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Precipitation & Puddles: How Children Construct Authentic Understanding of Scientific Concepts

When I first started teaching in early childhood, I student taught in a school that did not go outside on days that were remotely wet or cold. However, we did talk about weather at circle time-- each day, it was a different child’s job to look out the window and put up the correct picture on our weather felt board. This was about the extent of curriculum surrounding weather that we did. But I kept asking myself: why are we sitting criss-cross applesauce, silently and indoors, talking about weather using clip art images when the real thing is right outside of that door? Something did not sit right with me about this very controlled method of teaching. Are children really learning if they aren’t exploring, playing, discussing, and discovering with their peers?

I reflect on this because there is a huge leap in cognitive skills and understanding of complex weather processes that I see in a nature-based setting, where children experience all weather in a hands-on, multisensory manner. We explore precipitation often-- we catch snowflakes on a black board and try to identify the different shapes, we discuss the difference between snow, sleet, and rain, we explore puddles by jumping in them and using containers to fill and dump the water, and we excitedly observe and share ideas about how fog occurs (which leads to discussions about condensation and evaporation!) At BOPN, we get the opportunity to extend on children’s observations and interests, following what they are truly excited to learn about which often coincides with natural science concepts. Below are a few ways that the children have been exploring the water cycle and precipitation more deeply.

The Art of Wondering

So much of our natural science curriculum is touched on when we simply are present with children, observe the environment, ask questions, make connections, and generally share a sense of wonder about the world around us. A few weeks ago, we introduced our thermometer and the children took delight in checking it out several times throughout the day to observe any changes, which brought on discussions of how the state of water changes when temperature changes. On our walks, we point out the puddles that change over the course of just a couple of hours-- going from ice to slush, and then even completely melting into a regular puddle by the next day!

Our winter scavenger hunt helped us look more closely at our environment to notice how animals (and people) sound different in the snow, and which parts of the Arboretum we would be more likely to find icicles in. We painted ice and snow, and discussed how the texture and consistency of it changed. Using rulers, we measured the different heights of various snow drifts around the Arboretum and compared them, practicing measurement skills and foundational addition and subtraction skills.

The Water Cycle Song

Here is a link so you can hear the tune: And below are some photos of the song card that I created for the children. At our welcome circle last week, we sang each verse and acted it out (I omitted a few verses because it is quite long). After each verse, I pointed to the part of the water cycle that we had just acted out to help link these scientific terms with a meaningful definition and example. To make things meaningful for young children, they must be a part of constructing the knowledge with us, which is why playing, singing, and acting out concepts creates much deeper understanding compared to sedentary, teacher-directed activities.

The Precipitation Game

Here's how the game works:

Use a thermometer or a printed out photo of one. Highlight or circle 32F to show where the freezing point is. I usually give a brief explanation that when the temperature is 32F or lower, usually the precipitation will be snow. If it's higher than 32F, usually the precipitation will be rain. For older kids, you can call out a number for them to find and for younger kids, you can point to a number. If the number is 32F or lower, the children pretend to be snowflakes by slowly falling and dancing to the ground. If the number is higher than 32F, they quickly fall to the ground and roll down a hill like raindrops moving into a river or stream. Let us know if you try playing this at home and how it goes! :)

Developmental Domains: Cognitive, Social-Emotional

Lens on Outdoor Learning Standards:

-Reasoning & Problem-solving 4.4 The child discusses, consults, and collaborates with other children and adults in working through questions and investigations

-Reflection, Interpretation, & Application 6.1 The child relates past experiences to new situations, generating ideas, increasing understanding, and making predictions

-Flexibility & Resilience 7.4 The child demonstrates comfort with open-ended questions and problems

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