Science education for most children in California begins in elementary school, but it should start much sooner — in infancy, even — for children to achieve their full potential as young scientists, according to a new report by the Center for Childhood Creativity.
“Humans are wired to want to understand the world around them. We come out of the box that way,” said Elizabeth Rood, co-author of the report and director of the center, which is based at the Bay Area Discovery Museum. “Even kids who are pre-verbal have pretty sophisticated reasoning skills. The sooner parents and teachers introduce scientific vocabulary and concepts, the more likely kids will have the tools to help them succeed in science later on.”
The 44-page report, “The Roots of STEM Success: Changing early learning experiences to build lifelong thinking skills,” is based on a review of 150 studies on the education, cognitive development and developmental psychology of children age 10 and under. It found that even though very young children may lack the ability to sift through information and express themselves, they can grasp complex scientific concepts, test theories and draw conclusions.
The report also makes recommendations for teachers, parents and daycare providers on ways to encourage children’s scientific curiosity, on how to “keep that spark going as long as possible,” Rood said.
Scientific inquiry begins not long after babies start noticing the world around them, Rood said. When they stare at objects for long periods, it’s because something about the object surprises them and they’re trying to understand it. When they play with blocks or other simple toys, they’re testing theories and expanding their understanding of the world, Rood said.
And as soon as they learn to talk, children start asking questions such as “why is the sky blue?” and “how many stars are in the sky?” Adults might not know the answers, but can look up the answers online or help puzzle through the question with the child, Rood said. Introducing scientific vocabulary at an early age helps children boost their verbal skills and greatly helps their ability to understand science in elementary school.
“Language, science, abstract thinking — they all go hand in hand,” Rood said.
California’s new K-12 science standards, called the Next Generation Science Standards, begin to be taught in kindergarten, but many children do not get substantial science education until 5th grade, when they take their first standardized science test. A 2011 report by West Ed found that 40 percent of California elementary teachers spend less than an hour per week on science education, and fewer than half of elementary principals believe students receive a high-quality science education at their school. Only a third of elementary teachers said they feel prepared to teach science.
But the spirit of the new science standards, which emphasize hands-on experiments, critical thinking and broad scientific concepts, can actually begin in infancy, Rood said. A few tips for families, preschool teachers and daycare providers:
- Talk about scientific and mathematical concepts at every opportunity: when cooking, filling the gas tank, watching sports, spending time at the beach, grocery shopping, plotting bus routes or other everyday activities;
- Take your child to science centers and children’s museums;
- Give your child plenty of free time to play;
- If you don’t know the answer to a question, ask the child what their theory is and try to work through the question together.
Rena Dorph, interim director of the Lawrence Hall of Science at UC Berkeley, said that very young children, even infants, can understand concepts like cause and effect and basic numeracy — for example, that the number “one” corresponds with one object, regardless of whether it’s a dog or a tree or a banana.
“The ways they are learning and understanding is way more sophisticated than their language skills can express,” she said.
Young children also take their cues from the adults around them, so it’s important for families and care providers to show enthusiasm for the natural world and everyday scientific phenomena, she said. And follow the child’s lead: If a child shows an interest in birds, for example, take the child to see birds and learn about birds together.
“It’s not so important to give the child an accurate answer to their questions. It’s more important to instill an inquisitive, investigative mindset,” she said. “Give them the opportunity to explore things they’re interested in, learn more and be curious.”
Curiosity, whether you’re 3 or 30, should be the foundation of all science education, said Bill Sandoval, a professor at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies who specializes in science education.
But while young children have an inborn curiosity about the world, that curiosity is sometimes squelched in school. Either children don’t get science education at all, or they become too self-conscious around their peers to participate, or the curriculum is too focused on memorization and not enough on inquiry, Rood said.
“We are born to be (cause-and-effect) investigators,” Sandoval said. “But we don’t always do a great job of promoting this.”
So while families and care providers can encourage scientific curiosity in young children, schools can do more to keep that curiosity alive for older children, he said. The new science standards should help, he added.
“The bottom line is, we want to encourage curiosity about the world,” he said. “Because ultimately, we want people to become informed adults, whether they pursue science as a career or not.”