What Preschoolers Learn From Doing Science Activities

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Science isn’t such a far-fetched idea for preschoolers to get involved in. It can do amazing things for their development and how they think through problems.

Science activities not only teach toddlers basic science principles but also, more importantly, give preschoolers an excellent foundation to think through problems and have the confidence to answer questions themselves.

Your child does not have to retain chemical equations or recite the anatomy of a flower to be successful in science activities. It’s as simple as identifying a problem, guessing a solution, and working through that process until you have an answer.

Creating lava lamps

Some lessons preschoolers can learn from doing science activities include:

  • How to solve problems
  • The science topic itself
  • How to see science in the real world and in everyday life
  • How to work through failure
  • Talking through the scientific process

These are taught directly by learning through a lesson and indirectly by working through an experiment together.

And, as it turns out, teaching your toddler science does more than just learning science concepts. It has been linked to better achievement in science, improvement in other academic areas (like literacy), and even leading to careers in science.

All of these incredible benefits stem from incorporating fun, play-based experiments into your toddler’s life.

Why is science so important for preschoolers?

Creating pretty designs with the Magic Milk experiment

Engaging preschoolers in science can do so many things for their development and confidence.

Science is important for toddlers because it lays a foundation for thinking through problems and confidently finding solutions. It’s not necessarily accomplished by the act of learning the science; it’s accomplished by doing the science experiment. Working their way through a controlled problem demonstrates how to come up with solutions on their own.

Getting your child involved in science at an early age builds a strong foundation for their future. Not only does it demonstrate thinking through and solving problems, but it also has been proven to aid in other areas of learning:

Some of the newest research in early STEM involves interdisciplinary connections between children’s STEM skills and other important outcomes, like reading and executive function development.

“STEM Starts early”, Mcclure, 2017

If that’s not enough, incorporating science into everyday activities at an early age can actually set your toddler up for success in science subjects and potentially lead them down a career in a science field!

According to research done by Haim Eshach and Michael N. Fried in the Journal of Science Education and Technology:

…six assertions supporting the idea that even small children should be exposed to science are given. These are, in order: (1) Children naturally enjoy observing and thinking about nature. (2) Exposing students to science develops positive attitudes towards science. (3) Early exposure to scientific phenomena leads to better understanding of the scientific concepts studied later in a formal way. (4) The use of scientifically informed language at an early age influences the eventual development of scientific concepts. (5) Children can understand scientific concepts and reason scientifically. (6) Science is an efficient means for developing scientific thinking.

Eshach and Fried, 2005

The toddler years can be some of the most significant years to begin incorporating science into everyday activities and play.

Toddlers’ minds are still very impressionable and learning the world at a rapid pace. Because of that, these early years can play a huge factor in what shapes their minds.

And since it is so widely recognized (and proven!) that introducing science concepts can help in several different aspects of their learning, the best time to start is NOW.

One thing you may be wondering is, “doesn’t my child learn these science topics in preschool?”. Unfortunately, in most cases, the answer is no.

…it is essential to devote adequate time to nurturing PreK-3 children’s early STEM learning. Currently, that is not happening. At the PreK level, the emphasis has traditionally been on cultivating young children’s language and literacy development, with a bit of math.

Successful STEM EducationOpens in a new tab.

While these are great topics to cover, it leaves science topics to be covered at a much later day. And as we’ve seen in the research, early exposure is key to learning about and enjoying science.

Although, you may be wondering: this all sounds promising, but can my toddler actually learn science? Isn’t that too advanced?

Can toddlers actually learn science?

Teaching a child science topics sounds like something you should wait to naturally happen when they are far into school.

Toddlers can absolutely learn science! According to multiple studies done on children younger than 1 and through preschool, children are wired to run through the scientific process in their heads to figure out how things work around them.

Infants and young children are more wired for STEM subjects than most would think.

Children have the capacity to engage in scientific practices and develop understanding at a conceptual level.

national science teaching association (nsta)Opens in a new tab.

The NSTA released that statement, among others, that specifically referenced children from age 3 through preschool.

So, as it turns out, toddlers already have the capacity to understand science concepts! All that’s needed to aid their learning is exposure to STEM subjects.

In a study done by Stahl and FeigensonOpens in a new tab., a group of 11-month-old infants was studied to test their reactions to objects that defied their expectations. Simple tests, like rolling a ball down a ramp and pushing a ball off a table were conducted.

If the ball fell to the floor after being pushed off of the table, it was expected and therefore not studied. But, if the ball floated in the air after being pushed off the table, the infants ended up studying it longer to learn why it was floating.

Because the ball did something unexpected, the infants ended up studying that ball for far longer than they studied the ball that fell to the floor. They were trying to figure out what happened and how it worked; essentially working through the scientific process to figure out why the ball did something they weren’t expecting.

This study shows how the capacity for learning science is there from a very early age, probably from birth!

Does this mean that your toddler will be able to recite the periodic table?

No, probably not.

But this does mean that toddlers are more well-equipped to learn scientific concepts than most may think.

The biggest factor in their learning comes from you, as the parent.

Parents, who have an earlier and more sustained presence in their children’s lives than teachers (even once they begin to attend school, children only spend about 10% of their time there), consequently have an enormous opportunity to help encourage, support, and normalize early STEM learning.

McClure, 2017

And just like your toddler likely will not be able to recite the periodic table, you as the parent are not expected to be fluent in any one scientific subject in order to teach them science.

You don’t even have to know any science to teach your toddler science. All it takes is doing a few minutes of research before you start (or using the experiments you find on this website since I break down the science for you!) to plan out an experiment.

And if your toddler asks questions you don’t know the answer to while experimenting, figure it out together. Problem-solving is just as much of the lesson as the science topic itself.

One of our experiments, the Instant Ice science experiment, failed the first time we did it. We didn’t get the water cooled enough and as a result, we had a small amount of slush and mostly water.

What the Instant Ice experiment was SUPPOSED to look like!

Instead of getting frustrated or calling the experiment quits, I started a conversation with my toddler:

“Hmm, I wonder why the water didn’t freeze? Do you think it was because the temperature was too warm or too cold?”

“Too warm!”, my toddler says.

“I think you’re right! I wonder what happens if we leave the next water bottle in the freezer for longer. Do you think it will get cold enough to turn to ice?”

I bet that conversation and seeing the first version of the experiment spoke volumes to my toddler! She got to see what happens when the conditions aren’t just right and how the experiment could possibly fail.

And as I said earlier, problem-solving is a huge part of the lesson as well. So it’s important not to get frustrated, but to treat any “failure” as a potential for learning as well.

Young children are incredibly impressionable, especially by their parents. They learn the most from their parents, both intentionally-taught things and unintentional.

Because of that, it is important to not only teach your child scientific concepts but to show confidence and excitement about it!

The importance of experiments in science-learning

We know that incorporating science into a young child’s life is important, but what’s the best way to incorporate it to ensure a lesson is taught?

Teaching toddlers science through experiments brings science concepts to life by allowing them to set up the experiment, conduct the science, and ask questions along the way. Experimentation, especially when coupled with play and allowing your toddler to help, engrain the science concepts more naturally.

Just like it can be challenging to truly retain what you learn from textbooks by simply reading them, it can also be challenging to really learn from just talking about science concepts with your toddler.

Enter, hands-on activities!

Making fossils with her favorite dinosaurs

Hands-on activities through experiments and play are the best way to keep your child engaged in learning. Couple that with incorporating problem-solving (kids loving to figure things out!) and tying things into their real-world surroundings, and you’ve got a fantastic learning experience.

Young children engage in science activities when an adult intentionally prepares the environment and the experiences to allow children to fully engage with materials. The activities allow children to question, explore, investigate, make meaning, and construct explanations and organize knowledge by manipulating materials.

National Science teaching association (nsta)Opens in a new tab.

That is the main reason I created this website: to empower parents like yourself to incorporate science and other STEM topics into play.

The experiments you find on this website handle much of the legwork for you: they’re broken down by topic, list out the supplies needed and step-by-step instructions, tells you how to get your toddler involved in the experiment, AND covers the science/math/engineering/technology behind that activity.

Play-based curriculum is widely acknowledged to be a key dimension of effective early learning.

Successful STEM Education, 2013

When you are also able to incorporate play into your experiments, it creates a fun environment around the experiment.

With play, it’s not just about showing what happens when two substances react, but how BIG can you get the reaction? It creates an atmosphere of excitement around the experiment and holds their attention for much longer.

That doesn’t mean you have to find a way to incorporate their favorite toy into the experiment.

For example: when we did the Fizzing Paint science experiment, we took my toddler’s love of painting and coupled it with a vinegar-baking soda reaction. She was able to paint as much as she wanted and create a cool fizz in her painting at the end. Win-win!

Or, with the Catapults experiment, I put up a bullseye target so we could shoot pom-poms at it with our catapult design. We got to test what happens when you add too much force AND play a fun game of shooting at the target.

Having fun with the Catapult experiment

Learning outcomes from doing science experiments with toddlers

There have been numerous studies showing the effects of doing science and math with preschoolers. Over two decades’ worth of research has shown that early exposure to these subjects equates to more achievement and enthusiasm in these school subjects and potentially leads to careers in the STEM fields.

Working through science experiments with your toddler not only helps them learn science concepts but also creates an atmosphere of excitement and enthusiasm about science subjects in school.

We were out at a restaurant the other day and my toddler started staring at my carbonated beverage. I watched her and waited for her to start talking about what she was thinking.

“Mama, you have carbon dioxide bubbles in your drink!”

Rewind to a week earlier when we did the Homemade Lava Lamp experiment. We talked about the vinegar and baking soda reacting with each other and the colorful bubbles we saw floating to the surface were made of carbon dioxide, a result of that reaction.

She saw, through a hands-on activity, the creation of carbon dioxide and what it looks like floating in liquid. She then applied that to her real-world surroundings when she saw my drink.

That is how powerful doing science activities and experiments can be for your toddler!

By engaging your toddler in science activities, you are creating a positive and exciting atmosphere for science learning. This atmosphere can be significant for them later on!

In a report by M.F. Neathery, elementary and secondary students were surveyed across multiple countries to determine students’ attitudes toward science.

Further research examining psychological effects found that a student’s self-concept of his ability to perform in science positively correlated with achievement.

M.F. Neathery, 1997

Introducing science concepts early on has been proven to shine a more positive light on science for the individual. Plus, when our children have more confidence in their ability, they achieve better results in science topics!

That all stems from incorporating science into play early on and making a child more comfortable and confident with science.

In the same study by Neathery, they found that “younger students had more positive perceptions of science than older students”, further showing that starting young can set the stage for a child’s perception of science.

Incorporating science concepts and experiments into a toddler’s life can make a substantial and profound impact on their future. It not only builds upon what is already there from birth, but also helps them achieve more in school (even outside of STEM subjects!) and could lead to a future career in the STEM fields.

And it can all be done through simple science experiments by you, the parent.

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