In the last fifty years, research has significantly changed the way teachers and scientists understand young children’s cognitive abilities. It is now widely recognized that preschool children have very well-developed inner theories about the natural and social world, and are even able to make complex and scientific conclusions from a very young age. Most importantly, children are naturally interested in science, and are very open to exploration, experimenting and learning about the natural world that surrounds them.
Children learn like scientists in many ways. Research indicates that 8 practices can be found that correlate with the way children learn:
- 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.
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. Important contexts for early childhood science learning include:
- Everyday settings, such as talking with parents or exploring the natural world
- Designed informal learning environments, such as visiting a children’s museum or science center
- Formal education institutions, such as preschool
Through these experiences, children develop science-related interests, gain knowledge of science topics and activities, and practice science skills and the use of scientific tools and language. 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.