Experimenting with children

by Dr Petra Hiebl, Catholic University of Eichstätt-Ingolstadt, Chair of Primary School Education and Didactics

Dear educators, dear parents, dear friends of experimentation!

We all know children’s questions such as: How does the contact lens stay on the eye? Why doesn’t a heavy boat sink? Why doesn’t the moon fall from the sky? Children are passionately curious. They are particularly interested in questions about scientific phenomena that they can observe in their own world. And: They also have the expertise to deal with such questions in a developmentally appropriate way! But we need to give them the opportunity to do so. This requires adults who, like the children, are enthusiastic about research. It is especially important for adults and children to have their own experiences with experiments, because as Albert Einstein already knew: “Learning is experience, everything else is simply information.” We hope that the experiments in the book will show you how exciting research can be and that it is fun for young and old alike! On the following pages, we have compiled an overview of how much children benefit from experimenting and what potential there is in it.

Have fun experimenting!

Experimenting with children

Are kindergarten and primary school children already able to interpret simple phenomena?

The children’s questions quoted at the beginning show that children consciously perceive the phenomena of the world around them and are interested in them. They not only observe them, they also question them. When they experiment, they do so with pleasure and perseverance.

This experience, which parents and educators make again and again in practice, is also confirmed by research findings. Gisela Lück, a scientist who carries out research on the teaching of science at pre-school and primary school age, has already noticed the “unrestrained interest of the little ones in everything that has to do with technology and science and an almost boundless curiosity” in kindergarten children. This time, which is so favourable for learning and understanding scientific-technical contexts, should be made use of.

For a long time, developmental researchers and educationalists were sceptical as to whether young children could concentrate sufficiently at all, whether they had the necessary powers of observation and experimental skills to grasp such phenomena. It was thought that only at around twelve years of age are they able to detach themselves from action and grasp contexts.

This led, among other things, to science only appearing in the curricula from the seventh grade onwards. However, more recent research has clearly shown that children’s development and comprehension skills allow them to understand things at a much earlier age. Today, it is assumed that early support in the natural sciences is beneficial.

These are the best prerequisites for getting even young children excited about the natural sciences, with experimentation at the centre. The central challenge is to create opportunities in which children can perceive and comprehend their environment in a differentiated way and grasp it conceptually. Experimentation gives them this opportunity because they can pursue scientific questions through action, perceive what happens in an experiment through detailed observation and are then guided by a discussion to understand the processes.

Children discover and learn with all their senses, which experimentation, among other things, makes possible. This is also the greatest opportunity for early science education. Especially in kindergarten years, the following applies: Never again will children have a comparable degree of freedom to be guided by their interests and to pursue the many tasks that come up in the course of experimenting.

As an adult, how can I support children's learning?

The children must be perceived as active learners. This means that the children should discover or develop the explanations for a phenomenon themselves by formulating their own assumptions and testing them through the experiments. The adults can guide children through this process.

Central elements of scientific work with kindergarten and primary school children are to think together about observations, to make hypotheses and to test them. It is important to do this using child-appropriate language. The focus is therefore on the children’s independent and discovering learning instead of adult explanations or pure factual learning.

Even if adults know the scientifically correct answer (as learning guides, they should know it in order to be able to take up the children’s ideas and give them impulses): With ready-made explanations, they overtax the children and prevent them from developing their own ideas, which ultimately make understanding possible.

As such, the adult supports the children’s understanding process by, for example, asking for justifications, indicating contradictions or pointing out connections.

Which skills are promoted through experimentation?

Through experiments, a variety of skills of children are addressed in addition to the scientific method:

  • Their dexterity is trained,
  • Their sensory perception is improved,
  • precise observation is trained
  • language skills are promoted
  • the search for explanations trains thinking and
  • joint experimentation strengthens social behaviour

How is an experiment carried out?

The experiments can be carried out as follows: Put together the necessary materials for the experiment. Then, together with the child, guess what will happen during the experiment. Then carry out the experiment and talk about the observations and the experimental procedure. Finally, formulate explanations together. In doing so, the childlike linguistic expression should not initially be corrected by adult terms. Finally, you can read the explanations together.

If an experiment does not work right away, this is also a learning opportunity. The experiment can be repeated to find out why it did not work. Children learn through repetition, which is why all experiments can and should be carried out several times. It can be particularly exciting to change something in the experiment (for example, material or procedure) and to assess beforehand what will happen, how the change will affect the experiment.

Example: Blowing up a balloon

The required materials are prepared and viewed together: Balloon, baking powder, small plastic bottle, vinegar, water, funnel.

Blow up a balloon without exerting yourself – do you have any idea how this could work? The question is already predetermined by the selected experiments in the book, but you can still talk to the children about further questions about the experiment.

The children write down their guesses about what will happen during the experiment. They should check their guesses after the experiment. Was the guess right or wrong? And why? You can write things down for kindergarten children.

Read out the individual steps to non-readers. The children should do as much as they can independently!

  • Put the funnel into the bottle. Fill the bottle halfway with water and add a tablespoon of vinegar.
  • Add the baking powder.
  • Put the funnel down and immediately place the balloon over the neck of the bottle.

In this step, you talk to the children about the experiment and ask what happened, what they observed. The children describe the course of the experiment.

At this point, the original assumptions can be re-integrated and discussed. The adults can get guidance in explaining (“What’s the explanation?”) to talk to the children. The full explanation is mainly intended for the adults, but of course it can also be presented to the children. However, it is often the case that the children have already interpreted the experiment with their vocabulary and linguistic possibilities. It is especially important that the children first verbalise their thoughts before the prefabricated explanation is used: When baking soda and vinegar are mixed, carbonic acid is produced. This is the gas that makes the bubbles in fizzy drinks and the fizzing sound when you unscrew a bottle. Your home-made carbonic acid flows out of the bottle into the balloon and blows it up for you.

What can I achieve with the children?

Experiments illustrate natural phenomena and help to make them comprehensible. If one’s own explanation is unsatisfactory, but the new one is understandable and comprehensible, a change in thinking can take place. The initial ideas and ways of thinking, which are often also scientifically incorrect, are thus slowly changed and not overlaid by the adults’ explanations. Through experimentation, the children are vividly shown how things behave and how they work.