When I saw that the National Association for the Education of the Young Child (NAEYC) endorsed the National Science Teacher Association's (NSTA) position statement on early childhood science education, my interest was piqued. I respect both of these organizations and the work they do. I find a lot of comfort in NAEYC's commitment to developmentally-appropriate practices and I know that NSTA is wholeheartedly committed to making science education both important and accessible to people across the country. And when I read the NSTA's statement I was equally excited and terrified.
I was very excited to read NSTA's remarks about the underestimated abilities of our youngest scientists and preschool engineers out there:
"Current research indicates that young children have the capacity for constructing conceptual learning and the ability to use the practices of reasoning and inquiry (NRC 2007, 2012). Many adults, including educators, tend to underestimate children’s capacity to learn science core ideas and practices in the early years and fail to provide the opportunities and experiences for them to foster science skills and build conceptual understanding (NRC 2007, p. vii)."Indeed, given the time and space, I have watched my now two year old perform little acts of science discovery. Just today she picked up a stick, threw it in a river and exclaimed, "it floats!" In that small act of childhood play she demonstrated the curiosity that must exist for science learning to happen. She performed an experiment when she threw the stick into the water and she made a little observation that it floated. Had I the time and interest in having her round out her science learning, I would have brought along a notebook where we put sticker pictures of things that floated on one page and sticker pictures of things that didn't float on another page but I am not that mom. Her play is enough and I choose very carefully when I intervene.
My four year old son, on the other hand, probably would like completing the entire scientific method (which is what we called science inquiry in the old days). Stickers work for him but he really likes to draw pictures of his science ideas...but his drawings appear pretty nonsensical to me. Taking pictures would be a more "reliable" record for him to share with his friends or family or even using his audio recording device might work, too. Even so, I feel extremely cautious about imposing a lesson plan on a four year old. Again, I consider his play enough. When he suggests recording his findings then we will proceed from there.
Which brings me to the part of the position statement that I simultaneously liked and disliked. They say:
"Adults play a central and important role in helping young children learn science."
"Young children develop science skills and knowledge in both formal and informal
settings."As parents and teachers and other caregivers, we provide the opportunities for our preschool engineers to develop their pre-STEM learning. But I truly believe that those opportunities need to be exclusively play... Sure, play in different places with different materials using different tools, but it needs to be independent child-centered play. No judging, no right or wrong, no assessing...just good old fashioned play.
Luckily, the NSTA statement continues with the following, play-centric declarations about the future of early childhood science education:
NSTA recommends that teachers and other education providers who support children’s learning in any early childhood setting should
• understand that science experiences are already a part of what young children encounter
every day through play and interactions with others, but that teachers and other education
providers need to provide a learning environment that encourages children to ask
questions, plan investigations, and record and discuss findings;
• tap into, guide, and focus children’s natural interests and abilities through carefully
planned open-ended, inquiry-based explorations;
• provide numerous opportunities every day for young children to engage in science
inquiry and learning by intentionally designing a rich, positive, and safe environment for
exploration and discovery;"
So you can see why I feel ambivalent about the statement. I LOVE that "inquiry," "exploration," and "open-ended" recur throughout the statement. I feel nervous about the possibility that Kindergarten and first grade expectations will be pushed onto day cares and places of early childhood learning and that someone is going to start assessing preschool students and their teachers. But at the end of the day, I am excited that NSTA, NAEYC and many others are beginning to see the STEM learning in early childhood play.