What's behind the big question: Why?

Written by, | Jul 3, 2013 3:10 PM

Photos by witf

If you have ever spent any time at all around a young child, you know that sooner or later that the question asked of you is “Why?

Sometimes parents know the answers, sometimes not. Either way, parents come to understand that there is value in the questioning process itself and a real need for the child to try to determine the answers. Exploring to know more, the basis of science, is indeed the foundation for young children’s lifelong learning and healthy development. witf’s “Ready, Set, Explore” events are geared toward encouraging that process.

Recently witf, with support from WQED in Pittsburgh, convened teachers, families and stakeholders to explore Science learning with “Curious George” Executive Producer Dorothea Gillim. This two-day STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Summit allowed participants to reflect on STEM learning, the needs of young children, and how to support families and teachers in this discovery process.

What is happening in kids’ brains?

The human brain is always looking to group items, recognize patterns and classify similarities. In their book, “The Scientist in the Crib,” Alison Gopnik, Andrew Meltzoff and Patricia Kuhl shared: “Children are consumed by a desire to explore and experiment with objects. In fact, we take this for granted as a sometimes exhausting fact of parenting. We childproof our houses and say, with a sigh, that the baby is ‘always getting into things.’” They call this desire to know “the explanatory drive.”

Curiosity factor

Sara Bosley, an infant toddler specialist for the South Central Regional Key, suggested families start by observing what sparks an interest in a child. “Watch the child’s face,” she said. “What engages them? What grabs their attention?” Families might think that science is way over a child’s head, but Bosley suggested: “Children often have a very intentional plan. Their curiosity drives them.”

Jane Keat, an associate professor of education at Penn State Harrisburg, agreed. “Curiosity about their world is so built in,” she said. “Young children are so eager to learn, they will do almost anything to try to figure it out.”

Keat shared the process she used when she taught young children. “We observed the phenomenon and we thought about it — butterflies, pollywogs. We then analyzed our ideas by talking about them,” she explained. “I wanted them to know that other people had ideas about this but we could too. We could figure it out together.”

What can parents do?

Don’t feel that you need to know a lot about science to engage in science exploration with a child. Saying, “That’s a good question. I wonder where we could find the answer to that?” is a great response to a question you don’t know. For children, joy lies in discovering the answer for themselves.

Need ideas? Go outside, visit a local park or take a walk through the neighborhood together. Watch the clouds, cook together or put up a bird feeder together. Ask “why” questions together and then look for the answers.

At the summit, Gillim challenged the ideas that many adults hold about STEM learning. “The stereotypical idea of who a STEM learner is — that lab-coated scientist — really has nothing to do with the reality of how preschoolers experience STEM learning. In fact, our perceptions can sometimes lead us to give up.” Gillim said research indicates that adults who work with young children spent less time on STEM learning than any other pre-academic area. “It is often because they aren't comfortable with it or they feel a lack of confidence teaching it.”

Gillim said that parents don’t need to know a lot about science to engage in science exploration with a child. The process of discovering the answer is actually the joy for children.

To see clips from the STEM summit, click here. To learn about science activities by a child’s age, visit Also watch for details about upcoming “Ready, Set, Explore” events — witf’s science play date events — throughout Central PA.

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