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Preschool Pathways to Science (PrePS)

Preschool Pathways to Science (PrePS)

Facilitating Scientific Ways of Thinking, Talking, Doing, and Understanding
Authors: Rochel Gelman Ph.D., Kimberly Brenneman Ph.D., Gay Macdonald M.A., Moises Roman

ISBN: 978-1-59857-044-1
Pages: 144
Copyright: 2010
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Stock Number:  70441
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NSTA Recommended

To ensure they're meeting state early learning guidelines for science, preschool educators need fun, age-appropriate, and research-based ways to teach young children about scientific concepts. That's just what they'll get with this hands-on guidebook! The basis for the PBS KIDS show Sid the Science Kid, this innovative teaching resource helps children ages 3–5 investigate their everyday world and develop the basics of scientific thinking—skills they'll apply across subject areas when they enter school.

A fun and engaging way to introduce science to young children, PrePS is a must-have because it

  • Is based on the domain-specific approach to cognitive development. The collaborative work of cognitive researchers and preschool educators, this approach incorporates lessons learned from developmental research and classroom experience.
  • Provides age-appropriate introduction to key science practicesSupports a range of cognitive and social skills. PrePS uses science to help children develop math skills, early literacy and language skills, and social and emotional sensitivity.
  • Makes the most of children's natural curiosity. PrePS isn't a rigid curriculum that asks children to memorize facts. It's a flexible, hands-on approach that helps teachers build on what children do best-actively explore their world.
  • Encourages collaboration between teachers and children. PrePS encourages children's full participation, making learning a true partnership between adults and children.
  • Enhances any curriculum. PrePS gives teachers creative new ways to support science learning and reasoning within everyday routines and lessons.
  • Taps teachers' creativity. Because PrePS is designed to energize teachers and tap in to their personal creativity, teachers who already use the PrePS approach have reported an increase in professional satisfaction.

This reader-friendly guide gives educators the guidance they need to work PrePS into their existing program; sample schedules designed for the preschool classroom; and detailed sample activities they can do right away or use as templates for their own creative lessons. And with the book's assessment guidelines, teachers will know PrePS is having a measurable effect on the classroom environment and student learning.

Start young children on PrePS today, and help them develop the critical thinking skills they'll need to succeed-in science class, in other academic subjects, and in life.

Help children learn key science practices:

  • Observe, predict, check
  • Compare, contrast, experiment
  • Vocabulary, discourse, and language
  • Counting, measurement, and mathematics
  • Recording and documenting

See how this product helps strengthen Head Start program quality and school readiness.

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Review: Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology

"There is much to like in [the] PrePS™ curriculum...we think that such a goal of a science curriculum is needed not just in preschool, but at each level of education to promote in all scientists-in-waiting a better understanding of science as a process and institution. Researchers and policy makers alike would be wise to consider this goal for the citizens we are educating in our technologically and scientifically complex society."

Review by: Daryl Greenfield, Preschool Matters, August 2010

"If you are an early childhood administrator or educator curious about the emerging excitement around preschool science or a preschool science teacher looking to expand science in your classroom, PrePS is an easy read and a great place to start!"

Review by: Kimberly Elpers, NSTA Recommends

"A great source of ideas for teaching methods for students going into the early childhood field . . . the authors integrate theory and teaching practices in a very complete way . . . this book will be a wonderful selection for a teaching candidate's personal library."

Review by: Gail Perry, Young Children

"This approach to science offers unique insights into providing challenging learning experiences."

Review by: Herbert Ginsburg, Teachers College, Columbia University

"An important new early childhood science program based on ground-breaking research on children's thinking and learning . . . Teachers can enjoy this program as much as the children."

Review by: Susan Carey, Professor of Psychology, Harvard University

"[A] wonderful, user-friendly book . . . I urge directors and teachers in preschools and day care centers to implement its splendid suggestions."

Review by: Lucia French, University of Rochester, Rochester, NY

"A framework that will support thoughtful teachers in developing their own science activities that build on children's inherent curiosity about the world . . . This book should be required reading for students preparing to teach in early childhood. They will never again underestimate a young child's incredible intellectual ability."

List of Figures, Tables, Boxes, and Activities
About the Authors

1: Introduction to PrePS™

  • Science for Preschool?
  • More Competence than Meets the Eye
  • A Preview of PrePS
  • Conclusion

2: The Nature and Development of Concepts: Implications for Teaching Preschool Science

  • More about Theories
  • Theory into Practice
  • Developing the PrePS Framework
  • Flexible Plans
  • Conclusion

3: Key Science Practices

  • Observe, Predict, Check
  • Compare, Contrast, Experiment
  • Vocabulary, Discourse, and Language
  • Counting, Measurement, and Math
  • Recording and Documenting
  • Planning for the Science Practices
  • Activity 3.1: Introducing Observation
  • Activity 3.2: Making Predictions
  • Activity 3.3: The Blubber Glove Experiment
  • Activity 3.4: Animate/Inanimate Distinction Activity
  • Using Wind-Up Toys

4: Getting Started and Moving Forward

  • Getting Started with PrePS
  • Early PrePS Learning Experiences
  • Time to Explore ... an Explore Some More
  • Activity 4.1: Exploring the Functions of Senses: Comparing and Contrasting with Apples
  • Activity 4.2: Exploring the Functions of Senses: Describing Coconuts
  • Activity 4.3: Exploring the Functions of Senses: Matching Sounds
  • Activity 4.4: Exploring the Functions of Senses: Felt Weight and Balance Scales

5. Assessment

  • How Do We Know PrePS Supports Development of the Whole Child?
  • How Do We Know PrePS Supports Scientific Thinking and Understanding?
  • How Can Teachers Assess the Effects of PrePS on the Classroom Environment and on Students' Learning?
  • How Do I Know If I'm Doing It Right?
  • Some Final Thoughts



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.


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 different insides).

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.


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 concepts:

  1. Emergent curriculum, with the teacher as facilitator and not lecturer
  2. Active, hands-on exploration
  3. The integrated day
  4. Webbing
  5. The Reggio Emilia program (Wurm, 2005)
  6. Montessori
  7. Vygotsky and the zone of proximal development
  8. Piaget's view of children as active learners who construct their understanding of the world

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.

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