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Problem solving and investigating the properties of materials

By Peggy Ashbrook

Posted on 2013-11-13

Some children dot paint with one finger while others smear with their entire hand.Does the way a child approaches finger-painting or eating a somewhat messy snack tell us anything about how she or he will approach building with blocks or participating in a science activity?
Child holds a cheese-spread covered pretzel stick very carefully.

Child begins to eat the pretzel snack avoiding getting cheese spread all over his hand.Child successfully eats the cheese-spread covered pretzel without getting his hands messy.

There are problem-solving tasks in all of these activities. If we tell children how to do a task, they may not discover other ways, or the best way for their style. Talking about their approach in a discussion may encourage them to try alternative methods and help them build experiences to apply to future problem-solving.
Child works with many different types of materials to construct a container for her favorite food.In the October  and November Early Years columns in Science and Children, I write about exploring the properties of materials and designing a tool to carry heavy objects and a tool (container) to carry a favorite food item. Why not try designing a new way to hold water or carry a slice of pizza? The activity can be part of an on-going investigation into the properties of materials (not only fabric but all kinds of “stuff”). The Next Generation Science Standards for K-12 states that by the end of second grade,   students should know that matter can be described by its observable properties and that different properties are suited to different purposes. Early childhood teachers of toddlers and preschoolers can support their developing understanding with open-ended experiences with a wide variety of materials for pouring, transferring, weighing, bouncing, stacking, balancing, cutting, taping, gluing, stapling, and tying teach children about the properties of “wetness,” texture, weight, stretch, strength, absorption, flexibility, and adherence.
We can support this investigation with discussion and in conversations by asking children what they found out about the material they used, did it work the way they wanted it to, and what materials might they try next time?
There is much to learn about materials through using them for many purposes.

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