Last week one of the kindergarten students asked, "Are snowflakes alive?" At first glimpse it is a simple question asked of a teacher. Now take a second to answer it in your own mind. Then ask yourself when you last took the time to wonder at nature as this 5-year-old did.
Don't be too hard on yourself; children are natural scientists. They are much more inclined than adults to ask hard questions about the world in which we live. From infancy they test the world around them. You remember the phase of their dropping things from the highchair just to see what happens. As early as 2 years of age, toddlers ask "Why?" With that, they begin a line of inquiry and a chain of hypotheses that could fill a yearlong curriculum.
Unfortunately, there is a disconnect once they get to school. Children are tuned in to science with their natural questioning and observation skills; however, science doesn't play a major role in their elementary school schedules. Science classes are not scheduled to take advantage of this age of natural wonder. Instead, science class takes a back seat to the fundamental skills of reading and math. There certainly isn't time to get everything done in a day (or a year for that matter), so science is often relegated to an abbreviated time in the weekly schedule.
If time keeps science out of the typical elementary science curriculum, you would expect to find it in preschool classes where time is not so closely tied to covering the curriculum. Still, science is the exception and not the rule. Indeed, a survey by the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) found that 80 percent of elementary teachers spend less than an hour a week teaching science.
Creative teachers find ways to tie science into other lessons. In fact the language arts series used in our area has extension activities that focus on science, allowing teachers to find ways to shoehorn science into a unit. Others may be content that students are being exposed to science in this way. For us, science activities alone are not an answer to this problem, for science is about engaging in inquiry over a period of time through firsthand explorations and investigations. To take advantage of children's natural curiosity, science deserves to play a much more important role in elementary school.
Instead of science taking a hiatus in a child's life from the beginning of formal schooling until middle school, we need to recognize science as a way to reach students to facilitate language and math skills. It is an ideal discipline to develop 21st century skills of creativity, critical thinking, communication, collaboration and information literacy.
To make this happen, the NSTA recommends that "teacher preparation and professional development must provide for experiences that will enable teachers to use hands-on activities to promote skill development, selecting content and methods appropriate for their students, and for design of classroom environments that promote positive attitudes toward science and technology."
As it is now, new teachers feel least prepared or comfortable teaching science as they embark on their careers. Veteran teachers often feel like they have to have all the answers to student questions.
Truth is, early childhood teachers and even elementary school teachers do not need to have a wealth of knowledge about scientific facts or concepts. From our experience, we would contend that one of the best skills we could teach an aspiring teacher is to elicit the question "why?" from his/her students, or to embrace the question, "Are snowflakes alive?" and to allow oneself the time that is necessary to explore an answer within such a remarkable teachable moment.
Linda Krulock graduated from West Liberty State College with a Bachelor of Arts degree in elementary education and early childhood. She teaches senior kindergarten at Wheeling Country Day School. Elizabeth Hofreuter-Landini is head of school at Wheeling Country Day. She is a graduate of Princeton University and Harvard University Graduate School of Education.