Science for pre-schoolers – lessons from the field

I have been doing a few half-hour science sessions at a Montessori school. Some of the topics we covered were:

  1. buoyancy and designing boats of aluminum foil
  2. using a microscope
  3. flight
  4. pulleys
  5. light
  6. electricity

One of my objectives in doing these sessions was to see if I could do open-ended engineering design projects with a group of children this young (without much adult help).

In general here is what I observed:

  • The Montessori philosophy of encouraging children in self-directed exploration really aligns itself very well with scientific curiosity, exploration and discovery. 
  • The children needed a lot of time to get familiar with the materials. So ideally, we would have played with the materials for a few sessions and then started talking about related phenomena
  • We never got into much engineering design or redesign. This could be possible with more adult help (to compensate for the developing motor control).
  • Familiarity with the materials and ideas generated more confidence. So children who had seen the materials before were more willing to answer questions and take risks.

Here are some more details on each of the sessions:
We had four adults for the buoyancy session and so the children were able to try out different types of boats (with their help), put playdoh in them and see which ones floated and which sank.

I tried to have the children think about why water overflows from a full container when we add something to it, but my questions and prompting weren’t clear.
The children were very intrigued by the materials. So getting familiar with the materials took up almost the whole 30 min.

The microscope session was more of a show and tell. I used this digital microscope.

We looked at paper, different hair strands and clothes. The clothes were interesting because under the microscope they lost their color and one could only see the fibres. The most surprising however was the image of glitter glue (below).

The teacher, made a great observation about how the children didn’t connect that the image on the screen was created by the microscope. The digital microscope is unlike the traditional one and doesn’t have an eyepiece. Her recommendation was to start off with a simple magnifying glass and then try a more traditional microscope where the children could look through the eyepiece and make the connection that the microscope was causing the magnification (and not the laptop).

The next session was one on flight and trying to learn from birds (through observation). I showed the children a few videos of owls, vultures and albatross in flight (through our phone application) and tried to get them to observe differences in wing shape and flight characteristics. The first thing they noticed was differences in color, but once we talked about how that wasn’t important to flight, then they started observing more closely.
I had made a bunch of models with different wing shapes (delta, crescent, elliptical and feathered) and the children made predictions as to how they would fly.

I put together a peg board and some dowels with pulleys from Home Depot. The setup wasn’t too robust and the thread kept slipping from the pulleys. I think the children were able to see that having more pulleys resulted in us being able to lift more weight. But again, they were distracted by the materials and the fact that it wasn’t clear when the materials were working well and when not at all!

The Exploratorium has a fantastic pulley setup (that they will install for you for $20,000 :). But it is robust and built for little, inquisitive fingers. I need to figure out a way in which to make my setup more robust so that it can be part of the classroom and children can explore on their own.

This was going to be another show and tell session with prisms, magnifying lenses, Fresnel lenses, mirrors and laser pointers. I tried to show the concept of reflection to the children and drew a ray diagram. But I didn’t have a fog machine to illuminate the laser beam’s path and so it was harder for the children to see the process of reflection.
However, as I had enough materials, each child took a mirror or lens and went about the room looking at various things and just exploring and that was fantastic. It was really fun to see how they used the materials in ways that I hadn’t anticipated at all.

Electrical Circuits
This was a super fun session! I brought in one of the Snap Circuits and we talked about how circuits were like loops. The children experimented with snapping in and out various parts and playing with the switch to see what worked and what didn’t.

The Snap Circuits are great as they are robust and easy to work with (for little hands).  However, they do add to the mystery of how electricity really works and so I brought in wires and alligator clips from another kit to show some of the bones of the circuit.

Further Resources

Asking Better Questions – Ask higher order, divergent questions. For instance:
Low order: What color is the lion in that diorama?
This question checks a student’s ability to recognize color and identify the color. There is a very narrow range of possible answers (tan, light yellow, fawn)
High order question: Why do you suppose the lion is that color?
This question allows the student to recognize and identify color, but then asks the student to consider the relationship of the lion’s color to other things (its environment, other lions, other species of animal, its place on the foodchain)
Convergent: What other animals can you think of that use color as camouflage?
This question checks a student’s ability to identify what role camouflage and animal coloration play in nature and suggest other examples. (The responses are fairly easily anticipated and require that students recall other examples of animals they have seen or studied).
Divergent: Suppose the lion had been born with a much darker colored coat, what do you predict would happen to that lion in the wild?
This question allows the student to consider a scenario, use knowledge regarding camouflage, coat coloration and the environment the animal lives in to create an original answer that is logical and correct.

Clinical method of questioningDr. Herbert Ginsburg, a professor of psychology and education has written a very interesting book called “Entering the child’s mind“. Here is an interview excerpt that gives some more information about the book.
Dr. Ginsburg: “The clinical interview method should be used more often in early childhood. Let me preface this with the fact that early childhood educators have relied a lot on observations. The clinical interview starts with that, with something you see the child is doing, then you ask questions like “How did you do that? Why are you doing that? What’s going on here? Tell me more about it. What are you thinking about?” So it’s very simple. The clinical interview method is sort of flexible questioning of individual children to try to find out what is the thinking that is producing the behavior that you see at the time.”
Practicing Science Process Skills at Home – This article breaks down how you can:

  • Observe qualities
  • Measure quantities
  • Sort and classify
  • Infer
  • Predict
  • Experiment and 
  • Communicate

Based on the few sessions I did, I do think focusing on the process skills is a great way to go. And then perhaps moving onto the engineering and redesign, once the child has become more familiar with the materials and process of investigation.

Exploring with the Microscope – this is an advanced (but fabulous) book written by a great experimental biologist Werner Nachtigall.

Flight – Videos explaining how things fly

Balance and trouble shooting flight

Lift Generation

Directions on how to make the model bird. Its from Iridescent’s Making Machines Out of Paper and Sticks.

Common misconceptions regarding light and vision. My favorite is “light travels from the eye to an object”.
You can buy a ton of fun stuff (Giant prisms, lenses, Fresnel lenses etc.) from American Science and Surplus.
Activity with a Fresnel Lens from the Exploratorium (with explanation of what is going on).

1 reply
  1. Sarah
    Sarah says:

    Those snap circuits look fantastic! I wish we’d had that sort of thing when I was a kid, those look to kind of take the creative wonder of Lego and apply it to a science lesson.


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