The term “scientific concepts” seems to imply something incredibly sophisticated, technical, and above most of our pay grades. Believe it or not, but infants and young children possess both scientific and mathematical concepts (also called alternative frameworks, preconceptions, and intuitive or naïve theories). Not only do young children have clusters of ideas that they are using to navigate their everyday worlds, but they are actively creating new concepts all the time. These concepts are sets of facts and beliefs or explanations for how things work or why they look like they do. These concepts guide how the child reasons about things.
Consider the scientific concepts of acceleration and force. Children know from playing that toys can move faster or slower depending on how hard you throw or push them. From play, they also know that you can affect the acceleration of objects by altering the angle or incline of a ramp. They may not use these terms, and may not even be able to really articulate this, but they still get it. This is the stuff of physics and most preschoolers possess this intuitive but important knowledge of the physical world. Without these preliminary understandings of the way things work, the formulas and facts presented later will make no sense.
So children explore their worlds comparing what they see, hear, taste, feel or smell to those existing constructs or theories. Through trial and error, they can expand on an explanation, develop new ones, or potentially discount and ditch an idea that no longer makes sense to them based on their experiences.
To discover what a child’s scientific concepts are, just ask her. What causes something to drop to the ground? Where does our food come from? Why do people get sick or what makes them sick? What happens when we sleep? Where does snow come from?
Chances are you will hear some pretty fanciful answers and explanations to these questions. If you are hearing something that you know is incorrect, keep a straight face and listen up! This is what that child believes. These ideas are personal and a smirk or sarcastic comment will be taken personally.
What you are hearing is not wrong so much as a misconception. That is, it is an explanation constructed based on prior experience, and only through additional experiences that challenge thinking will it change. Discovery entails further questions, careful observations, collecting and organizing data, measuring, counting, and experimenting, so that the concept of interest (what happens when we sleep) will be expanded or altered if that child begins to realize that some of the incoming information is discrepant or different from what he initially believed. The term knowledge building describes the process beautifully, but sometimes to build something sound and meaningful, you may also have to tear down or start over.
This is the process of science, the seeking of and constructing information as well as sometimes discarding evidence or ideas. It may not be easy to undo a misconception, and some ideas are resistant to change. But if a child engages in hands-on discovery, whose curiosity is stimulated and engaged, and who is happy and feels connected and accepts guidance, ideas can change and grow.
Some fundamental concepts of science developed in early childhood form the foundations for all later science learning. Thus the urgent need to start early with lots of hands-on explorations. These concepts may take many years and lots of input to eventually resemble a scientifically valid notion. Children’s cognitive capacities will also develop enabling more and more abstract thought and theoretical reasoning. But in the meantime, children need regular, playful exposures to nature (inside and outside) and some adult help to focus on relevant or revealing information. You can’t wait until a child is “ready.” They were born ready, they just need parents who are well attuned to their interests and structure questions and provide activities or materials to assist the child in exploring those interests; parents who are also willing to share in the joy of those explorations.