Learning and Development

Best Practice Q&A: Science in the Early Years

  • Best Practice Q&A: Science in the Early Years

How can early years settings develop high-quality science learning? NDNA’s Jo Baranek shares her advice…

Q: Why is science important in early years?

A: Early years is about exploring and investigating the world, and about having fun and playing. EYFS science combines these two key elements, which are crucial to establishing a lifelong love of learning. It also connects all other areas of learning, from language (describing what’s happening in an experiment, learning new vocabulary) to maths and engineering (modelling, construction).

Nurseries are already embedding science in children’s learning landscapes, but many don’t realise they’re doing it. Practitioners must make that link with the children. If we don’t allow children to explore and investigate for themselves, and know that it’s science, where will the Tim Peakes of tomorrow come from?

Q: Who should be promoting science in settings?

A: Many practitioners shy away from certain areas of science because they aren’t confident they know the answers. Instead, embrace the questions and if in doubt, respond by saying, “I don’t know, let’s go and have a look.”

Everyone in the setting should be aware that science is crucial. It’s also about getting the right balance of planning specific science experiments and taking advantage of that moment of curiosity when a child sees a spider make a web. When something like this captures a child’s attention, talk about it as being ‘science’ – then they won’t be afraid of ‘science lessons’ later at school.

Q: Is science all about experiments?

A: No. A favourite science activity for early years is floating and sinking objects in the water table. Get children to think about how water moves and what it does to heavy and light objects. Work with the children to plant cress, grass or herbs, measuring how fast and how much the plants grow each day. You could even try putting some in the dark or keeping some dry to compare what happens with the plants that get light and water.

Q: Where should we carry out experiments?

A: Children love playing outside, so this is where big experiments work best. But equally outdoors is also where they can do lots of quality investigation for themselves. Where does rain come from, how fast is it coming down, why is it happening at all? Ask those kind of questions to encourage children to reach an answer.

Going out on trips is a good source of science learning. Look at forms of transport – how do cars move? What about people on bikes? Is it easier going uphill or downhill?

Of course, it’s not possible to be outside all the time and some children prefer to be indoors, so you can also plan experiments specifically for the classroom.

Q: What kinds of experiments work well?

A: Bright, memorable, noisy and smelly – anything to grab a child’s imagination! Try my favourite: the volcano. Put a plastic pop bottle onto a cardboard base and secure with tape. Make a cone out of thin card and slot it over the top of the bottle, leaving a hole big enough for the neck. Make papier mache to stick around the card cone to make the shape of the volcano, and paint once dry.

Add 4 tbsp bicarbonate of soda into the bottle using a funnel then put in a couple of squirts of washing up liquid. Mix red and yellow food colouring to make orange into 6 tbsp white vinegar. Take your volcano outside then quickly pour the vinegar mixture into the bottle and stand back. Wait for the spectacular eruption!

Q: How will we pay for this?

A: The beauty of science is that you don’t need to spend a massive amount on resources; it’s all there for you. Go out and listen to the sounds and smells of nature. Look at stars on a late winter afternoon or watch the sun move round the sky in spring. You can look within, too – learning about our own bodies is science, for example, understanding how and why we breathe.

But scientific experiments don’t need to cost much either. Cheap ingredients such as baking soda, washing up liquid and soap flakes are the basis of dozens of fun, memorable investigations.

Q: What precautions should we take?

A: A bad experience could put a child off science for life so it’s important to be careful. Risk assess all activities. Make sure you check any allergies your children may have – they can have a reaction to things like essential oils, borax, soap crystals and slimes.

Keep the children safe but try to allow them to do as much as they can for themselves. If you expect a loud bang, give them some warning.

Visit the NDNA website for more support on all aspects of running a high-quality nursery.