Ramin Rahimin
Playgroup student examines butterflies up-close through magnifying glass at the Lawrence Hall of Science. All playgroups in the outreach program are invited to the hall of science for a full day of activities and exploration.

Ashley Barajas watched intently as toddlers stacked foam blocks and examined colorful cylinders. It may look like child’s play, but Barajas, an early education science specialist, knows that exploration is the gateway to magically transforming circle time into toddlers learning science.

At a recent playgroup in Oakland, she led the way by example.

“So if I can put this, like this and maybe this, I can build something,” she said, placing a plastic record on top of a cylinder. “And even knock it down,” she said, sweeping her right hand across it, eliciting giggles from some of the kids, who range in age from 18 months to 4 years.

To parents and teachers, she explained: “The goal is not necessarily for them to build a tower, but to explore.”

Barajas’ work is part of a longtime effort by science specialists at UC Berkeley’s Lawrence Hall of Science to bring free, play-based science lessons to children from low-income families across the San Francisco Bay Area. Science specialists help to conduct research, develop curriculum and lead training workshops and science lessons at the Hall and in other areas, especially where there is limited access to science.

The goal is to give more young children experience with science while fostering parent-to-child bonding, which early education advocates say is critical to a child’s overall development. It’s also about building on a child’s natural curiosity about the world and teaching families foundational science skills, such as observation, comparison and problem-solving, said Ellen Blinderman, director of early childhood projects at the Lawrence Hall of Science.

“This is about thinking about how young children do science, because for a lot of people, science still conjures up images of working in a lab with beakers and formulas and many adults don’t really know what we mean when we say science for young children,” Blinderman said. “We are talking about children exploring and figuring out how the natural world works through (play-based) experiences and a lot of observing and testing of their own ideas and their curiosity.”

Playgroup students and families gather around Ashley Barajas, an early education science specialist at the Lawrence Hall of Science, as she introduces them to an animal during a science lesson.

Ramin Rahimin

Playgroup students and families gather around Ashley Barajas, an early education science specialist, as she introduces them to an animal during a visit to the Lawrence Hall of Science.

In the California Preschool Learning Foundations for Science, a detailed outline of what preschoolers should know before entering kindergarten and the skills they can typically learn, observation is listed as one of the key strategies for early science. “Observing is the most fundamental scientific skill for obtaining information, constructing meaning and gaining knowledge about the world,” the guidelines state. It also states that science education for early learners is not just about memorizing terms, or watching adults perform demonstrations — like making a volcano erupt. It’s also about children actively participating in the science lesson through play.

Since 2003, the Lawrence Hall of Science has partnered with First 5 Alameda, an early childhood advocacy organization serving Alameda County, through its community grants initiative program.

Lawrence Hall received a $119,956 grant from First 5 to provide activities from 2015 to 2017 at playgroups established in communities serving predominantly low-income and Latino and African-American families. Some families are also recent immigrants, so the program is structured to help children who are learning to speak English and their home language at the same time.

While preschool children are routinely taught the foundations of reading, math and music, teachers often avoid science because they lack the background to teach it. One of the goals of the outreach program is to show them how.

During her recent program in Oakland, Barajas visited the “Room to Bloom” playgroup located behind the Youth Uprising community center. The playgroup is operated by the Lotus Bloom Family Child and Resource Center, an agency that operates four playgroups in Oakland. Barajas, who has taught in Lawrence Hall’s outreach programs for seven years, carefully unloaded containers packed with the day’s physical science lesson: Loose Parts. “It’s a philosophy in early childhood that nicely integrates science, math, art, creativity and design,” Barajas said.

Loose Parts is designed as an open-ended activity that gives children an opportunity to explore materials of various shapes, sizes and textures that can be moved, re-arranged and used in different ways. From bins of multiple colors, Barajas withdrew playdough, popsicle sticks, small wooden blocks, plastic farm animals and placed them in smaller plastic containers on a large table in the back corner of the room. Then at each table, along the sides of the room, she placed pipe cleaners, magnetic squares, plastic coins and packing peanuts in separate containers. In the center of the room, she placed oversized foam blocks, and rows of PVC pipe pieces and fixings in the middle of the wooden floor.

This is the science play station for the day.

Playgroup student practices rolling balls down a pre-made ramp at the Lawrence Hall of Science. The ramp activity is used to teach children about "Forces and Motion."

Ramin Rahimin

Playgroup student practices rolling balls down a pre-made ramp at the Lawrence Hall of Science. The ramp activity is used to teach children about “Forces and Motion.”

The goal of the program is to deliver up to 10 science lessons a year to playgroups, incorporating them into the schedules already established at individual sites, Barajas said.

“With children under the age of 5 science is not about learning facts. It’s not about walking away from a gravity class being able to define gravity and know what it is,” Barajas said. “It is about exploration so later when they are learning about it in school, they have a foundation and framework.”

The depth of a science lesson comes from the parents and the teachers, which is one reason she asks that parents and each playgroup leader join in the exploration with the kids. One challenge is that parents may not know what to expect or how to help their children, she said.

If a child isn’t building like another child some parents may assume their child isn’t playing the right way, she said. “But a lot of what I’m doing is a lot of parent coaching and modeling and showing what different types of children might be doing. Just because a child is not doing and (instead) observing, does not mean they are not learning.”

The playgroup setting helps science education in part because parents are a large part of how much exploration continues once she leaves the room, Barajas said. One of the best ways to enhance a lesson to is to encourage children to make predictions with phrases like “what do you think will happen if,” she said. 

“A child playing with playdough is science in that it is sensory. All of that helps to facilitate it but how you can transform that to support a richer science experience is taking that playdough and giving them tools. For example you can say, ‘I wonder what happens if I use this tool or animals in the playdough’ so the child can make up stories about what the animal is doing.”

Barajas said she gives parents tips and guidelines in a separate workshop where the parent takes on the role of the child and explores. She also teaches parents that, “it’s OK not to know all the answers,” she said.

“Having that knowledge is not a negative thing, but we just don’t want it to be a barrier because some parents may not have a science or math background and we want them to know it can also be a learning opportunity for you and your child.” Simply being curious with a child is more important than having all the answers, Barajas said.

Playgroup students use their tactile senses to play with water and explore how different objects float or sink at a recent visit to the Lawrence Hall of Science.

Ramin Rahimin

Playgroup students use their tactile senses to play with water and explore how different objects float or sink at a recent visit to the Lawrence Hall of Science.

Brenda Pérez, a parent in the playgroup, said she’s seen a big change in her toddler, Garcia. Through the science classes she’s seen her daughter’s interest in building with blocks and doing more things at home. “It’s helped both of us learn how to play together,” Pérez said through a translator. “Now we know what to do, how to interact and I feel like her mind is expanding.”

Back at the play station, Barajas explained that play can teach children vocabulary. In memorization children can repeat a word but science can deepen their understanding.

Three-year-old Manuel is in the far right corner, creating a masterpiece. It originally starts as a single PVC pipe. He picks it up, holds it up to his eye, points it to his mother and says “I see you.”

More than 30 minutes later, Manuel has used more than two dozen pieces of varying sizes to create a large structure that was double the size of his tiny frame.

“It’s a dragon,” he said, switching his conversation from Spanish to English.

“Oooh, el dragón,” his mom repeated in Spanish.

Playgroup teacher Natalia El-Sheikh, who has been encouraging Manuel as he builds by asking questions and cheering as a new piece connects, offers a new vocabulary word.

“You built a tower,” she said.

“Yes, I built it,” Manuel said.

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