers–is there a model to use or must-have components in additions to class room training?

A.30. Research points to on-going professional development, with a learning community in your school or neighborhood, and with a mentor, is the most effective for establishing new ways of teaching.


Q.31. Pauline asks:  Open exploration is fine—what is the teachers role?

A.31. The teachers’ role is to observe the children, to document what they are interested in, their questions and what they do to try to answer those questions. And then, be the “guide-by-their-side” asking open-ended questions to prompt children to act further, to investigate. Teachers also use prompts to help children hold discussions, consider new approaches, and to answer their own questions. And to help children document their work, return to it for another look and consider if their ideas have changed, and what question they now want to investigate.


Q.32. Laronna asked:  In my experience many parents and teachers refrain from having science activities in their class because they don’t like their children getting dirty or teachers don’t like getting dirty. How can we change that?

A.32. There are multiple steps needed to help families and teachers to allow children to get deeply involved with the materials.

One way is to provide “messy” shirts for children to wear over their regular clothes anytime a messy (paint, dirt, glue) activity is offered, hopefully every day!

Another is to provide smocks and be especially aware of which children need to wear them.

Explaining the high educational value of these experiences allowing children to fully experience the world will help to some degree. See these resources about water play from NAEYC:

Can you invite these teachers and parents to participate in a Messy Day where they can experience the learning themselves and see firsthand how the children learn through finger painting, mud pie making and gardening? For people of all ages who are tentative about touching “messy” materials, I invite them to touch with just one finger. This allows them to participate—they don’t miss the sensory experience but they feel safe from mess.


Q.33. Kori commented:  I think people also need to recognize that technology is not just screen time – technology includes all types of STEM tools like scissors, magnifying glasses, rulers, etc.

A.33. Yes, I agree! All kinds of tools help us expand our senses, increase our ability to explore the world, and learn more about it.


About the Author:

Leave A Comment