3. Developing a Science Area

Teaching Challenge

Lack of a well-developed science area in a Pre-K classroom.


Strategy: Creating a designated science area to improve children’s scientific learning.

Context: The action research took place over one semester in a rural Head-Start pre-kindergarten classroom for 4-5 year olds. Full daycare was provided to children of all abilities including those with exceptional learning needs. There were 16 children in the class with a teacher and an assistant teacher. The High/Scope curriculum was used in the classroom.


  1. The number of observed science learning indicators demonstrated by children increased from 16 to 74.
  2. The number of science categories in which science indicators were observed increased from three to six.
  3. A designated science area in the classroom resulted in educators giving science a higher priority in the curriculum.
  4. Multiple examples of the same materials increased children’s exploration.
  5. Children most frequently used their senses of sight and touch to explore science materials.
  6. Children engaged most with materials they could manipulate.
  7. The presence of an adult in the science area resulted in children staying in the area for longer periods of time, using more language, and socializing more.
  8. Literacy and math concepts in the science area needed to be purposefully supported by adults.
  9. Time and materials needed to be made available to children in the science area for them to record their science observations.
  10. Science concepts that children explored in the science area were extended during adult-guided small group activities.

Summary of the Action Research

The aim was to create an area specifically designed to improve children’s scientific learning. Providing children with adequate time and materials to explore in the science area resulted in increased instances of science learning and use of scientific language; increased use of senses; and increased socialization. Educators more effectively supported children’s active learning in the science area, and gave science a higher priority in the curriculum. Children spent more time in the science area, and their science learning was extended into directed small group and whole group times. A speech therapist used the science area to support a child with language delay. This was a change from taking him out of the classroom for speech therapy.

The Teaching Challenge

Fig 3.1: The teaching challenge ~ children’s play is undeveloped in the science area

The teaching challenge was presented as a lack of a well-developed science area to support children’s learning in that discipline.

Four reasons existed to explain this challenge. First, access to appropriate science materials was limited, but the team knew that children could still use everyday materials to explore science concepts, e.g., manipulating nuts and bolts with their hands to explore shape. The use of portable science kits provided one solution but the circulation between several Head-Start settings made consistent availability a problem.

Second, the emphasis on literacy in the Head-Start curriculum resulted in the neglect of science provision. At the time of the challenge, science provision was sporadic at best, but the team wanted to feature it in the curriculum on a daily basis to stimulate the children’s scientific curiosity.

Third, educators’ confidence in their own ability to teach science was problematic. Educators favored more science in the curriculum, and they wanted it to be fun for children, but they were not confident that their own knowledge of biology, physics, and chemistry would enable them to do this. And lastly, children were rarely drawn to the existing science area or the materials in it.

Team Values

The team highly valued science in the preschool curriculum. Science provided children with opportunities to explore concepts, investigate materials, and develop a sense of wonder about the world around them. Science provision was strong during adult-directed small-group times, e.g., making play-dough, hatching chicks, growing pumpkins, and cooking spaghetti, but science was not well resourced as a free-choice. Educators believed that scientific concepts and materials should be made freely available to children to build their literacy, mathematics and problem-solving skills.

Aim of the Action Research

The aim of this action research was to: (1) create a well-resourced science area that would support each child’s scientific exploration and learning; (2) enable all children to have access to the science area during free-play times on a daily basis; (3) align science provision with NAEYC Standards (2009); (4) provide teacher candidates with a Practicum field experience in which these standards—and college course content regarding the teaching of science—was consistent; and (5) improve teacher candidates’ opportunities to plan and implement science assignments during Practicum that reflected NAEYC Standards (2009).

Alignment with NAEYC Standards (2009)

The importance of teaching content in the early childhood curriculum is emphasized in NAEYC Standard 5: Using Content Knowledge to Build Meaningful Curriculum. Teacher candidates are required to use academic disciplines to design, implement, and evaluate experiences that promote security and regulation, problem solving and thinking, and academic competence in every young child. Teacher candidates are required to further support their science teaching and children’s science learning by identifying and using developmentally appropriate practices and resources that include books, standards, documents, web resources, and to utilize individuals who have specialized content expertise.

Baseline Assessment

A 20-minute long video was recorded to form a baseline assessment of how children used science materials during free-choice time, a component of the High/Scope curriculum. Four girls played in a newly designated science area of the classroom. The team chose to use the Head Start Child Outcomes Framework for Science to analyze the video (see below Table 3.1), as it corresponded with their curriculum requirements. The video was analyzed for the frequency of observed science indicators.

Indicators Frequencies
Use senses and a variety of tools and simple measuring devices to gather information, investigate materials and observe processes and relationships 10
Observe and discuss common properties, differences and comparisons among objects and materials 3
Participate in investigations to test observations, discuss and draw conclusions and form generalizations 0
Collect, describe, and record information through discussion, drawings, maps and charts 0
Make predictions, explanations and generalizations based on past experiences 0
Observe, describe, and discuss the natural world, materials, living things and natural processes 0
Know about and respect their bodies and the environment 0
Know ideas and use language related to time and temperature 0
Know about changes in materials and cause-effect relationships 3
Table 3.1: Frequency of Head Start Child Outcomes Framework for Science

Data Analysis and Team Reflection

16 science indicators were recorded on the video. As children investigated the geo-boards, feely boxes, and colored lenses, they used their senses of sight, hearing, language and touch. Children mostly played in parallel as they manipulated rubber bands and stretched them over geo-boards. A child asked another, “What are you doing?” and the other child replied, “I’m playing with the feely box.” The child peered into the feely box, felt objects, and matched them to a corresponding picture card, e.g., the child matched a puppet with a picture card of a puppet.

The team identified three main themes about their science provision. First, the new science area gave science a higher priority in the curriculum than before. The new area occupied a better position than the previous science shelves. However, the space was not fully utilized. The new science area was not yet attractive to children, and a abscene of recorded frequencies for many of the indicators suggested that a full-range of scientific outcomes for children was not yet evident.

Second, children explored materials in the ways educators had hoped they would. The geo-boards with rubber bands, magnifying boxes, colored lenses, and feely box with matching cards all provided children with opportunities for sensory and manipulative exploration. However, the team agreed that science provision was weak in the curriculum, and questioned what science content children learned through such free-play activities. The team wondered if children had had experiences at home that provided them with prior knowledge or curiosity about scientific concepts. The team questioned what the children understood about concepts they had been exposed to.

Third, the results of the baseline assessment prompted the team to improve the science area. Plans were aimed at providing children with a broad range of materials that supported their learning in all areas of science. Educators aimed to use teaching strategies that supported children’s active learning through free-choice, initiative, investigation, persistence, understanding cause and effect, and predicting outcomes.

Selected Literature

The teacher candidate worked with the college librarian to identify key words to search for journal articles that would help the team improve their teaching challenge. The following articles published in Young Children were found and read by the team:

(1) Hoisington, C. (2002). Using photographs to support children’s science inquiry. Young Children 57 (5): 26-32.

(2) Jones, J., & Courtney, R. (2002). Documenting early science learning. Young Children 57 (5): 34-40.

(3) Buchanan, B.L., &. Rios, J.M. (2004). Teaching science to kindergartners: How can educators implement science standards? Young Children 59 (3): 82-87.

(4) Ross, M.E. (2000). Science their way. Young Children 55 (2): 6-13.

The article, “Science their way,” was selected by the team because a strategy outlined in the article to create “explorer kits appealed to them. The strategy consisted of gathering and organizing science materials, tools, and science-themed literature into kits. The strategy reinforced the team’s goals of wanting children to learn science through manipulation of materials, open-ended inquiry and the use of literature to support content learning during free-play times. The role of the educator described in the article was appealing. It required that educators not teach science directly to children, but to facilitate science learning by providing children with time, space, equipment and literature. Educators thought the provision of science literature in the science area was an effective way to increase educators’ science knowledge, and thereby, increase their confidence in teaching the subject. The use of science literature was also thought to support the teaching of more content knowledge as required by NAEYC Standards (2009).

Assessment of the Strategy for Developmental Appropriateness

The team confirmed that the strategy of explorer kits was developmentally appropriate for 4 to 5-year-olds. Wood, (2007) stated:

Learning goes from the hand to the head. Teachers in four-year-old classrooms need to focus on observing and redirecting behavior and asking children questions that lead them to the next level of cognitive exploration and understanding. Manipulative experiences are important in the classroom, e.g., magnets and pulleys in the science area.”

Implementation of the Strategy: First Stage

The team created five explorer science kits containing materials based on Ross (2000) around the concepts of light, magnification, balance, manipulation and color.  Examples of explorer kits are shown in fig 3.2

Light Explorer Kit


  • light box
  • prisms
  • flashlights with colanders and containers with holes
  • kaleidoscopes
  • light exploration box
  • X-rays with matching cards
  • shadow puppets
Magnification Explorer Kit


  • non-fiction illustrated books with 3D glasses
  • magnetic wands
  • video-scopes
  • light exploration box
  • X-rays with matching cards
  • magnifying glasses and natural objects
  • binoculars
Fig 3.2 Examples of explorer kits

Existing science materials stored in cupboards were rediscovered by the team and placed in picture and word labeled containers. Materials included colored beads, square tiles, and non-fiction illustrated books with 3D glasses. To increase the range of scientific materials, the team searched equipment catalogues and used grant funding to buy new materials to enhance the explorer kits. The team purchased a light box, light exploration box, X-rays with matching cards, prisms, magnetic wands, flashlights, kaleidoscopes, bingo-chips, scales, counting bears, video-scopes, a virtual rainmaker, colored tape, rechargeable batteries and charger, modeling dough, crystal light pulls and impression boards. The team began implementation of the strategy by creating light and magnification explorer kits, and placing them in the science area for children to use during free-play times.

Implementation of Science Explorer Kits

Fig 3.3: Children explore magnification materials
Fig 3.4: Children explore light using X-rays and the light box

After one week of implementing the strategy to provide children with light and magnification explorer kits, a 20-minute video was recorded and used to assess the impact of the strategy on children’s science learning.

The Head Start Child Outcomes Framework for Science (see below) was used to analyze the video for the frequency of observed science indicators, and the team discussed questions to guide their consistent reflection.

Indicators Frequencies
Use senses and a variety of tools and simple measuring devices to gather information, investigate materials and observe processes and relationships 40
Observe and discuss common properties, differences and comparisons among objects and materials 10
Participate in investigations to test observations, discuss and draw conclusions and form generalizations 2
Collect, describe and record information through discussion, drawings, maps and charts 0
Make predictions, explanations, and generalizations based on past experiences 2
Observe, describe, and discuss the natural world, materials, living things and natural processes 2
Know about and respect their bodies and the environment 3
Know ideas and use language related to time and temperature 0
Know about changes in materials and cause-effect relationships 3
Table 3.2: The impact of explorer kits on children’s science learning

The team reflected on the following questions after the video was viewed:

  • Is the strategy working? How?
  • Is the original teaching challenge being improved upon? How?
  • Is children’s learning improving? –How?
  • Is your understanding of your teaching changing? How?
  • Is your teaching changing? How?

Video Analysis

Sixty-two science indicators in seven categories were observed. This was almost four times the number of indicators seen on the baseline assessment video. The highest number of indicators (40) and the greatest increase involved children using their senses to explore and investigate materials and observe processes and relationships. Using the light explorer kit, children demonstrated these behaviors by looking at X-rays of animals’ bones. They used binoculars and 3D glasses when they looked out of a window at people and at trees. Children observed common properties about materials as they asked each other questions about what they could see. One child said, “I can see those people even though they are way over there.” Another commented on seeing the tall, green trees. Children looked at books that contained 3D pictures. They put slides in the slide viewer, and operated the lever to change the view.

On ten occasions, children explored the common properties of extending plastic pipes. They put the pipes to their mouths, blew through them, and listened to the sound they made. Children placed the plastic pipes on the floor and compared them. Two children said, “They’re the same length.” On two occasions, children worked together and tested materials by stretching, contracting, bending and twisting pipes into different shapes, e.g., circles, arcs, rectangles, spirals, and three sided figures. Two children remarked, “I can fold this,” “I can join these together” and, “Wow, look I’ve made an elephant’s trunk!”

Children studied how the objects in bottles of oil floated in suspension and then later settled to the bottom. They used the light box to view X-rays and gather information about animal and human skeletons. They used flashlights to shine through strainers and discover whether light would shine through the holes and land on other surfaces. In doing this, they explored changes in materials and cause and effect relationships.

Children made predictions as they passed beads through pipes and waited for them to come out the other end. They remarked, “Look at this, look inside there.” One boy stretched and bent the pipe to represent a fire hose. Girls copied each other by bending the pipes into circles and then wearing them on their heads as crowns. Children watched how materials changed and made predictions about cause and effect. There were no observed outcomes for the two areas of collecting: describing and recording information; and knowing ideas and using language related to time and temperature were also needed.

Team Reflection

After watching the video, the team assessed the strategy as “highly effective” in supporting children’s scientific explorations. The new science area enabled most aspects of the original teaching challenge to be improved upon. Some Head Start Learning Outcomes for Science were also met. Explorer kits placed in open baskets on shelves gave children easy access to a much wider variety of materials. The labeling of materials in words and pictures enabled children to use them independently. The new science area allowed children to discover things for themselves as the team had wanted.

Children were observed to be much more active in the new science area than they had been before. Interaction with the provided materials was thought to be critical to children’s improved learning. Children liked the whooshing sound of wind that was made when they thrashed plastic pipes through the air. Educators noted how children investigated materials by viewing slides and making a rainbow with the crystal light pull held up to the light. Children were seen looking through binoculars, and discovering that they could make objects appear larger and smaller. When children wore 3D glasses they were intrigued by the red and blue lenses. When they read 3D books about bugs, they enjoyed seeing how the blurred images of the bugs stood out once they donned their 3D glasses. As children handled and showed Lite-brites, X-rays and flashlights to each other, they discussed what the purposes of these materials could be, e. g., “What is this?” “What am I supposed to do with this?” and, “How does this work?”

Children were described as curious and very interested in these materials. They discovered and recognized that they were seeing pictures of the human skeleton. The team reflected on how the children used not only their sight to explore materials, but also their combined senses of hearing and touch.

Educators appreciated the discovery element in children’s learning. They supported the use of developmentally-appropriate learning methods derived through children’s exploration of scientific concepts. More opportunities were created for children to use their own initiative, but at the same time, children did not have to fulfill particular expectations set by educators. The video helped educators review and remove objects and materials from the science area that impeded children’s scientific play, e.g., the doll house, which was a distraction from the scientific purpose of the area. Providing children with real materials in the explorer kits enabled them to manipulate and discover properties. Educators reported that they were using both their existing and new knowledge to design challenging science activities that supported “young scientists.”

The team commented that because educators were not regularly in the science area when the video was recorded, they could not tell what impact they had on each child’s science learning during free-choice time. They noticed that although children asked questions about materials, no educator was on hand to answer them. While educator involvement might seem like a given, it was not. The impact of educator involvement in the science area was identified, then, as the natural focus of the next stage of the action research.

Educators determined that practices in the new science area were aligned with aspects of NAEYC Standard 5: Using Content Knowledge to Build Meaningful Curriculum.

Adult Involvement in Science Area: Second Stage of Strategy Implementation

Fig. 3.5 Educator encourages child’s exploration at the light box

During the next two weeks, educators intentionally spent more time in the science area during free-play times. They supported learning goals, by implementing techniques designed to promote content teaching through open-ended discussions: asking questions, encouraging inquiry, affirming curiosity, and celebrating wonder. Using Head Start Child Outcomes Framework for Science, a third video was analyzed for observed frequencies of science indicators:

Indicators Frequencies
Use senses and a variety of tools and simple measuring devices to gather information, investigate materials, and observe processes and relationships 38
Observe and discuss common properties, differences and comparisons among objects and materials 19
Participate in investigations to test observations, discuss and draw conclusions, and form generalizations 7
Collect, describe, and record information through discussion, drawings, maps and charts 0
Make predictions, explanations, and generalizations based on past experiences 2
Observe, describe, and discuss the natural world, materials, living things and natural processes 0
Know about and respect their bodies and the environment 4
Know ideas and use language related to time and temperature 1
Know about changes in materials and cause-effect relationships 3
Table 3.3: Observed frequencies of Head Start Children’s Outcomes for Science

Video Recording Analysis

With the addition of educator support, 74 further examples of science indicators in seven areas were observed in the science area. As before, children used their senses, as for example, gathering information by looking at a spider. They gathered information by looking at spider specimens through magnifying glasses.

Children used binoculars to look at each other and to look at objects outside. Children looked at X-ray images and identified them as limb bones. Children investigated materials by handling magnifying glasses, adjusting binoculars, turning spider specimens in resin over in their hands, and using construction kits to make paddles. When an educator and three children looked at books together about spiders, children’s concentration was extended and their use of language was more complex.

On 19 occasions, an educator, supporting a group of children as they viewed slides, showed that they were aware of commonalities among objects. Children noticed that all spiders in the slides had eight legs. All three bottles contained different colored tornadoes and the water moved in the same way… from one end of the bottle to the other. On seven occasions, children’s interest in tornado bottles was enhanced by an educator who further developed their observations into a racing game. Children explored time, by counting in seconds, which tornado lasted the longest. Children built tall structures out of the construction kit and made predictions by asking, “Look at that, it’s very tall. How long will the building take to fall over?”

Children made handprints in an impression tool and showed an understanding of the characteristics of the human hand. One child shook the pins back and said, “Look, the pins don’t go through your hands.” The impression tool and the light box gave children many opportunities to explore how materials changed and witnessed cause and effect. The light box and X-rays gave children opportunities to learn about their skeletons. With educator support, children studied X-rays in greater detail and understood they were looking inside the body. As a group, they indicated on the X-ray where they could see a broken bone.

Team Reflection

The video clearly showed how educators’ presence in the science area strengthened the impact of the strategy. Educators, as a matter of course, had a positive impact on children’s science learning when they answered questions, supported discussions, read books and participated in explorations. While this outcome might seem obvious to the casual observer, it did not always register with the educators until it was put into practice.

The original teaching challenge and the strategy were improved through educators’ participation in a well-developed science area. Children’s access to varied materials was greatly improved. Science provision in the curriculum was further developed. Children’s investigations were strengthened as they spent longer periods of time engaged there.

The team assessed that children’s learning in the science area was naturally improving. Increased knowledge about science concepts contributed towards children’s improved understanding about the materials they handled and explored. When the educator set children a challenge that required them to count backwards in a racing game, children’s understanding of time was strengthened. Children’s observations were more focused and more detailed when educators asked them to compare insects.

Children’s concentration was extended when an educator stayed close by. The team described how one educator in the video was “very effective” because she supported children’s activity, rather than taking it over. She stayed focused on children’s interests and followed them with relevant comments, suggestions and sources of information to maintain their learning. A speech therapist seen in the video, identified how the richness of the science area was a good place to support a child with language delay. Previously the speech therapist had taken the child out of the classroom.

The team deduced that a well-resourced and orderly science area enabled children to make free-choices regarding the materials they wanted to explore. Each child was able to use the science area in developmentally-appropriate ways as educators had hoped. The video showed educators how science concepts explored by children during free-play times were ripe for further investigation at small-group-times. Educators identified that a better balance was needed between science provision at free-play times, and at small-group times. Both times were recognized as important in the curriculum, but building connections between science concepts during these two times of the day was new. More challenging learning opportunities could be provided to children if concepts explored during free-play and small-group-times were connected and further developed. More emphasis on science content knowledge enabled educators to plan more challenging activities for children during small-group times.

The team determined that using children’s books in the science area was an effective way to support educators’ lack of confidence in teaching science content. More books written specifically for children could strengthen the science content knowledge of both educators and the intended audience. Clearly, by looking at pictures and diagrams, and building related vocabulary, both children and educators expanded their knowledge, and language of abstract science concepts in particular. Educators welcomed the idea that children and educators learned and discussed science content together.

Based on what educators saw in the video, they re-examined their attitude toward the role of educators in the science area. Educators remained supportive of children’s independent exploration of materials, free of predetermined learning expectations. However, educators saw how children learned even more effectively when they participated with the children in play. The team reflected that the expression, “free-play,” did not mean that children’s play was absent of educator involvement. This realization changed educators’ perception of their role in young children’s play and learning.

Over the course of the semester, attitudes improved among educators about the teaching of science. Educators not only valued children’s free-play, but also recognized that educator involvement was critical to help children understand the materials they handled. Based on what children did with materials, data was entered on the video assessment grid to measure what the team still needed to do to expand science provision. To increase the level at which children could record the findings of their investigations, educators suggested that children use laminated sheets to draw pictures and diagrams, and use their early skills of emergent writing. More explorer kits were still needed to support specific Head-Start Child Learning Outcomes for Science that related to the natural world. Materials, living things and natural processes, as well as knowledge and language related to time and temperature.

Final Reflections

The team assessed that the aims of the action research had been reached through the explorer kit strategy. However, the changes were ongoing, and not all changes could be implemented during one semester. Educators saw them as gradual, and change in one area of teaching naturally had an impact on others.

Educators evolved from regarding children’s free-play in the science area as the best way to build concepts (through manipulation of materials, for instance) to understanding, themselves, the value of educator participation in the process. Educators learned that they could play a critical role in helping children build science knowledge by using non-fiction books in the science area. Educators recognized that the discipline of reading on a regular basis was an outstanding way to develop their own science knowledge, and also to increase their confidence in teaching the subject.

As educators improved their science provision, videos showed initial evidence to support that NAEYC standards 1 and 5 were being met. Subsequently, video recordings contributed to meeting NAEYC Standard 3: Observing, Documenting and Assessing to Support Young Children. As a result, the teacher candidate experienced greater consistency between her learning in college courses and the practice she saw during Practicum. The teacher candidate was able to plan and implement her science lesson plan Practicum assignments in ways that were aligned with NAEYC Standards.


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The ELC: An Early Childhood Learning Community at Work Copyright © 2020 by Heather Bridge, Lorraine Melita, and Patricia Roiger is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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