When three-year-old children investigate together, we teachers model a process of looking, collecting information, and testing ideas. This is a scientific approach, but because the children are three, a form of magical thinking can override their direct observations.
The children had been thinking together about leaves, fall colors, and the shapes and sizes of leaves.
I brought in a large hosta leaf from my garden that I thought would make some beautiful crayon rubbings.
At meeting, I brought crayons and the leaf, sandwiched between two pieces of paper on a clipboard so that the children could see only a shadow of its shape. I told them that I brought something for them to investigate together.
I held up the covered leaf and asked them if they had ideas about what I brought. As I held it up, I rubbed the leaf shape with my hand.
Children were engaged and curious, but at first no one had an idea to share. They agreed they saw a shadow and one child suggested there was a mystery.
Then a child said, “It’s an egg!” I replied, “You see an egg,” and agreed that the oval shape we saw in the shadow looked like the shape of an egg. I then used the opportunity to talk about flat vs. three-dimensional shapes, following up on previous conversations and interests among the children.
I suggested that the eggs I had seen could be held and looked at from all sides – that they fit in your hand. I pretended I had an egg in my hand and showed them it’s pretend shape. I pointed out again that what we were looking at was flat, and I rubbed the paper, asking if the children agreed it was flat like the paper – that we could see a flat shape that couldn’t be held like an egg.
Yes, they agreed, it was a flat chicken egg.
As children took turns feeling the leaf shape under the paper, talking about the veins they felt, all agreed that under the paper was a chicken egg.
We began to take turns rubbing a crayon over the paper, with beautiful patterns of veins revealed along with the outer edge of the leaf. One child pointed out that “It looks like a tree!” and we talked together about the central vein and all the other veins moving out from it to other parts of the leaf. We talked about how the veins move nutrition and water to all the parts of the leaf as it grows. We looked at our own veins on our bodies and compared them to the veins on the leaf. This continued until we had a beautiful rubbing of a complete, fully veined hosta leaf.
It was time to remove the paper and reveal the original leaf. We did so, and children were delighted to see what they called “a chicken egg with veins”.
If I’d originally replied to the first child, “No, this is not an egg. It’s a leaf with an oval shape,” I do not doubt that child would have immediately accepted my explanation. But because I neither confirmed nor rejected her statement, our conversation was able to continue with more direct observations and attempts at explanation, bringing in the thoughts of all the children, with each observation considered and valued.
In this case, as in all science with young children, the facts are less important than the process of investigation – direct observation, forming a hypothesis or theory, collaborating with others, evaluation, and thoughtful conclusion built on previous experiences. If we join the children “where they are” in their thinking and development, we can invite them to join us as they develop habits of learning that will last a lifetime.