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The Early Years

Engaging Children in Multidisciplinary Learning Centers

Effective early childhood science learning centers support language arts, mathematics, social science, arts, and health and physical education during a science exploration or investigation. To develop science centers, consider: “What is there for children to do?” and “What is there for children to think about?” at these centers. Creating multiple centers for children ages 3–8 makes it possible for an entire group to use limited materials every day as they rotate in and out of centers. The centers give children opportunities to engage in imaginative play; use manipulatives; encounter natural phenomena; read many kinds of printed material; and hold conversations about what they do, see, and think.

Examining plants up close
Examining plants up close

Making the materials accessible for all children assures the learning experiences are available for all (UDL Guidelines). To arouse curiosity and inspire exploration, keep the materials fresh and related to the current unit of study and topics of children’s conversations. Tools for extending our senses (such as magnifiers), for measurement (such as lengths of string, metersticks, balances), and for documenting observations (such as writing and drawing materials, digital cameras, and modeling clay) should always be available so children become comfortable and proficient with them.

To give one example, a center for a unit on force (NGSS Lead States 2013) could simply include a basket of objects requiring hand dexterity, including fidget spinners, sets of jacks, yo-yos, and spinning tops. Children can compare how easy or hard it is to manipulate the different objects, use a digital camera to document where and how they push or pull objects to set them in motion, and compare spinner types and create a chart to rate them by ease of use.

Children can help create a center of “nature objects” with contributions such as a special rock found in the play area, a dead butterfly found on the way to school, and objects from home. Precious objects shouldn’t be used. For safety reasons, the teacher must approve all objects. Each object can be labeled with the name of the person who donated it, where it was found, and what it is or seems to be. This center supports children’s understanding that “Scientists look for patterns and order when making observations about the world” (NGSS Lead States Appendix H).

Developing Learning Centers


To develop a multidisciplinary learning center that teaches children about seeds.

A center designed to involve children in learning about the needs of living organisms and the question, “what is a seed?” changes weekly while involving children in an ongoing investigation. During the investigation, children plant and care for grass seeds both indoors and outdoors, read, listen to books being read, and collect data by documenting their observations.

  1. Choose a location indoors where plants can get plenty of sunlight and choose outdoor locations where grass seed can be planted. Dig up and save a small sample of the soil for later observations indoors.
  2. During group discussion time, ask children to write, draw, or dictate what they know about seeds. Their responses can guide further steps. If they have little or no knowledge about seeds, consider also beginning an exploration of seeds in food or in the environment. Tell children they will get to plant grass seed indoors in a container and outdoors in the ground.
  3. During outdoor time, talk with children about grass they see growing in the area. Ask them to locate a spot where there is room for additional grass to be planted, such as bare spots in a lawn or space for more native grass. Older children may want to pursue the question of why those spots are bare.
  4. Have children put on gloves and take turns raking the soil in those locations with a fork, adding a pinch of seeds, and raking again to mix the seeds into the top centimeter of soil. Take a photograph or have children draw the planted area to show details, including the unsprouted seeds.
  5. Indoors, provide materials for children to plant seeds and observe growth—potting soil, a tray to hold the soil, gloves, spoons, water spray bottle, magnifiers, tools for measurement, and seeds. Assist with planting as needed.
  6. Provide drawing materials and a digital camera or take photos to be posted on a calendar or in sequence to document changes as the seeds sprout. As children work in this center, they can read books about gardening, seeds, and lawn care and water the seeds, talk about what they see, measure seedlings, and record any changes in writings, drawings, and photographs to share with others. Photographs can be used to compare growth of the outdoor area seedlings to the growth of those indoors. Remind children to wash hands after using this center.

Talking with peers and teachers allows children to develop oral language and learn new vocabulary. Children use math skills in measuring seedling growth and counting calendar days. Recording their observations through drawing and writing and reading books develops their reading and writing skills. Squeezing the lever to mist the growing grass helps strengthen children’s hand muscles. Reviewing their observations helps them notice a pattern: When soil is moist, seeds sprout. As interest in caring for the indoor plants wanes, help children transplant them in bare spots outdoors.

  • space near a window
  • outdoor space for planting grass seed
  • tray for planting 5–10 cm deep or individual cups
  • potting and sample soil from outside
  • gloves
  • grass seed (local native or lawn)
  • spoons
  • metal forks
  • water spray bottle
  • magnifier
  • standard and nonstandard measuring tools
  • scissors
  • calendar
  • fiction and nonfiction books about gardening (specific to your region if possible), seeds, and lawn care
  • drawing materials
  • camera (optional)

National Center for Universal Design for Learning (UDL). UDL Guidelines— Version 2.0. aboutudl/udlguidelines

NGSS Lead States. 2013. Next Generation Science Standards: For states, by states. Washington, DC: National Academies Press. www. motion-and-stability-forces-andinteractions

NGSS Lead States. 2013. Next Generation Science Standards: For states, by states. Appendix H: Understanding the Scientific Enterprise: The Nature of Science in the Next Generation Science Standards. Washington, DC: National Academies Press. read/18290/chapter/14#431

General Science Inquiry Instructional Materials Literacy NGSS Pedagogy Science and Engineering Practices STEM Teaching Strategies Early Childhood Elementary Pre-service Teachers Preschool

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