Cultivating little scientists from the age of two

Young children are little scientists. They instinctively stretch, prod, observe and categorise the world's offerings. This natural inquisitiveness can be cultivated even before school and several studies have shown the benefits, in terms of general learning ability and specific maths and science skills. But just how early can this 'sciencing', as it's known, start? A new study by Tessa van Schijndel and colleagues claims that a six-week sciencing programme for two to three-year-olds boosted their exploratory 'science-like' play.

Thirty-five two- to three-year-olds at an Amsterdam day-care centre were assigned to the six-week sciencing programme. This involved a specialist science teacher encouraging the children to play two kinds of games in their sandpit: 'sorting and sets', which had a cake-baking theme, and 'slope and speed' which had an 'on top of the mountain theme'. The children were free to join in or leave the sand-pit games as often as they wanted, but were encouraged to take part at least once a week. The games involved toys of different colours and materials, as well as plastic tubes and balls. The key elements of the guided play were manipulating the objects, repeatedly sorting them into various combinations, and observing the effects of these manipulations. The regular teachers complemented this play by reading from books that matched the cake and mountain themes.

Twelve age-matched kids at another day-care centre run by the same organisation acted as controls. They were provided with the exact same sand-pit toys but they weren't guided in how to interact with them.

The researchers devised a scale for rating the sophistication of spontaneous exploratory play and, using videos of the children's unguided sand-pit play during the five weeks preceding and following the sciencing programme, they were able to see if the programme had made any difference. Coding of the videos showed that the sciencing programme children's spontaneous exploratory play had become more sophisticated (including more manipulation, re-combining, observation, and more symbolic play) - especially among those whose initial exploratory play levels were lower. By contrast, the control children's play had actually become slightly less exploratory, probably as a result of their having grown bored with the same sand-pit toys.

van Schijndel's team acknowledged that more research is needed to identify the effective aspects of their sciencing intervention. Indeed, they admitted that the programme may have worked by altering the practices of the day-care centre's regular teaching staff, an outcome they said should also be considered a success.

'...[W]e plead for more attention in the initial and in-service training of teachers for science-related subjects,' the researchers concluded. 'Our study shows that the curiosity of young children in natural phenomena and in how things work, needs to be supported by playful and scaffolding teachers. Probably, this is especially true for children with a low level of exploratory play.'

Their plea comes at a time when primary school teachers in the UK with a science degree are a rare breed. Speaking to the Independent recently, Sir Martin Rees, outgoing head of the Royal Society, said there is just one such teacher for every three primary schools. 'It is depressing that a tiny, tiny fraction of primary school teachers have any higher education qualification with a scientific component,' he lamented.

ResearchBlogging.orgvan Schijndel, T., Singer, E., van der Maas, H., and Raijmakers, M. (2010). A sciencing programme and young children's exploratory play in the sandpit. European Journal of Developmental Psychology, 7 (5), 603-617 DOI: 10.1080/17405620903412344
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