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Leadership Matters

What Science Should Look and Sound Like

Science and Children—March/April 2023 (Volume 60, Issue 4)

By Kathy Renfrew

Last spring, I was asked by the Teaching Channel for an interview that would be a part of a podcast. I said yes and began to ponder the question, “What do I want school leaders to know about science.” Through my presence on social media as @krscience lady, many of my science colleagues probably had a good idea of what I might say. The podcast really got me thinking of actionable ways to improve and enhance science learning for all elementary students. I reflected on my own experiences over the years as a teacher, thinking about my own students figuring out force and motion on the school playground. They were playing and they were learning as they pushed each other on the swings with large and small amounts of force. They explored force and motion by playing “tug of war.” I remember working with my students on making predictions as part of an investigation. I stood on a table with an egg in my hand and asked, “So what’s going to happen when I drop this on the floor?” Students were completing a sentence frame: I think when Mrs. R drops the egg______________ will happen because ______________. I dropped it and it went splat! Students then observed and made scientific drawings of what they observed. A mess but so much fun! This reminds me of another favorite unit called “Technology of Papers”—the students loved it, but oh what a mess! They made paper while engaging in the engineering design process. All of this leads to me wanting leaders to know that if intentionally planned and implemented, playful, asset-based science will provide meaningful learning experiences while meeting objectives.

What Research Says

Based on research, we should change our thinking about the cognitive development of children and how that plays out in science, even very young children. Children everywhere, from all cultures and environments, are thinking and questioning all the time. New thinking has emerged about what young children can say, think and do: “Studies show that even children in kindergarten have surprisingly sophisticated ways of thinking about the natural world based on direct experiences with the physical environment, such as watching objects fall or collide, and observing animals and plants” (Michaels, Shouse, and Schweingruber 2008, p. 6). That thinking is different from when I went to school and even from when I was in the classroom. We know now that even very young children can engage in science learning. We see that when they jump in puddles, play with boats at the water table, or share the beautiful leaf they found on the playground.

In the preface of a recent report on preK–5 science, Betsy Davis writes, “Children, even at very young ages, are deeply curious about the world around them and eager to investigate the many questions they have about their environment” (Davis and Stephens 2022, p. vii).

Building on the ideas from the brilliance report, it’s important that we believe that all young children can be scientific thinkers, following their innate curiosity and asking their own questions. As leaders, we need to realize that the thoughts these children bring to us are gifts, assets we will foster and nurture in school. And each of those students comes to us with different interests and cultures. We need to value each of those cultures as one of the many assets the children bring to us. The report also tells us that we should “engage children in investigation and design experiences that draw on multiple domains. When instruction situates children’s science and engineering learning in meaningful and rich contexts, children engage in activity that recruits—and potentially deepens—practices, skills, and knowledge developed in other parts of the school day and may build positive identities in science and engineering” (Davis and Stephens 2022, p. 6).

Defining Play in Science

The following two definitions can assist us in better understanding what science in preK–5 might look and/or sound like. Miller, Krajcik, and Charara (2021) describe play in science as either classroom-rich in child-initiated play or playful classroom with focused learning. In classroom-rich child-initiated play, students explore their world using intentionally selected materials that are in direct alignment with the investigation of the phenomenon. The materials are purposefully chosen to assist in meeting the objectives and the standards. In the playful classroom with focused learning, teachers are fostering learning in science by providing meaningful, relevant experiences. The phenomenon is explored through play, which teachers guide and leverage to direct the student learning (Miller, Krajcik, and Charara 2021). Using this definition, my students were engaging in a playful classroom with focused learning experience when we were figuring out force and motion through swinging and using other playground equipment or when I was standing on a table, holding an egg ready to drop. Both of these science lessons were playful, yet I had very specific learning objectives that I was addressing.

What should school leaders notice and wonder about when entering a preK–5 classroom? One way I like to describe it is “planned and organized chaos” because so much can be happening at the same time. Some children might be reading picture books aloud that support the concept being studied, some might be building a model to investigate the amount of erosion that occurs when an extreme weather event occurs, and still others might be watching a video of erosion and writing down their observations and questions. It might be the whole class working in groups on the same investigation. What it should be is children “doing the science.”

What Does “Doing Science” Mean?

First, students should be engaged in science and engineering practices; they should be able to state what they are trying to figure out or solve. Second, they should be actively involved in figuring things out and be willing to share what they are thinking, how their thinking has changed, and what their next steps may be in the process. Third, students should be asking questions, building on each other’s ideas, and even disagreeing and sharing their evidence and reasoning for their predictions and claims. Again, the students should be “doing science.” As part of “doing science,” children bring their ideas and learning from other places to us. As educators, we incorporate the assets students bring to us into the learning. For school leaders, recognition and appreciation of the funds of knowledge and assets students bring from their prior learning and/or home environment is critical.

Whether you are entering a preschool classroom or a fifth-grade classroom, you should expect to see actively engaged children figuring things out. Here are a few examples of what you see and hear when entering a classroom that supports scientific thinking and promotes an asset-based approach to learning.

  • In preschool or kindergarten, children might be outside, circling around a tree with their teacher, carefully recording their ideas and questions about what lives in the tree. They might be taking photographs or creating drawings of the tree while the teacher reads a book about trees. These children are doing science. When you see a child using a magnifying lens and recording observations and understand it as science, you as an instructional leader are recognizing the assets of that child.
  • When visiting a first-grade classroom, you might see students trying to identify how sound is made and used for communicating information. For example, after hearing the emergency sirens, the class may consider what makes the sound (vibrations) and how the sound is used to send a message. Students may be whispering messages, using rice on a drum or string telephones, investigating alarm clocks, or playing instruments to figure out how sound is made and used to communicate information. At first, this may look like play, yet the students are engaged in figuring things out, making connections, and planning investigations. Here science is in action!
  • Moving to third grade, you might see children in groups designing toys by applying their understanding of magnetism. In classrooms like this, the teacher skillfully questioning or redirecting a group may be challenging to notice as they blend into the excitement. When students can tell you what they are doing and talk about creating fair tests, they are sharing their assets. As an instructional leader in science, you are validating those assets when you take the time and listen carefully to the child’s responses to your questions. Again, these students may look like they are playing. Yet, they are developing essential engineering skills that allow for creativity and alternative solutions with connections to content and other subject areas.
  • And what about our fifth graders? Are they too old to play? No, they are not. These children need movement, relevancy, and purpose as part of their learning. When fifth graders are given time to explore, investigate, observe, and develop tests, they employ scientific thinking. Making the learning authentic and meaningful is crucial to engagement and the ability to transfer ideas and understandings to new situations. When you take the time to ask students questions like, “Can you explain exactly what is happening here?” or “How do you know, what’s your evidence?” and really listen to the response, you are showing the students that his or her thoughts matter. As a school leader you are seeing and hearing what the student is thinking, not what he can or cannot do.

 These children are well prepared to grow and enhance the assets they have developed by engaging in science where play is still an element. They are well on their way to living in our rapidly changing world, learning to confront issues and solve problems. These children won’t shy away from science but instead will be prepared to think critically and solve problems collaboratively and creatively as they communicate findings and evidence.

School leaders, I hope I have provided some concrete things for you to think, say, or do when you walk by a classroom with an open door and hear the sounds of science, or when you are engaged in a post observation conversation with a teacher. There are resources that have been developed to assist in identifying classrooms that are doing science (see Online Resources; Lowenhaupt et al. 2022). I also hope you understand that play is or can be the learning of children. When we intentionally make our learning playful and relevant, students will be engaged and take ownership of the learning.

Online Resources

Instructional Leadership for Science Practices:

Teaching Channel Podcast:

Kathy Renfrew ( is an education specialist for the Wade Institute for Science Education, Quincy, Massachusetts.


Davis, B., and A. Stephens. 2022. Science and engineering in preschool through elementary grades: The brilliance of children and the strengths of engineering. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Lowenhaupt, R., K.L. McNeill, R. Katsh-Singer, B. Lowell, and K. Cherbow. 2022. The instructional leader’s guide to implementing K–8 science practices. Washington, DC: ASCD.

Michaels, S., A.W. Shouse, and H.A. Schweingruber. 2008. Ready, set, science! Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Miller, E., J. Krajcik, and J.C. Charara. 2021. Knowledge in use: designing for play in kindergarten science contexts. Journal of Leadership, Equity, and Research 7 (1).


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