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Foundations of Early Childhood Science Learning

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What does early science learning ‘look like’, whether in the classroom or beyond?  Science education for young children, especially at the preschool level, is relatively unexplored territory.  The national standards for science education provide a framework for elementary and secondary levels, but offer little guidance to pre-school educators.  Thus, inquiry into such learning is timely, and, the younger the learner, the more critical it becomes to include a parent’s perspective.
- Dr. Edward A. Chittenden


In its 17th year, The Science and Nature Program has created a model of early childhood science education for children, their families, and educators that fosters a respect for science and nature within a Museum setting. The keystones of the Program’s philosophy include: beginning science education early; involving parents, grandparents, & children as co-learners; making the Museum accessible; and establishing communities of learners. Understanding what young children are learning is very difficult. In a remarkable collaboration with Dr. Edward Chittenden, The Science and Nature Program has developed a method of looking at children’s science understanding through their drawings, constructions and conversations.

Ted Chittenden was an educational researcher associated with the AMNH Science and Nature Program (SNP) for more than a dozen years (2000-2012).  A specialist in assessment, Ted worked with SNP students, parents and teachers to develop a better understanding of the impact of early science learning.  His findings, reported in papers and at national conferences, highlight how the SNP approach fosters an awareness of the natural world that extends far beyond the classroom. 

What follows is a brief overview of Ted’s ideas about the ‘habits of mind’ young children develop through their participation in early science learning.  Student artwork displayed here comes from current and former children in The Science and Nature Program.


Understanding their World

Young children learn from and about nature through hands on experiences with live animals and experiences exploring dioramas of the Museum.  Learning from nature engages children’s powers of observation. Animals become the teachers and children are free to wonder, speculate, and think about their experiences and observations.  The Science and Nature Program creates classroom experiences where young children can learn about nature. These environments encourage children’s capacities to absorb new information. For examples of student work, please click on the Understanding their World Gallery on the left of the page.


Imagining Nature

This slideshow contains art where students are engaging powers of imagination, play, and pretend.  Children’s capacities to show their imaginings through art set the foundation for later work developing hypotheses and theories.  A child who asked “can a porcupine get hurted by a cactus” is applying imagination to their science learning.  Children’s drawings often blend real observations and their imaginings.  Dr. Chittenden developed a framework, working off of existing models for early science, for developing and evaluating science instruction for young children by looking at how children imagine nature through embedded and explicit assessments. For examples of student work, please click on the Imagining Nature Gallery on the left of the page.


Initial Skills of Scientific Inquiry

Dr. Chittenden modified a framework called “Scientific Habits of Mind”; through specific observations, investigations, and presenting of ideas and facts he believed that young children could develop initial scientific inquiry skills. These pieces of art show children playing with vocabulary and language, developing questions in conjunction with their observations, beginning the foundations of key concepts, like predator and prey, and understanding their world.  Developing these initial science inquiry skills at a young age builds a foundation for future learning. For examples student work, please click on the Initial Skills of Scientific Inquiry Gallery on the left of the page.


Learn More!

For more about Ted's research, read Early Childhood Science Assessment – this is an article written by Ted Chittenden and Jacqueline Jones about assessing science with the youngest learners.


Special thanks to Richard Bock and Chad Gallant.