Engagement in Science Practices in Early Childhood: Discussing Successes and Challenges

This session invites participants to discuss which science practices align with the abilities of young children and what supports young children need to engage in those practices.


Researchers agree that scientific concepts do not stand alone and are meaningless if they are introduced as isolated facts. Instead, they suggest that science concepts be taught by engaging in the process of science (French, 2004; Gelman & Brenneman; 2004; Yoon & Onchwari; 2006). This science-as-practice approach is especially appropriate in early childhood. Young children learn best by doing science, and engaging in investigations can help young children understand and formulate mental representations of natural phenomena and develop science vocabulary and language (Conezio & French, 2002; French, 2004; Peterson & French, 2008).

How different science practices align to the abilities of young children, how children learn to engage in these practices, and what supports and scaffolds children need from adults in order to engage in these practices are all questions that are yet to be empirically answered. In this roundtable discussion, participants discuss these questions and share findings from their research projects. To initiate this discussion, facilitators share findings from their own preschool research. The DRK–12 project around which this session is based designed and evaluated a research-based science curriculum supplement in 20 preschool classrooms serving children from low-income families. Findings indicate that children whose teachers implemented the curriculum program made significantly more improvements in science learning relative to children in control classrooms. Data from classroom observations and teachers’ interviews indicate that teachers modeled and/or promoted and children engaged in scientific practices with varying levels of success.

Participants also engage in an exercise to generate a list of science practices that should be targeted in early childhood specifically, to link those to the NGSS and early childhood frameworks (e.g., the Head Start Learning Outcomes Framework), and to document research findings shared by the group to inform the field’s understanding of whether and how young learners can engage the different practices.

French, L. (2004). Science as the center of a coherent, integrated early childhood curriculum. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 19(1), 138–139.
Conezio, K., & French, L. (2002, September). Science in the preschool classroom capitalizing on children's fascination with the everyday world to foster language and literacy development. Young Children, 57(5), 12–18.
Gelman, R., & Brenneman, K. (2004). Relevant pathways for preschool science learning. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 19(1), 150–158.
Peterson, S. M., & French, L. (2008). Supporting young children’s explanations through inquiry science in preschool. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 23, 395–408.
Yoon, J., & Onchwari, J. A. (2006). Teaching young children science: Three key points. Early Childhood Education Journal, 33(6), 419-423.