Children as young scientists

Can young children really understand science and how can we help them to discover and experiment?

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What does science mean to you? You might primarily think of it as a subject you learnt at school, with facts to remember, or you may think more about the process, the testing of a theory through observation and experimentation.

Children are born scientists, with their inquisitive natures. When you stand back and watch your child engaged in play you will see their inherent curiosity to explore and discover more. Just today I observed my 11 month old repeatedly putting her head in and out the washing machine, babbling away loudly to herself. I’m pretty sure she was exploring how her voice sounded different in the echo chamber of the washing machine drum as compared to outside of it. Imagine how much there is for children to explore and find out about!

Making sense of their world

We all make sense of the world around us and our experiences by making connections to our existing theories and knowledge. It is these links that enable us to meaningfully organise information, make predictions and find ways to solve problems. Experiments have shown that as young as three months of age, children have already begun to make links and form categories.

Before your child can communicate their ideas clearly with speech you can often see what they are exploring. One of the earlier things I remember clearly noticing my child repeatedly doing was banging objects together and my best guess was that she was interested in the different sounds she was able to make. I then read this article on functional play  which really resonated with me and helped explain my child’s current developmental stage.

Developing their own theories

As your child’s speech develops it becomes easier to know what they are investigating and what their theories are. Often they have misconceptions about how the world around them works and it can be tempting to either show or tell them how it really is, but exploring their own developing theories is at least as important as learning the pre-existing theories that are conventionally accepted to be known facts. Below we will look at a couple of common misconceptions and how you could support your child to develop their understanding without you simply telling them. This can be far messier and more time consuming than simply showing or telling them but it is invaluable!

As your child matures they will increasingly develop their meta-cognitive skills, which is their ability to think about their own thinking. They will become a more effective learner as they work out how to assess their own knowledge and through experience they will discover what skills and strategies suit them best when it comes to solving problems. Modelling language as you solve problems and reflecting aloud on experiences when you are with your child will support them in developing their own meta-cognitive skills.

Common misconceptions

1)bigger = heavier, smaller = lighter

Providing a range of different materials to play with will give your child lots of practice in feeling the weight of things. Things that are particularly light include rolled up bubble wrap, inflated balloons, an empty box and things that are particularly heavy could be a big book or a kitchen pan. As they get older and understand more language, you could set them a challenge to find a small heavy object and a big light object. Balance scales are really good visuals for helping develop understanding of weight and comparing weights whilst seeing visually the size. You can model the language for making predictions and comparisons, for example: ‘I think the pine cone is heavier than this stone’ then put them on scales to check. ‘Oh, the stone has gone down, I was wrong, the stone is heavier than the pine cone!’

2) taller = older, shorter = younger

The children in my nursery class became interested in this idea, when the Queen was turning 90. As we looked at a 100 square to see just how old 90 was, a child asked ‘is the Queen a giant?’ This question really captured their imaginations and my role within the ensuing investigation was to then guide their exploration (LINK see sustained shared thinking article). We used the internet to find out how tall the queen was and marked this on a long sheet of paper to begin with. We then began to measure heights of adults and children in the nursery and ask their ages, marking these on the sheet. I sensitively highlighted examples that contradicted the children’s misunderstanding. At home you could do this with members of your family or friends, perhaps finding out heights and ages from those you don’t live with too.

Science and creativity

Einstein is famously quoted as having said

“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.”

As your child grows they will increasingly be able to use their imagination to formulate ideas original to them. At first it may be something like using a block as a phone, but as they mature and engage in increasingly complex imaginative play with others they may assign roles to different people and collaborate to develop and act out scenarios, firstly based on their own experiences such as being a sibling or going on a bus and later, scenarios they have never been in, such as going into space! It is the many different possibilities that are fundamental to creativity and this type of thinking underpins the ability to be creative in anything, be it physics or art.

Through pretend play, as well as having lots of fun and developing their social and language skills, your child develops their ability to think symbolically (link to symbolic play article). Essentially this is the ability to understand that something stands for something else, be it the block as a phone, the word ‘dog’ meaning a physical dog or the numeral ‘2’ meaning two of something. The ability to think symbolically is essential for many skills including reading, writing, understanding numerals and mathematical symbols, as well as science. As your child gets older they will be able to work increasingly abstractly, for example, solving a written mathematical equation or suggesting a plausible hypothetical outcome to a problem. But for now, play, play, play!

How to support your young scientist

Find out what your child is really interested in. This may be by watching them at play or through conversations with them. Sometimes it turns out their interest is far broader than you thought or far more specific. With young children, letting them take photos can flag up interests, for example, looking back on photos taken by a child in the nursery it turned out every photo contained a hole in some form or another! If you spot a repeated interest think about other ways in which they could explore it, perhaps with different materials or objects, on a different scale or in a different place; this enables them to deepen their understanding. This article on schemas may give you some ideas for common interests to look out for, particularly in toddlers, and ways to explore them further.

Learn alongside your child. Where possible, focus on hands-on experiences over explanations alone. If they have a specific question you could look up the answer to a question online or in a book or search for a video to find out more. If they are exploring something practically such as putting things through tubes or down ramps, join them in their play, following their lead. As they get older you can increasingly reflect upon learning and investigations together, talking about what you could do next time, for example, so a tall block building is more stable.

Help your child make links to their existing knowledge and other real-life experiences. This supports them in making sense of their world. For example, if they have been using guttering and rolling vehicles or balls down them, compare this to when they go downhill on their scooter and how this compares to going uphill.

Model being a learner yourself. Ask questions and get things wrong, finding out answers and modifying your thinking aloud. Use language such as ‘I wonder’, ‘I have an idea’, ‘I think’ and invite them to help you with questions such as ’what do you think?’, ‘how could we find out?’ Your child needs to learn that their ideas are valued, that it is okay to get things wrong and how they can incorporate new knowledge.

Think about the environment your child plays in; ensure lots of open-ended toys and resources of a range of different materials. Treasure baskets are great for babies, followed on with opportunities for heuristic play as they become more mobile.

Encourage experimentation. Messy play can be great for this, whether making playdough, cornflour gloop or slime. You might want to try out different recipes and compare them or try swapping ingredients, or just see what happens when you mix things together in your own way!

Challenge your child’s thinking. This may be by providing toys or resources that don’t do what they expect or are an unusual combination. Perhaps you have a sand pit in the garden and have never used the building blocks in it or you could put a range of household objects out with some paint and large paper on the floor then enjoy experimenting with what marks they make.

Use scientific terms with your child and don’t be afraid of looking up meanings together; this is always a good opportunity to model being a learner yourself!

Final word

Science at this age is about discovery, experimentation and wonder. There is no right or wrong so just enjoy finding out about things with your child!