In the year since I’ve been teaching Jr. Science Explorers here at the Children’s Museum of NH, I’ve gotten some pretty funny reactions when I tell people what I do. I teach a science class for preschoolers.
“Science? For preschoolers??”, they ask quizzically. “What do you teach them?”
“Oh, you know, mostly chemistry and physics. We also do some physical science and a little biology.” The reactions are often a mix of surprise, curiosity and sometimes doubt.
“Really? Physics? For preschoolers?”
Of course, I choose these terms to get a “wow” response and try to impress that my preschool students are serious about science and what they are learning. Because my students are little scientists. They have lots of ideas and big questions, you know, like all preschoolers. And they can be very invested in what they are investigating. We aren’t just mixing dirt and water together. But, wait, sometimes we are actually.
And that’s the thing I try to get across to my friends. Science at the preschool level is just about being curious, wanting to find out “what happens if…” and to test out what we think in order to construct new and, hopefully, deeper understandings.
My students come to me with lots of ideas about their world. These come from their own experiences, through play or maybe some guided activity at home with their parents. Sometimes their knowledge comes from books they’ve read, and even from TV (thanks, Curious George and Sid the Science Kid!).
As the teacher of Jr. Science Explorers, my job is to provide the venue for sharing these ideas and for taking them further. We always start class by sharing what we know about the topic because, after all, we are a community of scientists and learners. Then we might take a question about the topic and use that to guide our science exploration. It’s really as simple as that: what do you already know, what questions do you have about it and let’s see what we can discover and learn together.
So to those people who are a little surprised when I tell them I teach science to preschoolers, I explain that when we mix blue and yellow colored water to see what we get and then paint with it, it might look like play, but it really is chemistry. We are learning that when you mix things, you can make a reaction. We are learning to use tools that are helpful to scientists, like how to use an eye dropper (also a great fine motor skill to work on for this age group too!). We are learning the importance of following a set of instructions to get the desired result.
And we are also learning that sometimes the process creates surprising results, like getting brown water when the kid next to you made green. But that’s an important discovery nonetheless. And it’s seeing it that way — not as a mistake, but as a discovery — that is important to learn, too! After all, it’s those unintended results that further science along. We wouldn’t have penicillin if Alexander Fleming had not accidentally contaminated his work and grown the mold that became an antibiotic.
So when I say chemistry, and people imagine a lab with bubbling test tubes and Bunsen burners, its not exactly that. But it is the foundation for that scientific learning and discovery: talking about your ideas, asking questions and wondering, wanting to test your ideas, and making some new discoveries along the way.
And who knows, perhaps that student with the brown water could become the next Alexander Fleming.