Science for preschoolers making a really big splash

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- It was a scene that would have pleased Mister Rogers.
A boy and two girls at the Carnegie Science Center's "Exploration Station Junior" enjoyed the thrills of discovery. But the real beauty was, they didn't even know they were involved in that notorious s-word: science.
The children hovered over flowing pools of water as colorful pingpong balls floated downstream through canals and over waterfalls. It was preschool paradise, with the boy spending precious moments dunking his plastic mastodon.
To their credit, adults let the tykes splash, slop and spill. One girl methodically scooped up balls downstream and returned them upstream for another aquatic journey. And when the boy wasn't drowning his mastodon, he dropped balls in the canals and watched them ride the flow.
Piquing interest
But what seemed like simple playtime exemplified a new-age format for piquing preschoolers' interest in science.
Family Communications Inc. of Mister Rogers fame and the Carnegie Science Center on the North Side this month launched the "Let's Explore" program, which includes a kit to teach parents, caregivers and preschool teachers how to spark children's interest in science.
"Fred Rogers felt that if you supported people who work with children you are supporting children," said Hedda Sharapan, director of Early Childhood Initiatives for Family Communications, a nonprofit company based in the same building as WQED-TV. "He always said that attitudes are caught not taught."
Such is the program philosophy. Don't try teaching science. Focus on catching a child's attention.
"Let's Explore," an "innovative workshop for early childhood educators," is designed to "bridge the gap between natural curiosity and scientific learning," the brochure states.
"Young children naturally wonder, ask, explore, experiment, observe and develop their own theories about their surroundings," which, as the brochure notes, is precisely what scientists do, it states.
But program advice goes against some preconceived notions about teaching science.
The "Let's Explore" philosophy recommends that adults avoid butting in and explaining everything. Don't fear children's questions. When questions are asked, don't give scientific answers. Instead, allow the child to explore the situation and explain it in his or her own terms. Permit the child to study an ant, splash in puddles and overload the senses.
Comfort level
The program also teaches educators to feel comfortable with children's curiosity in a way that fosters interest. Focus on "the right questions to help kids figure out the world around them," the program states.
Family Communications, which Fred Rogers created in 1971, produced "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" and used Rogers' philosophy to create various educational programs including "Let's Explore," Sharapan said.
The science center will teach the program and market the teaching program nationwide.
The three-hour workshop for as many as 30 educators can be taught at the science center or elsewhere. Programs for parents and caregivers have been scheduled for spring. The kit includes video clips, a manual, a facilitator's guide and other handouts. Further details are available on the Web sites for Family Communications at, and the science center at
"The world is fascinating, and adults don't need all the answers," Sharapan said. "They just need to facilitate conversation."
The science center has long had the mission of sparking curiosity by "connecting science and technology with everyday life," which mirrors the "Let's Explore" philosophy.
Ann M. Metzger, science center spokeswoman, said the science center engages the senses. Proof occurred when an elevator door opened and a boy burst forth and went dashing toward the fish tanks. "Fishes, fishes, fishes," he yelled. OK, the word was incorrect, but the impulse was right on.
A future oceanographer?
As for all the flowing water at the science center, museum Director Joanna E. Haas warned that "science is messy."
'Biggest hurdle'
"It leads in surprising directions and you never know where it will lead, especially with young children," she said. "The biggest hurdle is that everyone becomes adults and their curiosity is quashed."
Consider when adults and children walk through the rain. Adults hurry to get under roof. But children revel in getting wet, looking at earthworms and splashing in puddles.
Such activities encourage them to think, observe, enjoy science and figure out their world, Haas said.
"Science education is as simple as a bucket of water or a magnifying glass in the backyard," she said. "It doesn't have to be complicated. Sometimes children just need an opportunity to observe and digest."
The science center draws about 500,000 visitors a year, with another 200,000 people involved in museum science-on-the-road programs covering a five-state radius, Haas said.
Sharapan said sparking interest in science does not require expensive equipment. One can use a water dropper, colored water, wax paper, a lens and other household items to fascinate and teach children.
"Approach the world through the eyes of a child," Sharapan said. But beware: "It's really easy to kill that."
In other words, let the boy drown his plastic mastodon.
Copyright 2007 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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