Exploring, investigating and learning science — teaching in preschool | Skolforskningsinstitutet

Exploring, investigating and learning science — teaching in preschool

The aim of this systematic review is to contribute to the development of practitioner knowledge about science education in preschools. Over the last decade, there has been increasing focus on knowledge in the preschool, with science being one of the highlighted areas of knowledge. According to the Curriculum for the Preschool, education must be based on children’s experience and the curriculum. It states that children’s urge to explore, their curiosity and desire to play and learn, must be the foundation of their learning.

This review aims to answer the following questions:

  1. How can preschool teachers support interaction and communication with and between children to create conditions that are conducive to children’s science learning?
  2. What are the educational opportunities and challenges in children’s exploration of, and communication about, scientific phenomena?

We have chosen to answer these questions in two separate chapters. Chapter 3, Results, summarises the results of question 1, and in Chapter 4, Discussion and Conclusion, we respond to question 2 and then draw conclusions from the answers to both questions.

Results of the review

Omslag systematisk översiktHow can preschool teachers support interaction and communication with and between children to create conditions that are conducive to children’s science learning? We begin by presenting a summary of the results from Chapter 3, after which we highlight the overarching educational challenge, according to the studies, in children’s exploration of and communication about scientific phenomena. The starting points for these studies are theoretical assumptions, under which the preschool teacher has an active and important role in children’s learning. Similarly, children’s experiences are regarded as a resource in teaching activities.

Recognise opportunities for science inquiry in the preschool environment

A condition on which children’s science inquiry and learning depends is that preschool teachers recognise opportunities for this in the preschool environment, in everyday situations and in children’s play. Preschool teachers need to adopt what is called a sciencing attitude. This entails recognising and creating opportunities for science inquiry as part of activities, environments and events, and acting with the intention of supporting children’s science learning. For example, planning a cooking activity, where the teacher recognises and utilises the opportunity to talk about heating and energy transfer.

Recognising and utilising children’s experiences for science inquiry

However, preschool teachers need to do more than recognise opportunities for science inquiry in the environment, they must also know about the children’s experiences and interest in the scientific content that is the subject of the learning experience, and the opportunities to use these as a starting point. In other words, there is a need for knowledge about children’s perspectives.

Seeing children’s experiences and interest

The studies show that children engage with science inquiry, they ask questions and express ideas that demonstrate a desire to know and understand. Children’s engagement relates to both the scientific content and the design and performance of scientific inquiry, i.e. both conceptual and process-oriented knowledge. The striving to acquire the ability to conduct these inquiries also goes by the name of inquiry skills.

The results show that, even in everyday situations at preschool and at play, children encounter and explore scientific phenomena. These are opportunities for science inquiry that arise spontaneously, without being planned by a preschool teacher, and there is a risk that they are not recognised.

The studies also state that children’s questions arising from their science inquiry can be seen as a way in which they express their experience of and interest in the subject matter. Making room for and utilising the children’s questions can give children’s perspectives space and the opportunity to influence teaching.

Utilising children’s experiences and interest

The studies in the review show what it means to utilise children’s experience and interest in a way that creates opportunities for children to actively participate in teaching. This active participation is understood as children being given the opportunity to exercise agency, i.e. the opportunity to explore their own ideas and questions and thus co-create the teaching situation. Studies show that, by closely following children’s inquiries, preschool teachers can utilise the questions and ideas expressed by the children and incorporate them in their teaching. The studies describe patterns of interaction that can strengthen the conditions for children’s participation and learning, for example if the preschool teacher uses productive questions that focus children’s attention and encourage continued science inquiry. The idea is also to provide space for children’s everyday language in their inquiries, as well as to encourage children to express ideas, even if they are contradictory.

Support and guidance founded on children’s experiences and interest

Other studies included in the review show the significance of preschool teachers allowing children’s experiences and science knowledge to come together.

Linking children’s experiences and science knowledge

Relating to children’s everyday experiences as part of teaching, while introducing new knowledge and supporting children in their further learning can, with reference to Vygotsky (1987), be understood as education that focuses on both everyday and scientific levels, and that the preschool teacher supports children in connecting these levels.

The studies show that children’s science learning is limited if a preschool teacher stages an activity without offering guidance that focuses on the science content; the children’s experiences remain at an everyday level.

Instead, preschool teachers can support children by making connections between the everyday and scientific levels in their teaching. Examples of this could include staging activities in which children experience scientific phenomena at an everyday level, such as what something looks like, how it sounds or feels. Also, preschool teachers can target a scientific level in their teaching, using different methods to focus children’s attention on significant elements of their actual experience in relation to the scientific phenomena that are the subject. The studies show that by exploring the same phenomenon on repeated occasions and in different activities, children are better able to discern what is scientifically significant in these situations.

Conversing in a manner that connects with children’s experiences

Preschool teachers can connect to children’s experiences and language through their way of speaking. Examples from the studies reveal a general problem in teaching, which is the assumption that children share the experience of the preschool teacher and understand something in the same way as they do. The studies show that figurative speech, such as similes, analogies and metaphors, facilitate connections with children’s experiences and language and can therefore function as a resource in the teaching situation. It can have important communicative functions, such as describing the appearance of something that is being investigated, or illustrating an abstract scientific process.One form of metaphorical language is anthropomorphic speech, which means humanising something that is non-human. The studies show that this can be useful in targeting children’s attention on an issue of scientific interest.However, if the conversation stays in the human domain, it may hinder children’s acquisition of scientific knowledge, such as the opportunity to learn about an animal and its habitat.

Using models and multimodal illustrations

Preschool teachers can use various types of illustration in their teaching to link abstract science content to children’s everyday experiences, i.e. to something the child can see or hear or otherwise experience in the situation.

However, the results show that adults and children in the studied situations did not appear to achieve a shared understanding of what the illustrations depicted. One explanation appears to be that adults do not create the right conditions for children’s participation in conversation and negotiation about how the illustrations are intended to be understood. The children in the studies are engaged and express what they see, hear and feel in relation to the illustrations, but their experiences are not always utilised in the teaching situation.

Time and space for scientific inquiry

One result that is found in several studies in the review is the importance of children being given time for scientific inquiry. Time creates opportunities for children to become familiar with the content and the activity, allowing them to participate more actively.

The studies also show that children learn from each other. This is particularly apparent in situations where the children are given space for shared inquiry without the presence of a preschool teacher. In this joint activity, the children share their experiences and develop their understanding of the scientific phenomenon together.

Challenges and opportunities

The studies in the review indicate the importance of recognising and utilising the science found in the preschool environment, about which children must have opportunities to develop their knowledge. The studies also indicate the importance of adopting children’s perspectives, of recognising and utilising the understanding and interest that children express during science inquiry. In the studies, teaching is described as a type of back and forth between the children’s experiences and scientific knowledge.

The overarching challenge of science teaching, according to the studies, may lie in creating conditions that are conducive to children’s science learning, by maintaining a good balance between allowing the children’s questions and ideas to take space in science teaching and supporting and guiding children’s science learning.

Utilising the results

The scientific concepts and descriptions offered by this review are intended to help preschool teachers expand their repertoire of research-based tools for teaching and learning. These tools can be used to develop interaction and communication so they create conditions that are conducive to children’s science learning. This accords with Larsson’s approach:

We can compare the use of a substantial portion of qualitative research with the development of a diagnostic repertoire: interpretational tools for identifying patterns in the everyday world and making better sense of the world around us (Larsson, 2009, p. 34).

Selection of research

The review is a compilation of 17 research studies that were systematically selected after extensive searches in national and international research databases. Ten of the studies are Swedish, the others were conducted in Australia, Luxemburg and the US, and are studies of the interaction and communication of preschool teachers and children during science inquiry activities.

The systematic review is available as summary, information sheet and full report (in Swedish).

Project group

The project is carried out by a project team consisting of external researchers (specialists in the field) and employees at the Swedish Institute for Educational Research.

External researches

  • Jonna Larsson, senior lecturer, Department of Education, Communication and Learning, University of Gothenburg
  • Susanne Thulin, docent, associate professor, Faculty of Education, Kristianstad University

From the institute

  • Karolina Fredriksson, PhD (project manager)
  • Elín Hafsteinsdóttir, PhD (assistant project manager)
  • Eva Bergman (information specialist)
  • Maria Bergman (project assistant 2019–2020)
  • Catarina Melin (project assistant 2020–2021)

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