The Early Years
I wonder if regular daily life on Earth—walking to school, seeing birds fly overhead—feels for young children like outer space feels for me: so vast, mysterious, seemingly endless, a little scary, and immensely beautiful.
People of all ages can experience the feelings of wonder and curiosity—a deep yearning for knowledge. Children’s interests may lead them to topics they cannot grasp directly, like the Moon or Sun. The scale and size can be intimidating when we consider exploring these with young children. We should encourage children to manipulate concrete objects to support learning. However, leaving space science out of classrooms with young children (because the objects are too far away or massive in scale) may leave some children out. And that’s a matter of equity. We can find ways to dive into these topics with our youngest learners that are inclusive and developmentally appropriate.
The equity argument related to bringing the Sun, Moon, planets, and more into early childhood classrooms is compelling. Some children get more opportunities to explore the wide, wonderful world around us than others do. For example, not all children may have access to field trips to a planetarium, funds for travel to other countries, resources to visit other habitats like the jungle or the ocean, or the ability to visit places such as Kennedy Space Center. In addition, some children’s settings preclude them from seeing the night sky as clearly as others can (e.g., light pollution in urban areas).
As educators, we care deeply about providing equitable access not only to big ideas and science practices but also to experiences that build on children’s interest and wonderings— whatever they may be. We also must ensure we are including diverse ways of knowledge-building in our treatment of science and STEM so that all voices are heard (e.g., science with indigenous children and families; see Online Resources). The more science and STEM topics we talk about, represent, and explore in our early childhood classrooms, the more likely it is that all young children might consider a future career in STEM.
We can find a happy medium. We can connect with children’s interests and we can explore expansive space science phenomena in a way that is engaging and equitable.
To begin exploring space science, ask questions like “What are children’s interests? What resources do we have? How are a diverse array of people and ideas represented in the materials we use with young children?” When we have a topic in mind, we can start to make concrete these vast spaces and large objects that are far away. The activities that follow include a way to do this by facilitating experiences here on Earth that help children understand the Sun.
In the activities below, children learn about what the Sun does for us through hands-on experiences here on Earth. This is a great way to connect our sensory experiences with this object that is so huge and far away.
SAFETY NOTE: Be sure to use safe observational practices, such as never looking directly toward the Sun.
Start with children’s interests, whenever possible, or your own! What do they notice or wonder about the Sun? These wonderings could lead to a book. Find a book showing scientists from diverse backgrounds, such as A Computer Called Katherine by Suzanne Slade (science practice links: Using Mathematics and Computational Thinking; Asking Questions and Defining Problems – using math to plan spaceflight) or Mission to Space by John Herrington (Planning and Carrying Out Investigations – using model rockets as a child). Ask children about how these scientists’ wonderings led them to DO science. Talk about how anyone can be a scientist.
This next phase will work best on a sunny day. Just like the scientists in the books, children will ask questions and carry out investigations. Consider starting with a wondering (rather than sharing the purpose explicitly). Say, “I wonder what the ground feels like under the bench (in the shade) or next to the bench (out of the shade)?” Check that children understand the key vocabulary you plan to use, like warm, cool, hot, shade, lighter, and darker, and provide words in children’s home languages as needed.
SAFETY NOTE: Do not feel surfaces that are too hot to touch, such as black pavement. Test spots first to make sure they’re not too warm for children’s hands.
Thanks to Teri Robinson, STEM coach in Belmont-Redwood Shores School District, California, for editing; Morgan Fellers for proofreading; Amanda Osborne and the kids at Little Buccaneers Early Childhood Learning Program for the pictures; and to Kim Brenneman, for sharing her musings on this topic with me.
Implementing Meaningful STEM Education with Indigenous Students & Families: https://stemteachingtools.org/brief/11
Find more tips at https://bit.ly/3DkvIRn
Alissa A. Lange (email@example.com) is the coauthor of Teaching STEM in the Preschool Classroom: Big Ideas for 3-to-5 Year Olds and director of the Early Childhood STEM Lab at East Tennessee State University.
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