Geoscience for Preschoolers
11/30/2006 - David Danisa, Jason Gentile, Kate McNamara, Monica Pinney, Sarah Ross, Audrey Rule
|Photograph courtesy of the authors|
During a mathematics methods class, my college education students and I were discussing some creative ways to reinforce both fine-motor skills and early mathematics skills with young children using everyday materials (Rule and Stewart 2002). Intrigued by the idea and eager to work with some young students, a group of five preservice teachers and I arranged to try a few activities at our campus day care. Together, we created and tested a series of learning centers involving rocks and minerals. These were such a fun-filled learning success that we decided to share our experiences here. While we worked with three- and four-year-olds in a day-care setting, the activities will likely be successful with K–2 students as well.
Mineral Color Sort
Because minerals occur in such a wonderful variety of colors, they formed the basis for an engaging lesson on color sorting. To begin, the preservice teachers gathered photographs of real minerals and gems from the internet, searching for images by common mineral and gem names like amethyst, jade, rose quartz, sapphire, carnelian, and amber.
Next, instead of using real mineral specimens or gems (which might be expensive, sharp, fragile, or potentially toxic), we purchased large (2–4 cm wide) plastic simulated gemstones at a craft store in three packages of about 10 stones each for about 3–4
dollars a package. Tumbled stones (such as quartz and agates sold in some toy or gift stores) would also work. Bringing in real mineral specimens for children to see is a good idea if nontoxic and durable specimens, such as quartz geodes, are available.
Although at three and four years old, children are old enough not to put small objects in their mouths, we discussed important science rules before conducting the activities. Students
- Do not put gems or any other science material in the mouth;
- Handle materials with care, so they do not become lost or broken; and
- Wash hands after handling the gems or rocks.
We also closely supervised the students when working with the materials.
To make the color-sorting learning station, we first printed color photographs of the gems, laminated the pictures, and attached the pictures to plastic watercolor paint trays by drilling small holes in the pictures and trays and then attaching the pictures with thread. A sample of gems for students to sort were placed in a white container (a margarine tub works well) next to the watercolor trays, and students used short plastic tongs to pick up the gems and move them to the tray with the same color gem photo attached. The watercolor’s shallow tray partitions were perfect for placing the gem beads as students sorted them.
We also put together two additional photograph montages for display and discussion. These montages showed photographs of diverse people studying, cutting, selling, or mining minerals and gems. Working with the students, the preservice teachers asked such question as, “Have you ever heard of a geologist?” and “These are pictures of geologists and other people who work with minerals and gems.” “What do you see here?” and “Minerals are part of the Earth and are found in the ground.” “Look at the beautiful colors.” “Can you name the colors?”
Children told of relatives who owned gem jewelry of the same colors as in the photographs. They also made connections to cut glass or plastic vases and bowls at home that looked like crystals. Some children had seen mineral displays in a museum. Others remarked that they enjoyed looking at gems in jewelry stores.
This activity simulated one of the ways scientists identify minerals and gems—by color. Although small impurities can change the color of many white or transparent minerals, color remains an important diagnostic characteristic in mineral identification.
Matching Rock Textures
In another activity, students explored rock colors and textures by matching rocks to cardboard egg-carton compartments painted with each rock’s color and texture. The rocks we used were interesting pebbles gathered by one of the preservice teachers at a lakeshore near campus, but the children told us of rocks they had collected at the lakeshore themselves during a fieldtrip. The rocks in our activity included a red coarse-textured granite, black-and-white striped gneiss, a light-gray limestone pebble, a porphyritic (speckled with larger crystals) basalt, among others. Students manipulated the pebbles using a spoon, gaining practice in fine-motor skills.
At the center, the preservice teachers drew children’s attention to the textures: “Did you know that rocks come in so many colors and textures?” “Which one is striped?” “Which looks spotted?” “Which one is smooth and gray?” Most of the students were successful in matching the pebbles to their correct compartments.
Determining the color and texture of a rock is an important first step toward identifying and naming the rock. As preschoolers matched rocks to the painted texture on the egg carton compartment, they were emulating the work of petrologists (geoscientists who study rocks).
Forming a Pattern with Crystals
Minerals often display beautiful geometric shapes. A third activity helps student gain skills in recognizing and extending patterns, a skill that is important in both science and mathematics.
Similar to the color sorting activity, we created the setup using plastic watercolor trays. We attached cards with illustrations of gems to the top half of the watercolor tray, arranging the cards in a repeating pattern of some sort but leaving the last one or two in the pattern as a question mark. At the center, students completed the pattern on the tray using plastic crystals (we used faceted ponytail hair ornaments cut from their elastic bands). Figure 1 shows some of the pattern cards that were attached to the plastic trays to guide young children in repeating and extending the pattern. The question marks indicate places where the children determine what comes next.
As before, students used small plastic tongs to pick up the “crystals” and place them in the shallow trays to form and extend the patterns. Children showed various developmental stages as they worked with this patterning set. Some students were able to place one crystal per shallow compartment (showing one-to-one correspondence), but the colors were not always in the correct order. Other students were able to match the color of each crystal to its corresponding drawing on the card but were puzzled by the question marks on the cards. We explained that the question marks meant, “Guess what comes next in the pattern.” Pointing to each crystal drawing in turn and repeating the color pattern out loud helped many children determine the next color of crystal. A few students, however, were able to complete the activity without any help.
In the next activity, students practiced counting from 1 to 5 or 1 to 10, depending on the readiness level of the child. To prepare this station, the preservice teachers cut apart a holiday garland of iridescent plastic ice grains into lengths of 1 to 10 ice grains each and placed the cut strings in an attractive container. Large numerals (1 to 10) and a corresponding drawing of the correct number of ice grains on a string were printed on paper circles and taped behind ten translucent plastic yogurt lids to make shallow circular dishes (Figure 2). Students used the small tongs or their fingers to pick up a strand, count the grains, and place the strand into the dish with the correct numeral. Children were fascinated by the strands and enjoyed counting the grains.
The Benchmarks for Science Literacy (AAAS 1993) state that by the end of second grade, children should know, “Objects can be described in terms of the materials they are made of and their physical properties” (p. 76). Many of the activities described here do just that, focusing on discriminating, matching, and sorting by color, texture, shape, or size.
In addition, as students conducted these activities, they learned about minerals and rocks in an age-appropriate way while practicing important skills that scientists use. They also exercised foundational mathematics skills and practiced fine-motor movements. For all parties, children and preservice teachers alike—the activities were an inspiring way to start exploring Earth materials and science!
David Danisa, Jason Gentile, Kate McNamara, Monica Pinney, and Sarah Ross were undergraduate Childhood Education students at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Oswego in Oswego, New York, at the time of this investigation. Audrey C. Rule (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at SUNY Oswego. Special thanks to the Campus Children’s Center for collaboration in this investigation.
American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). 1993. Benchmarks for science literacy. Washington, DC: Author.
National Research Council (NRC). 1996. National science education standards. Washington DC: National Academy Press.
Rule, A.C., and R.A. Stewart. 2002. Effects of Practical Life Materials on Kindergartners’ Fine Motor Skills. Early Childhood Education Journal 30(1): 9–13.
Connecting to the Standards
This article relates to the following National Science Education Standards (NRC 1996):
Standard D: Earth and Space Science
Properties of Earth materials