In the EYFS, the statutory guidance informs us that children should explore the natural world around them, observing and drawing living things.
Once familiar with their immediate environment, we can then introduce knowledge about new places. This new learning can take place through first hand experiences. For example, you might learn about local pond life then move on to learning about a local river or lake.
New learning can take the form of text, and both the EYFS framework and KS1 curriculum actively encourage this. This may take any form you wish, from traditional books to digital technologies. For example, you might explore a woodland setting with The Gruffalo (Julia Donaldson) or the beach with Lucy and Tom at the Seaside (Shirley Hughes).
This transition from local to distant environments or habitats makes sense. So far so, good. Children learn about familiar everyday habitats. Once they’ve embedded and consolidated this learning, you then introduce learning about more distant, further away environments.
Encourage children to work scientifically by asking them to collect rocks/pebbles/shells and sort them into groups determined by similarities or differences. This early classification exposure teaches children to look for patterns in nature.
This supports learning in KS1 when pupils will need to group and classify plants and animals according to their physical characteristics.
You can then explore additional contrasting environments such as the Arctic or ‘under the sea’ through books such as The Snail and The Whale (Julia Donaldson).
This EYFS science knowledge and understanding of local and global environments leads agreeably into KS1 science coverage of ‘living things in their environments’. Children can look at a beach scene or a desert video and recognise that these settings are very different to their local habitats.
As Early Years educators we teach children about plants in our locality and the need to respect and care for their natural world. In Year 1, we introduce children to wild and garden plants and their structure. We also cover naming and classifying animals, building on the schemas children learnt in their EY settings.
In Year 2, we extend this science learning to thinking about the suitability of living things in their surroundings and interdependence (the concept of cause and consequence).
The schemas of lifecycles, eg ducks and butterflies (learning about the concepts of continuity and change) in Early Years leads to the topic of animals having offspring that grow into adults. This lays the schema for inheritance and evolution in KS2.
Children start to understand that change happens to many things, including them as they grow and start to learn more about their world.
In terms of scientific learning, we ask very young children to notice changes. For example, observing plants growing leads suitably into KS1 learning about what plants need to survive, and why. For instance, it is too cold for most plants to grow in the winter. So far, all this learning covers the field of biology.
We then introduce children to chemistry when teaching important scientific processes, such as the reversible reactions of melting or freezing (the concept of cause and consequence).
In EYFS science, we introduce children to the field of ‘Earth science’. Practitioners teach facts such as the Earth being tilted and spinning on its axis. This leads to day and night, the seasons and our climate.
We also introduce children in Early Years to disciplinary methods such as observation. For example, they may use magnifying glasses when hunting for insects. This use of equipment and data gathering leads into working scientifically in KS1.
Further data analysis may include measuring rainfall over the seasons. Over time (during KS1), children will learn that the amount of rainfall tends to be similar over the same months of the year.
This progression of understanding may begin with observing changes in weather over the course of a day and over the course of seasons. These methods of observation and analysis enable children not only to observe patterns over time but to represent and interpret this data.
This upskills them as young scientists – they learn to draw conclusions from what they see and observe. Children may then start to develop their own conclusions from what they observe in their world.
For example, when they see a rainbow in the sky they may notice that there is rain and sunshine at the same time. If they ask you about this, this allows you to start to develop children’s understanding of light being made of all the colours of the rainbow. We only see the individual colours when the light passes through the individual water droplets.
Once children learn that clouds and fog are made up of tiny droplets or frozen crystals of water they can investigate why water in an open container disappears, but not water in a closed container.
Children’s knowledge and understanding of the world around them continues to grow, and they add new facts to their schemas. When children observe and notice patterns, they make connections and grow in their learning.
There are many ways children can make sense of the world. These include:
● using their senses to make sense of their world (the concepts of similarity and difference)
● observing passively (watching a sunset)
● actively investigating
Examples of active learning might include:
● collecting shells
● digging into soil after a rainfall
● investigating the pigments in plants through chromatography
● holding a warm cup on a cold day to learn about heat transference
● feeling the air around them on a windy day
If we structure and sequence EYFS science learning, children can grow in their acquisition of knowledge. They learn to ‘know’ things.
They can use their skills to develop connections and embed their understanding across a range of scientific concepts.
When we cohesively order EYFS science topics, children can build on prior knowledge. By revisiting topics throughout the Early Years, we can ensure that children fully understand concepts, whether they’re simple or complex.
For example, children might develop a growing sense of responsibility and understand the need to respect and care for the natural environment and all living things. They might also develop their knowledge of similarity and difference and understand the difference between plants and animals through observation, for example.
Scientific learning in Early Years is inextricably linked to scientific learning in the national curriculum. The aim of the ‘natural world’ ELG is to develop a sense of awe and wonder in children about the world they live in.
Through careful and meticulous observations, children can develop connections and grow in their schemas of knowledge.
We can help develop children’s knowledge and scientific skills by making connections between the scientific concepts we teach in Early Years and those in the national curriculum.
Research review series: science (Ofsted)
Piaget, Vygotsky & Beyond: Future Issues for Developmental Psychology and Education by Smith, Dockrell & Tomlinson
Dr Jamila Hussain is a senior lecturer at Bishop Grosseteste University in Lincoln, a member of The Brilliant Club and an advocate for promoting opportunities for pupils from disadvantaged or minority backgrounds.