Engaging Students in Physical Science

Physical science is one of the three content items in science. (The other two are life science and earth & space science). Physical science deals with the properties of materials and objects. This includes things we can observe, such as height, weight, color, and transparency, but it also includes how objects respond in different situations. A big part of this is exploring the position and motion of objects. This is perhaps one of the easiest and most fun ways to incorporate science into your classroom. As you attempt to put physical science materials into your space, consider these four criteria of a good physical knowledge activity from Constance Kamii:

  • The child produces the movement.
    This means that the child is in charge of the activity, not the teacher. This isn’t just an observation activity…the child is really involved and is in charge of producing the movement.
  • The child must be able to vary his/her actions.
    There must be something the child can do differently in order to learn more about the object(s). For instance, can the child place the car in different places along the ramp, or make the car start or stop, or make the car go faster or slower. These all provide the child with an opportunity to figure out how these materials work, and how his/her actions influence the position and movement of the objects.
  • The reaction must be observable.
    The child must be able to observe the result of varying his/her actions. Without this observation, the child will be unable to draw any conclusion. Remember that observable doesn’t just mean seeing the result…you can observe with any of your senses.
  • The reaction of the objects must be immediate.
    When the child varies his/her actions, he/she must be able to see the results of that action right away in order to construct knowledge. If the reaction is delayed, the child may not be able to form proper conclusions.

Let’s look at some activities that meet these four criteria:

Catapult by Joyce Brewer

In this simple catapult activity, children are exploring simple machines and determining how the placement of the marker cap (fulcrum) influences how far the pompom travels.

Created by Melinda O’Connor

This simple balance is created out of popsicle stick. Placed on a V-shaped cardboard to enable the popsicle stick to balance, this is then glued to the cardboard base with a bent paper clip wrapped around the V-shaped cardboard holding in place the popsicle stick to form the balance.

This pendulum activity is always fun for children. Make modifications by using an adjustable length (such as using baby links or paper clips), adjustable weight of the pendulum bob, or adjustable weight of the materials being knocked over. Remember to only change one variable at a time though so that children can make accurate observations about the materials.

Inclined Planes by Rebecca Scholtz

Make your ramp area interesting by changing the texture of the ramps so that children can make comparisons about how the texture influences the speed and distance.

This adjustable ramp was made out of cardboard boxes and allows children to determine how the incline affects speed and distance. Remember to use the same materials for all three ramps until after children have had an opportunity to create some conclusions. Then you can experiment with different materials, such as the ones in this picture.

These are just a sampling of physical science materials. Each one has so many options for extending the activity…..what ideas do you have? How could you use these in your classroom?

Teaching to the Brain

We’ve all heard of teaching to the test, and we all know that this strategy has no long-term success for children’s learning. Instead, I suggest “teaching to the brain”….using what we know about how the brain develops to influence what we do in our classrooms. During the first five years of life, the brain develops at a rapid speed. Although the brain can be trained to memorize pieces of information, true learning and understanding comes from experiences that are tailored to the way the brain develops during these important years. So how can you apply what we know about the developing brain in connection to plan appropriate environments and experiences for young children that maximize the foundation for later learning? Here are 9 Brain-Based teaching strategies.

  1. Build Healthy Relationships
    Healthy development depends on the quality and reliability of a young child’s relationships with the important people in his or her life, both within and outside the family. Children who have positive relationships with their teachers are more excited about learning, more positive about coming to school, more self-confident, and achieve more in the classroom.
  2. Promote Communication
    Just as children want to connect with us, they want to communicate with us. There’s a very predictable pattern to language development, and it happens pretty quickly. Have extended discourse with children, go beyond the here and now in your conversations, and use sophisticated vocabulary.
  3. Encourage Curiosity and Creativity
    Exploratory behavior and creativity is a talent that is highly prized in the working world. That’s because good ideas make money. Children are naturally inquisitive. They are naturally curious and creative. Unfortunately, they learn from school that teachers value right answers more than provocative questions, so they learn to stop asking questions. Use open ended materials, ask thought-provoking questions, allow for trial and error and problem solving, and allow a lot of time for exploration.
  4. Value Play
    Play is the highest form of research (Albert Einstein). Direct instruction really can limit young children’s learning. Teaching is a very effective way to get children to learn something specific—this tube squeaks, say, or a squish then a press then a pull causes the music to play. But it also makes children less likely to discover unexpected information and to draw unexpected conclusions. Play is important. Play is how we learn.
  5. Improve Executive Function Skills
    Executive functions lay the groundwork for school success. Executive functions are a better predictor of academic success than IQ. Children who are behind their peers in these skills show more aggression, have difficulty getting along with others, are disruptive in class, and are slower to master academic skills in school.
  6. Plan for Physical Activity
    Voluntary gross motor activities, such as games, running, dance, and other active movements wire the brain to make more efficient connections. This supports later academic learning. We should be encouraging more, not less, physical activity in our classrooms.
  7. Develop and Teach Emotional Intelligence
    Human beings have an incredible ability to display many emotions, but only six of them are built in at birth. Unless children are taught these emotional states early (ages 0-3), when they enter school, they’ll be emotionally narrow. Teach children to recognize their own emotions, those of others, and how to manage their own emotional states.
  8. Practice Stress-Relief
    Chronic stress is a very real issue at schools for both staff and students. Recent studies suggest 30-50% of all students felt moderately or greatly stressed every day. For those from poverty, the numbers can be higher. Teach children better coping skills, offer them predictability, social support, and control over some of their choices.
  9. View Differences as the Norm
    Don’t expect children to be ready to learn the same thing at the same time. This contradicts research that says all children have different rates of brain maturation. Celebrate the unique differences, abilities, talents, and interests that children bring to your classroom.

Does much of this sound like good DAP (developmentally appropriate practice)? Yes! That’s because developmentally appropriate practice is based on what we know about the developing brain and the developing child. What are ways that you put these strategies into practice in your environment?