Turning 3-Year-Olds Into Scientists

They may not be doing algebra, but pre-K kids can master scientific concepts that will make a big difference later on.

Pink Sherbet Photography/Flickr

Anyone who has spent time with 3- or 4-year-olds knows it can be exhausting. They’re talkative, mobile, and independent, with a penchant for asking questions about everything. But well-structured pre-kindergarten classrooms are designed to harness that unbridled energy into enthusiasm learning. Colorful posters on the walls and stations set up for small group work ensure that kids are engaged in the new concepts and skills they learn.

By the time they set foot in a pre-K classroom, kids have been learning math and science for years. But for many students, this is the first time this learning is structured, where they start attaching names to these concepts in order to better articulate them. Research has shown that this is a critical age for children’s cognitive development; their education at this point lays the foundation for their future academic performance and beyond. Adults can foster this growth by helping to link the more intuitive elements with the way we communicate them, and conveying positive attitudes about math and science.

“Children’s cognitive abilities at the beginning of kindergarten are pretty strong predictors of their academic growth all the way through high school,” said Michele Mazzocco, a professor of child development at the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. Research over the past few decades has connected early childhood education with later academic and even professional success. Part of the reason this stage is so important, according to developmental psychologist Jean Piaget, is that children ages 2 through 7 are in the symbolic function stage of their development. Although not all of his theories were correct, his assessment of period has persisted for almost a century: Children in the symbolic function stage start to connect physical objects to abstract concepts, shaped by instruction in how to communicate these connections as well as the children’s own experience.

When they enter pre-K, children are already thinking about science in the form of cause-and-effect relationships, Mazzocco said. If they do x, then y will happen—the universe has an order and a logic to it. Kids also begin exploring early math and science concepts by observing comparing objects. They’re intuitively drawn to quantities, patterns, shapes, rhythms, symmetry, ratios—“A lot of the informal aspects of math that appear intuitive,” Mazzocco said. Kids are really good at spatial reasoning, she added; they appreciate the ratios and patterns when building with blocks like Legos. These ideas are not as complex as the theory of relativity, obviously. But these concepts that connect the tangible to the abstract lay the foundation for scientific and mathematical thinking that later education can build upon.

This is where adults can start to help, by giving kids a way to express these concepts. “Kids are less intuitively drawn to the symbols we use to communicate math and science,” Mazzocco said. As a child starts to understand the concept of the number two, for example, a teacher or parent can connect that concept to the written symbol: 2. Even though kids can’t read or write out a math problem, parents and teachers can start helping them draw those connections and give kids the tools to use in the near future in school.

Written communication is only one way mathematical and scientific concepts are articulated. “Exposure to oral mathematical language early in life enhances children’s vocabulary growth,” Mazzocco said, just as it does with reading. When kids explore cause-and-effect relationships or spatial reasoning, adults can merely observe and suggest the language for what the child had already discovered. “You’re providing the child with lots of language to explain principles they might not have overtly noticed,” Mazzocco said.

A more general way that parents and teachers can foster a child’s interest in math and science is just by being careful of how they portray these topics to kids, even subtly. “We have to be very cognizant of the attitudes we convey about math and science,” Mazzocco said. “Kids pick up on that.” Adults who say that they’re bad at math or science around kids show that these are skills they do not value highly, showing kids that they shouldn’t value them, either.

So, how early is too early for adults to start teaching kids about math and science? “It’s never too early,” Mazzocco said. “The question is the mode of delivery as opposed to the content [of these lessons.]” It’s too much to expect for an infant to solve an algebra problem, of course, but children start absorbing a lot of information from their environments early on—and they’re picking up a lot more than we give their credit for, Mazzocco added. Giving them the right environments and presenting them with the right attitudes toward math and science could go a long way toward their future success.