The Early Years
Young children are intrinsically curious and eagerly engage in play-based learning experiences. They welcome any opportunity to use their developing math and science skills and growing STEM concepts within real-world applications as they make sense of their surroundings, including everyone and everything they encounter and observe. Typical and familiar activities with young children may lead parents and educators to assume that young children are less capable or less inclined to learn about scientific concepts and ideas that cannot be easily immersed within direct hands-on discovery.
Science topics previously presumed as out of children’s reach are beginning to shift as new and increasing research evidence comes to light. Emerging evidence calls into question previously held assumptions that could result in underestimation and missed opportunities. Although complex in nature, astronomical science, for example, has many observable events and aspects that may appeal to young children’s interests and can be viewed during daily routines and outdoor experiences. Some of the earliest rhymes, fingerplays, and songs (such as “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”) stimulate children’s curiosity and fascination, frequently pointing skyward to observations they make, despite the complex nature and causal forces that underlie astronomical events that are beyond their understanding.
In one recent research study, Callanan, Shirefley, Castañeda, and Jipson (2019) documented young children’s everyday conversations around science topics journaled by parents across three coastal California communities with varied demographics. Tracked conversations with three- to five-year-old children revealed that regardless of age, gender, or community, children initiated conversations about a variety of astronomical objects and events, ranking in the three most frequent topics for each group. The majority of conversations were initiated by children with the most frequent interest in the Sun, Moon, stars, and day or night sky, with the highest mean proportion of astronomy conversations pertaining to the Sun. Even children as young as three years initiated conversations about astronomical phenomena, making comments or inquiries about what they observed or listened to from other sources such as storybooks or educational programs. While parents and early childhood educators may have concerns about the accuracy of their scientific explanations, some research indicates that adults do not need to be experts to support children’s science interest and inquiry (Callanan, Castañeda, Luce, and Martin 2017).
Young children’s interest in the Sun includes their observation of the light and shadow phenomena that the Sun casts, eagerly explored with peers and adults during outdoor play. Children often work in pairs as they take turns tracing around the shadow that each child makes with the sunlight. Children also notice shadows that are cast by other animate and inanimate objects such as trees, street signs, fences, and playground equipment. As the position of the Sun changes across the day, children can return to the same place, tracing their shadow and noting how its size, length, and direction adjust to the Sun.
Preschoolers can also learn and experience how the position of the Sun can impact our daily routines and activities in practical ways. Consider the cooking experience of four- and five-year-old children at the Hangzhou Yunhe No. 2 Preschool in China. After a multi-week life science investigation planting and harvesting radishes (a popular and widely-eaten vegetable in China), children explored how to pickle and sun-dry the radishes to use in favorite dishes. After children dig up radishes, they complete the following prep work:
To help tap into children’s scientific and causal reasoning, begin with the overarching question, “How can we dry out the radishes outside?”
Using round bamboo flats and cheesecloth, the children placed the radishes in the sunniest location in the morning.
However, the same location was not the sunniest in the afternoon, so some of the radishes did not dry properly, and began to mold.
As three preschoolers closely examined and discussed the drying radishes, they actively reasoned and figured out what happened. Haohoa declared, “These radishes are mildewy!” Yuze added, “These can’t be eaten. The others are not black but this one is black.” Momo picked up a dried radish, touched it, and noted, “This one is still wet and neither of them can get the sun in this place!” Yuze concluded, “There was sun in the morning, but now it’s gone.” In their efforts to dry the cut radishes, the children determined that the sun shines in different positions at different times. To prevent the radishes from molding, the children paid closer attention to the sun’s position, changing the placement of the radishes in order to maximize the sun’s rays.
These preschoolers therefore reasoned that the Sun changes its position throughout the day. Children likewise associate the Sun with daytime, including dawn and dusk, and the Moon with nighttime without fully contemplating the rotation of the Earth, the Earth’s orbit around the Sun, and the Moon’s orbit around the Earth. Similarly, children can observe the seasons for planting and harvesting according to the Sun without relating it specifically to the Earth’s axis pointing toward or away from the Sun. They experience the Sun’s intense heat in the summer and can appreciate the need for suntan lotion to protect their skin from the Sun’s rays.
The Sun’s position likewise plays a critical role in forming a total lunar eclipse, when the Sun and Moon are on opposite sides of the Earth, causing the Earth to block the sunlight, creating the Earth’s shadow that completely covers the Moon. While young children may not fully conceptualize the positioning of the Sun, Moon, and Earth that causes the eclipse, they can nonetheless observe a total lunar eclipse in the sky. These early experiences with the Sun’s position help children form an important foundation from which new information is integrated as children gain more scientific understanding and causal reasoning about the Earth and its solar system.
Thank you to Wenming Zhang, Adjunct Professor, Shanghai Normal University Tianhua College, Director of Shanghai Evergreen Child Development Center; Liping Jin, Director of Hangzhou Yunhe No. 2 Preschool; and preschool teacher Qimeng Zhang for sharing their current and ongoing early STEM project, “The Expected Life of Radishes.”
Shelly Lynn Counsell (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a retired professor of early childhood education, an early STEM consultant, and coauthor of Drawing Out Learning with Thinking Maps: A Guide to Teaching and Assessment in PreK–2.
Callanan, M.A., T.A. Shirefley, C.L. Castañeda, and J.L. Jipson. 2019. Young children’s ideas about astronomy. Journal of Astronomy & Earth Sciences Education 6 (2): 45–58.
Callanan, M.A., C.L. Castañeda, M.R. Luce, and J.L. Martin, J. 2017. Family science talk in museums: Predicting children’s engagement from variations in talk and activity. Child Development 88: 1492–1504.