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Science experiments in early childhood – Why?

Posted on December 16th, 2020 in STEM gems
3 kids looking at baking soda volcano

My child asked me the other day, “Mum, why are you dyeing those flowers blue?” And he had a point. The flowers were beautiful and I prefer them natural but I was preparing a webinar on water and thought I’d better ‘do’ the dyeing flowers thing.

Often it’s only in those moments of reflection that we ask ourselves, “Why?”, but as advocates of inquiry-based learning, we should be asking ourselves, “Why?”, constantly.

Dying flowers is one of the science experiments that is used a lot in early education. While experiments are an important part of science, they need to be relevant to become a meaningful learning experience. Research shows that children learn better when something has a reason and context.

We at Little Scientists strongly promote spotting STEM in the everyday and following the children’s questions. If you want to use some of the popular experiments that seem to draw an enraptured audience, you can find a place for them. To make them part of a meaningful STEM learning experience, there are some things you might want to consider: The experiment should be relevant to the children’s questions, part of a project or clarify something you’ve been investigating together. It would also be beneficial for the children to follow on from the experiment and you can encourage the children to ask questions and support them with further hands-on research.

To clarify this approach, I have taken my son’s lead and asked myself why we do some of the popular science experiments in early childhood education:

The baking soda volcano – Why?

This one is responsible for my son coming home one day, saying, “Mummy, you’re wrong. volcanos aren’t hot, I’ve touched one. They are smelly and are something to do with white powder.” The baking soda volcano was invented to demonstrate how the size, shape and aperture (hole at the top) made a difference to whether the volcano exploded or just slowly released lava. It is often used without this context.

You could use the volcano to demonstrate a chemical reaction. Chemistry is everywhere and one area that children might be particularly interested in is baking. Questions about the holes in bread or why cookies “grow” in the oven could lead into researching carbon dioxide. You could look at an investigation of baking soda versus baking powder, different strength vinegars or using red cabbage. Our Chemical Reactions workshop is a great place to start.

Dying flowers blue – Why?

This one is a lovely example of capillary action in plants. If, when planting seeds with children, questions crop up like: How do plants drink? What do plants need to grow? What do plants eat? Do they eat soil? Then, this is a wonderful experiment to look at. Capillary action is a combination of two properties of water, adhesion and surface tension. For more investigations into the properties of water, check out our Water workshop.

Milk and Skittles  – Why?

Yep, I struggle with this. It’s pretty, but the children’s questions seem to be mainly along the lines of, “Can I eat the Skittles yet?” “Can I have a red one?”

It could be a fun investigation into colour mixing, diffusion in liquids or a comparison of water and milk as solvents and which gives better results. What I’m hoping is that it’s not edutainment on a wet Thursday afternoon. If you have found a way to include this experiment in a meaningful STEM experience, please let us know!

Ask us why: If you have an experiment that you’ve seen, wondered about or want an explanation for or you and your children are interested in a particular phenomenon and would like a STEM starter idea or some questions to get you going, please drop us a line.

About the author:
HAYLEY BATES, National Certifications Coordinator

Hayley Bates

Hayley has an insatiable thirst for learning – about everything! Her sheer joy of discovery and passion for professional development makes her the perfect person to run the Little Scientist’s House Certification program.

Never happier than seeing what happens to balloons in the freezer or exploring the projects submitted by services for certification, her enthusiasm is complemented by her background in science and maths making her the ideal coordinator for our Little Scientists Houses.

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