What is scientific literacy?
Children are born scientists. Their brains are wired to experiment to help them understand the world around them. Any parent who has seen a child spill a drink and watch with fascination as the liquid spreads across the table and drips onto the floor has seen the scientific brain at work (as the parent is running for a towel!).
Although we’re born scientists, we’re not born with scientific literacy. Scientific literacy is a set of skills children learn that include asking good questions and knowing how to find the answers. Scientifically literate adults and children are curious about the world around them, can ask insightful questions, are able to find credible information, and use that information to form opinions that are scientifically informed. Those skills mean understanding how information is produced in our society, where to find it, and assessing how credible it is — no easy task in the digital era. It’s important to start early! Tap into your young child’s natural scientific brain to build a solid foundation for scientific literacy throughout life.
1. Model Curiosity
“I wonder why the small ice cube melted faster than the big one?”
“If our whole house was filled with pudding, how would we get it out?”
“You sat at the top of the slide and slid down, but when you sit at the bottom, do you slide up?”
Good science starts with good questions. Make observations of everyday things and ask questions. Questions can be serious or silly, as long as they encourage critical thinking. The best questions are open-ended and have more than one possible answer. Wondering why things are the way they are is the foundation for the scientific method (ask a question, gather information, form a hypothesis, experiment, make observations, share results).
Small children love noticing things and talking about them. Caregivers can find the natural observation and curiosity of a young child exhausting! Pro tip: you don’t have to answer all of a child’s questions to encourage them, it’s actually better to let children come up with their own answers! Respond with your own questions or challenge your child to come up with a possible answer.
Our STEAM educators at the Discovery Center start every science program with the goal of never answering a question. They are constantly engaging with the children to guide them towards their own discoveries. They often find that children’s natural curiosity and out-of-the-box thinking makes them better at figuring things out than adults.
“Looks like that spilled milk made a big mess. What tool should you use to clean it?”
Let children try things to see if they work. If you know the child wants to try something that won’t work, let them try it anyway. Failure is one way children learn. It’s normal for children to feel frustrated when something doesn’t go the way they want. Children should be praised for continuing to try something even when it’s hard, not just for getting to the “right” answer. Working hard at something difficult helps foster resilience.
Interpreting the results of your experiment is a big part of the learning. You might find there are multiple good solutions to the same problem, or that more experiments are needed. Those are realistic findings that prepare children for the complex, fascinating world of science.
Look for opportunities to conduct everyday experiments. When a child makes a mess, consider asking them what tools should be used to clean up rather than handing them a towel or a broom. Experiment to find out which ball can bounce the highest, which bath toys sink or float, whether water tastes better cold, at room temperature or a little warm.
3. Build Vocabulary
“You can push the wagon or pull the wagon, great job! You’re using force!”
“What does that playdough feel like?”
The more rich a child’s vocabulary, the better they can describe what they observe and ask questions about it. Being able to describe things helps build a foundation for lifelong science learning. A preschooler who knows about pushing and pulling is in a great position to learn about force in elementary school and inertia in middle school. For adults, scientific literacy includes having the language to read and understand articles about science in popular media.
One great way to build science vocabulary with young children is comparing and contrasting. Opposite words are particularly great tools for making observations! Big and small, rough and smooth, cold and hot, wet and dry, solid and squishy are all great words for building vocabulary. Integrating those words into sensory play is especially good for helping children learn and remember. Learning the word “squishy” while feeling something squishy connects the word to the sensation.
4. Sort Out Information
“Your track worked really well that time, let’s try it again and see if it still works!”
A key part of scientific literacy, particularly in the digital age, is being able to sort credible information from less credible information. Preschoolers aren’t using Google to search out science information on their own yet, but they are starting to discern facts from opinions and reality from fiction.
Everyday experiments provide great opportunities to start teaching how scientists know when something is credible. The best way to know if something will happen is to test it and observe it firsthand. This is why researchers prefer what they call primary sources, meaning the people who did the experiment and saw the results.
Scientists also repeat experiments over and over to make sure the results are consistent. A paper airplane may fly really well one time because it’s thrown into the wind, but repeating the experiment might show the design needs improvement. Scientists change their opinions and recommendations all the time when new information becomes available.
A hypothesis, which is a prediction scientists use when they start an experiment, isn’t just a guess, it’s an educated guess based on information generated by other researchers. Scientists work together in groups to check each other’s work and contribute ideas.
5. Read (and play!) Science Stories
Bring some books about real-life scientists into your home library to help kids learn how science works! Reading stories about real scientists can help children understand that scientific discoveries are rarely the result of “ah-ha!” lightbulb moments, but lots of hard work, careful study, advocating for your viewpoint, and missteps along the way. Successful scientists aren’t just “smart,” they’re hard workers! Highlight the parts of the stories that encourage curiosity and persistence. Bring the characters into your pretend play by asking your child to solve a problem as a famous scientist. Here are a few of our staff’s favorites:
- Seeds of Change: Wangari's Gift to the World, Jen Cullerton Johnson (Author) and Sonia Lynn Sadler (Illustrator)
- Shark Lady: The True Story of How Eugenie Clark Became the Ocean's Most Fearless Scientist, Jess Keating (Author), Marta Álvarez Miguéns (Illustrator)
- Buzzing with Questions: The Inquisitive Mind of Charles Henry Turner, Janice N. Harrington (Author), Theodore Taylor III (Illustrator)
- Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race, Margot Lee Shetterly (Author), Laura Freeman (Illustrator)
- Books from the Amazing Scientist series. This series of scientist biographies for young children by Julia Finley Mosca (Author) and Daniel Rieley (Illustrator) includes The Girl Who Thought in Pictures: The Story of Dr. Temple Grandin.
- Though fictional, we also love the The Questioneers book series by Andrea Beaty (Author) and David Roberts (Illustrator) that includes Rosie Revere, Engineer and Ada Twist, Scientist.
You can pick up some of these books (plus lots more!) from our friends at the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library.
6. Say “I don’t know, let’s find out!”
Even the world’s best scientists don’t know everything. A good scientist is never afraid to say they don’t know something. In fact, admitting to needing more information is critical to being able to do research objectively. Young children tend to believe adults know quite a bit, so being able to say you don’t know something is a powerful statement that encourages lifelong learning.