Excerpted from Chapter 1 of Preschool Pathways to Science (PrePS™): Facilitating Scientific Ways of Thinking, Talking, Doing, and Understanding, by Rochel Gelman, Ph.D., Kimberly Brenneman, Ph.D., Gay Macdonald, M.A., & Moises Roman, B.A. Copyright© 2010 by Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
A PREVIEW OF PrePS™
PrePS encourages science-based learning through activities and experiences that
allow children to explore big ideas in depth and to learn the practices and language
of science. The program was designed to enhance the classroom experience for both
teachers and children. Preschool teachers, directors, and cognitive researchers collaborated with the goal of fostering enthusiasm, fresh perspectives, and feelings of competence in the classroom. From the teacher's point of view, PrePS can ease the typical workload by encouraging collaboration and connecting daily lesson plans.
We are determined to feed the curiosity of young children and capitalize on their
tendencies to actively explore their social and physical worlds. Therefore, PrePS
makes a special effort to develop children's observational skills for purposes of obtaining information in a reliable way—through their own observations and explorations of the world but also through discussions with classmates and teachers and
by engaging in simple experiments. The program also features teachers' support of
children's tendencies to ask questions and make predictions about topics related to
science. We want children to learn that a question might have more than one answer.
Most important, PrePS is a program that places the development of scientific processes in the context of the need to develop connections between concepts and the related vocabulary across learning experiences throughout the year. Children are encouraged to draw connections between activities, ideas, and vocabulary; to link
questions and solutions from one activity to another; and to understand and relate
transformations and sequences that unfold over time, as in the case of plant and animal life cycles.
PrePS teachers connect learning experiences throughout the school year based
on a key principle of learning: It is always easier to learn something that one already
knows something about than to start from scratch (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking,
1999; Gelman & Lucariello, 2002; Resnick, 1987). This principle applies to all
learners, especially young ones. For example, a 4-year-old boy went to a science program for young children at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. When asked what
he learned at program, the child replied, "I learned when they evacuated a tube,
things fell together." No amount of questioning elicited another answer. But later in
middle school, the boy related what he learned in school that day by tying it to his
memory from preschool: "Remember when I went to the Franklin Institute and we
evacuated that tube? Well, now I know what that was all about." It is our hope that
your students will learn enough to make comparable connections at a later point in
their education. The goal is to put the children on relevant learning paths that will
provide more and more relevant data for constructing coherent understandings.
PrePS allows teachers to systematically plan their curricula and set specific, attainable learning goals for their students. Teachers can guide children in organized
investigations of the everyday world, thus promoting scientific skills such as observing, predicting, checking, measuring, comparing, recording, and explaining. Although subsequent chapters in this book provide examples of how we have introduced these activities, it is important to realize that PrePS is not a set curriculum with
fixed units that must be taught in sequence, or a list of unrelated facts and terms that
children must master. Rather, PrePS is an approach that relies on the natural curiosity and flexibility of preschool children and teachers.
When implementing PrePS, you will not be asked to prepare seat-work. You will
not encounter a pushdown curriculum that is made up of bits and pieces of what is
found in textbooks for much older students, nor will you be put in the position of
simply teaching children to memorize facts and words. Programs that offer pushdown ideas for science activities often require that learners already have sophisticated levels of background knowledge. Although young children can observe such
things as the shape of the moon, they cannot be expected to understand why the moon changes shape, its 28-day cycle, its effect on the tides, or why people would
weigh less if they were on the moon.
With PrePS, you will be embedding appropriate key content and science practices across the curriculum. You will be able to take advantage of the fact that concepts do not stand alone, each separate from the other. In this way, you can build sequences of learning experiences that help children construct conceptually coherent
domains of knowledge about particular science topics. For example, consider the concept of animal. Such a thing moves by itself, breathes, eats, reproduces, and grows.
Many of the same terms can be applied to trees and other plants; however, plants
cannot move around by themselves and do not obtain nourishment in the same way
as animals. Even some 3-year-olds recognize this distinction (Gelman, 2003; Inagaki
& Hatano, 2002).
Preschool children are able to deal with abstract concepts, as we discuss further
in Chapter 2. The examples presented throughout the book illustrate the deep interrelationship between concepts and their related verbal descriptions. Consider the
word bat, which refers to two very different concepts: a nocturnal animal and a
sports tool. The different interpretations lead to very different inferences. For example, if someone tells you, "The bat is made of wood," you could infer that it is
long, rigid, and used to hit balls. You would not infer that it eats, has babies, flies at
night, and has good hearing.
PrePS incorporates lessons learned from extensive research on the acquisition of
organized knowledge, which is fostered when learners are offered 1) multiple examples of the content and tools of a domain and 2) repeated opportunities to use the
practices of the domain (Brown & Campione, 1996; Dunbar & Fugelsang, 2005;
Gelman, 1998). PrePS also takes advantage of preschoolers' propensity to repeat a
given task until they are satisfied with their own level of performance. Box 1.1 provides a particularly compelling example of this internal motivation.
Annette Karmiloff-Smith and Barbel Inhelder (1974) designed a study in which preschool- and elementary-age children were given multiple opportunities to balance various blocks on top of a metal rod. Children assumed that all the blocks balanced at their
geometric center but soon discovered that some blocks violated this rule. As the session
progressed, the children adjusted their balancing strategies, moving from guesswork
and random trial-and-error methods to purposeful attempts to determine which side of
the block provided the best balance point. PrePS draws from a key finding: Children
kept trying different solutions, even when this meant giving up a working strategy for
one that did not work as well at first. Children went beyond simply making blocks balance to trying to figure out a rule for balancing. It is noteworthy that children were able
to use the same blocks over and over again. However, if the authors had not weighted
blocks in odd ways, it is unlikely that the children would have been motivated to search
for a particular kind of rule (e.g., how to balance the blocks that looked alike but had
Many children have a habit of counting something over and over again, including steps, cracks in the sidewalk, or the number of telephone poles they pass while
riding in the car. Children also are self-motivated to repeat a given activity. The extent to which these tendencies are engaged is critically related to the kinds of environments children encounter. If children are not offered a variety of environments
that are about science, they are not likely to invent them. Even if they do invent such
environments, there is no guarantee that children will know how to use and think
about them. PrePS teachers serve a critical guiding role by providing children with
repeated (ubiquitous), related (redundant) opportunities to work with a concept and
to explore it scientifically. Redundancy and ubiquity foster organized learning.
Figure 1.1 provides an example of the principles of redundancy and ubiquity at
work in the PrePS program. In September, a class of 4-year-old children traced one
of their shoes. When the children were asked how large the shoe was, they had some
difficulty answering. This same activity was repeated whenever each child got larger
shoes so that throughout the year, children made multiple shoe entries in their science journals. They also learned to write numerals and to use a date stamp appropriately. These developments were due to the ubiquitous embedding of measuring and
dating activities in various science-learning opportunities and clearly contributed to
a shift in the quality of entries in the children's science journals. As seen in Figure
1.1A, at the start of the school year, one child decorated her shoe with hearts and
stamped the date all over the page. When asked how large her shoe was, the child
told her teacher that she did not know. Later in the year, before the child measured
her new shoe, her teacher asked her to make a prediction. By this point in the school
year, she was able to do so. Furthermore, after she measured her shoe, she spontaneously wrote the numerals along its right side. The child's spontaneous use of numbers is also noteworthy because she related them to measuring. By
looking across journal entries, one can document progress in literacy and drawing
skills. Journals become a noninvasive source of information about a child's progress
during the school year.
Figure 1.1 illustrates another key feature of the PrePS program: ensuring that
there are science tools in the everyday environment. Although preschoolers are self-motivated to question and discover, they often are unfamiliar with the physical tools
(e.g., rulers, magnifying glasses, weights and scales, date stamps) and specific vocabulary of science (e.g., observe, predict, research, record). PrePS provides experiences
that allow children to use these tools and words in simple but correct ways. As the
year progresses, children start to understand how to use these tools and words independently because of multiple opportunities to use them with help from adults.
Although PrePS emphasizes the development of scientific thought, it encompasses many other social and cognitive skills: math and number abilities, early literacy and language skills, social communication, and emotional sensitivity. Mathematical skills are supported as children count, measure, and compare quantities while
doing science. Likewise, literacy is enhanced as children record and date their observations and ask for books that can answer their questions. Science also requires children to think critically and to compare and contrast evidence from different sources.
Investigative activities help to develop abilities that go far beyond the scope of
what one traditionally considers as science. PrePS strengthens basic decision-making
and problem-solving skills, thus allowing children to seek and interpret information
for themselves rather than to simply accept what authorities offer. Science requires teamwork among individuals who encourage and respect the opinions of others.
Sharing, respect for others and their ideas, and cooperation are necessary social skills
for both scientists and preschoolers. This broader conception of science provides a
lens through which to view and reevaluate typical preschool activities. Many opportunities for science activities already exist in preschool classrooms. For example,
storytime can include nonfiction science books or stories with a science theme (see
Chapter 3 for suggestions). If teachers include sharing time in the classroom schedule, they can guide children's sharing choices so that they relate to a topic under
study. For example, as part of an investigation of the science concept of change, children can bring in "something that changes." Children's choices—which in our experiences have included a wide range of objects including a transforming toy, a flashlight, a change of clothes, and ice cubes—create an opportunity to discuss what
change means and how much they already know about it. Box 1.2 illustrates how
children and teachers can explore scientific ideas together during group time.
DO INSECTS HAVE HEARTS?
As part of their exploration of insides and outsides, children were asked to think about
what might be inside ants and cockroaches and to predict what was the same about
them. One child suggested that both insects have hearts inside, but another child disagreed so the teacher asked the class to vote. Although all of his classmates agreed that
ants and cockroaches have hearts, the lone dissenter stood his ground. This sparked a
discussion about what kinds of things have hearts. One child reasoned that ants and
cockroaches are living things and that all living things have hearts. Another child
pointed out that plants are alive but do not have hearts. After hearing his classmates'
ideas, the skeptical child suggested doing research to find a definitive answer.
The children in this classroom were learning science facts (e.g., ants and cockroaches are living things) and science vocabulary (e.g., research). They used critical
thinking skills (e.g., plants are alive, yet they do not have hearts) to produce relevant
information. This example also illustrates how PrePS encourages social and emotional
development: One child possessed the self-confidence to express an opinion that differed from that of the class, and the other students respected his differing opinion.
When science is understood as a process of studying the objects and events in
the world by asking and answering questions, the scientific process can be integrated
throughout the school day and included in a wide range of activities. Science is not
a collection of unrelated activities that are inserted into particular time slots in a
classroom schedule. One central tenet of the PrePS program is that experience and
learning in one area leads to learning and understanding in conceptually related
areas. For example, when learning about the human body, children may explore the
form and function of different body parts (e.g., the shape and purpose of the teeth,
joints, stomach, brain, legs, and heart). When children start thinking about the bodies of other kinds of animals, they will learn more effectively because they can build
on what they already know and draw connections between one area of investigation
(e.g., the shape and purpose of human body parts) and another (e.g., the shape and
purpose of animal body parts). As children start to acquire new information and to
apply knowledge across different areas, they feel pride in their sense of understanding and joy in making discoveries. They have the satisfaction of being active collaborators in their own education. These moments inspire children to learn more and to
work together toward the goal of discovery.
As you read this book, you may be reminded of some or all of the following
- Emergent curriculum, with the teacher as facilitator and not lecturer
- Active, hands-on exploration
- The integrated day
- The Reggio Emilia program (Wurm, 2005)
- Vygotsky and the zone of proximal development
- Piaget's view of children as active learners who construct their understanding of
Indeed, we have been influenced by many aspects of other programs and theories, especially when these overlap with our ideas for doing and thinking about science. Many preschool teachers are already including some of the elements of PrePS
in their classrooms by encouraging children to ask questions, solve problems, communicate, work and play in groups, and pay attention to details. These are thinking
skills that can be applied to a variety of content domains, but their use and content
will vary. For example, if children are having a pretend tea party, they need to select
objects that are relevant to the script, such as a toy teapot, small cups, and tiny
spoons. With science, the props should be items that encourage exploration and
thinking about the nature of objects in the world.
In PrePS, science is not a rigid set of sophisticated experiments, formulas, and
rules. Rather, science refers to an attitude—an intellectual approach to viewing the
natural world—with an investigative method of asking and answering questions
(and a willingness to entertain alternative explanations). Implementing PrePS requires changes in the conceptual approach to teaching, but it does not necessarily entail a comprehensive overhaul of the learning environment. As the teacher, you will
be thinking and investigating (and encouraging the children to think and investigate)
in ways that are increasingly structured, cooperative, and conceptually focused.
Chapter 2 reviews more topic areas about which preschool children know and,
as Bowman et al. (2001) put it, are "eager to learn." It also describes the PrePS
framework that can guide you and your students through conceptually connected
learning experiences. Chapter 3 outlines how to use science practices with different
content. Chapter 4 discusses the use of PrePS throughout the year, either as a primary
or complementary program. Finally, Chapter 5 delves into issues of assessment.