Children are naturally curious about the world around them. Science programs and activities are a great way to capture their interest and encourage the development of early literacy skills. Many science activities and materials are easy to incorporate into library programs; you may find that you’re already including elements that increase STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) knowledge, for example, talking about color mixing or identifying and playing with shapes.
Young children learn best through hands-on efforts and experimentation, which makes library programs, whereby children are already engaging in social learning, a perfect fit for science interests. Think about ways that you can incorporate the scientific method into programs: set up your activities so that children have a chance to predict, observe, experiment, and talk about what happened.
Water-related tasks can be incorporated into many different themes. Experiment with sinking and floating by providing an assortment of small objects made of different materials. Ask children to make predictions before they begin. Which objects do they think will float? Provide a chart for children and families to record which objects sank and which floated. Ask or post questions to encourage caregivers to talk with their kids. Do the sinking objects have anything in common? Were their predictions correct?
Raid your kitchen for water tools such as measuring cups, ladles, funnels, (new) sponges, slotted spoons, etc. How many ladlefuls does it take to fill a measuring cup? Explore porosity with sponges, cups, and cups with holes poked in the bottom: What happens when you submerge each vessel and then hold it above the water tub?
Children are curious about their own bodies and all the things their bodies do. Explore the senses with the following sensory activities. Turn travel shampoo bottles (available at any drugstore) into smelling bottles by soaking a cotton ball in extract or placing items with a strong scent (examples: orange rind, coffee beans) inside. Wrap the clear bottles in paper and ask children to identify the smells without looking at the items.
Demonstrate how sound travels by tying a metal clothes hanger in the center of a long piece of string. Wrap the ends of the string around your fingers and cup your hands around your ears. Bend over and let the hanger gently bang against the edge of a table or chair. The vibrations of the hanger travel through the string and to your ears where you can hear the bump. (Source: Buggy and Buddy Blog.)
Create a texture garden in which children can explore varying textures like rough sandpaper, soft feathers, silky scarves, or bumpy golf balls. Take a nature walk, or send families home with a simple “book” of stapled paper for them to capture additional sensory input. Write down what sounds you hear, or take some crayons to make rubbings of different textures you encounter on your walk. These activities would make a great program about the senses or could be added to a program about the human body or “All About Me.”
We can’t see air, but we can see what it does. Put out a tub or tray with various objects on it, some that could be moved by a child’s breath (a feather, a pencil) and some that can’t (a heavy pair of scissors, a paperweight). Ask children to predict which objects they think they can move with their breath. Then give each child a straw to blow on each object. Were they correct? Encourage writing by providing a chart for families to record results.
Tools as toys
Provide scientific equipment for children to use. Magnifying glasses are great tools to encourage children to make observations, and they can be used with a wide range of objects. How does an object look different and what do children notice about it when they view it under a magnifying glass? Scales, thermometers, rulers, and timers or stopwatches are other equipment that can help children learn about measuring and comparing objects. Even just having this equipment available for children to handle and play with is a great first step in teaching about these concepts.
Introducing STEM theories to young children can be as simple as setting out materials and letting them explore. Many activities can also be merged quite easily into what you’re already doing. Build in a little time during or after your story times for STEM play and let the learning happen.