Scientific research in early childhood settings
‘Look how many soap bubbles I made!’ Ben exclaims enthusiastically. Sarah, his teacher, is excited: ‘Wow, this is great! How did you do this?’ ‘I blew into the soap bubble water with the long yellow tube and now my bucket is full of bubbles,’ he replies. ‘This works much better than stirring it with a spoon’.
‘I have an even better idea!’ Ben’s friend Julia says. ‘You could stir really, really fast with an egg whisk. I am sure that makes the most bubbles!’ Sarah has an idea: ‘Well, these are some interesting assumptions, but wouldn’t it be good to test what actually works the best?’
The children are excited about Sarah’s suggestion and want to explore this question in a more scientific way.
Sarah, the educator in the soap bubble story above, is an example of many Australian early childhood professionals who are strong advocates of co-construction and inquiry-based, child-led learning. More and more education and care services across the country are integrating scientific exploration and discovery into the children’s routine, based on the strong belief they benefit tremendously from early opportunities to discover the world in an open and creative environment.
Little Scientists Australia offers a professional development program for teachers and educators to support the implementation of inquiry-based STEM learning. The program offers a range of hands-on workshops designed to encourage and promote scientific investigation while giving insights in educational concepts and methods. A key concept of Little Scientists is an inquiry-cycle approach which supports structuring children’s discovery process.
To demonstrate how scientific research in an early childhood setting could be done, let’s return to our soap bubble example:
In the morning, Sarah and her preschool group explored and played with home-made soap bubble liquid: blowing, stirring and shaking the liquid. Sparked by Ben’s discovery that blowing into the liquid worked better than stirring, the group decided to investigate further. Drawing on the previous scientific explorations and experiments facilitated by Sarah, the children knew how to proceed:
- First they came up with a question to investigate: ‘How can we make the most bubbles?’
- Secondly, the group hypothesised what method they believed could result in the most bubbles. A critical part of research is identifying the children’s assumptions and to hypothesise individually which method will work best and why.
- At this stage, the children were almost ready to try things out and to experiment, but first they had to agree on preparations and how to document the results: ‘What items will be used to produce bubbles? What materials will be needed? Where should the experiments be conducted – inside or outside? How can they document their results?’ The children decided to draw pictures of the different experiments and take photos or make videos of the most impressive ‘soap bubble mountain’. There are countless ways to document, for instance co-constructed and dynamic approaches such as Claire Warden’s Floorbook Approach.
- Once they agreed, they were excited to start exploring and experimenting! This was (and almost always is) the most extensive phase of their research. The children had various attempts and setbacks. At one point the group split into smaller ‘research teams’ and some children left the group. For three days, all the bubble experiments were on hold because the children were distracted by jumping in the rain puddles…Then one of the children brought in a picture of the world’s biggest soap bubble and suddenly the research was back to full speed.
- Scientists of all ages are excited to see the results of their experiment and to share them with their peers. Our Little Scientists from the bubble experiment were no different: They observed their experiments and Sarah encouraged them to describe the outcomes to the others in the group. This step offers various opportunities to engage children in the process while supporting their communication skills and language development: ‘What have you noticed? Has something changed? Why are you surprised about the result? What could we try next?’
- When the children were satisfied with experimenting, observing, describing and documenting their findings, they reflected on the outcome and discussed their initial assumptions: ‘Could the initial question be answered? Did the yellow tube really work much better than the stick, even if you stir as fast as possible? And how did Julia’s egg whisk perform in the overall ranking? Did the children have any further questions, and did they think their research could be improved? The children came up with plenty of input, new ideas and assumptions for further bubble experiments…
Learning opportunities like the soap bubble experiment arise every single day. Most young children make numerous investigations and ask inquisitive questions about everything. And how do educators and families respond? We often don’t know what to say because we don’t have an adequate answer or have never thought about this before. The good news is – if we implement an inquiry-based learning approach – it doesn’t matter! It might even be an advantage not to know the answer. Scientific exploration and research give children and adults the opportunity to explore, to problem-solve, to cooperate with others and to be even more excited and curious about the world around us.
A provocation to take back to your next team meeting might be how the educators in your service are engaging with STEM in their programs.
Little Scientists is one of various organisations across the country providing fun and engaging events for children during National Science Week (12-20 August 2017).