I always had a science center in my classroom. Usually it included some natural materials of some sort- seashells, rocks, pinecones, leaves. Unfortunately, simply putting the materials on the shelf, even if they are part of an inviting display, does not guarantee the children will engage with the materials.
Here are 6 tips for using natural materials in the Science Center
1. Choose materials that will build on what the children are learning about. Link what is available in the science center to learning that is taking part in other areas of the classroom. Doing so will provide opportunities to talk about the materials, spark interest, and help link the materials to what the children already know, If the science center has a collection of seashells, and you read a book about the beach, bring the collection to the circle to share with the children while you’re reading or after your done. Invite them to explore the materials more during center time.
2. Have the children help you gather the materials. Maybe one of the students found an interesting leaf outside and you could supplement that with more that you find on a nature walk with the class. Some items lend themselves to having children bring them from home. If you do this with the purpose of putting them in a collection in the center, I recommend asking for items that you do not need to return. Let the children share with the class what they are adding to the collection.
3. Set up an activity or two that encourages the children to engage with the materials. Observing a seashell, even if you have a magnifying glass, will not keep most children’s interest for long. It’s even better to have some choices for the children. Having them vote for the activity they would like or allowing them to make up their own activity can increase engagement. Here are a few ideas:
- Answer a question. Use natural materials as a springboard for the essential Science skill of asking and answering questions. Some questions may explore a science concept, but any question to which the children can work to figure out an answer is acceptable. The best questions are ones that the children generate, but teacher generated questions have value as well. Be sure to give the children a way to record their answer. I often found a table like the one shown at left was very helpful. Photographs and drawings are also good ways for the children to record their answers.
- Compare length, weight, volume, or time. Children can compare two items from the collection or compare an item to a given object. For added complexity, have the children predict the outcome.
- Measure using non-standard units. Once children can compare two objects, they can begin measuring with non-standard units. How many blocks long is the pinecone? How much of the alphabet can I say while balancing a leaf on two fingers? Once again, providing a way for the children to record their answers is beneficial.
- Draw a picture of what is observed to put into a class book. It’s even better if the child can dictate a sentence or two about their picture. Display the book in a prominent place and make sure the children have opportunities to look through the book.
- Sort into groups. Children love to sort. The goal is for children to define the groups themselves, but sometimes the teacher will want to provide ideas. Teacher defined groups can be used to introduce a new way of sorting or to get a child started. Novel containers or mats for the groups or fun ways to pick the items up like tweezers or tongs, add interest.
4. Allow free exploration of a collection. Let the child’s imagination rule as they move, combine, take apart, and line up the natural materials. They can use them to tell a story, create a design, erect a structure, or play a game. As they manipulate the objects they will learn about the materials. Free exploration works best when you have a larger collection so there are more options. Take photos so you can share with the class and families what the children create. Loose Parts by Lisa Daly and Miriam Beloglovsky is an excellent resource.
5. Generate excitement by introducing and engaging with the materials This may seem very basic, but it’s an easy step to forget. We put the materials out and then either hope the children find them or mention them briefly and wonder why no one chooses the area. Before center time begins, bring the children over to the center and show them what is available. Your excitement (or lack of it) is contagious, so be deliberate about making it sound fun. During center time having a teacher present at the science center (even for short periods) will increase student engagement. The science center lends itself well to having conversations that extend learning and promote thinking.
6. Recap what children did during large group times. This is another way to generate more excitement for the center. There are several ways to do this. You can tell the groups what a child did. “Yesterday I noticed that Sage was sorting the leaves by if they had a hole in them or not.” You can ask a child to share what they did in the center. You can also share pictures of what children have done and then display them on the wall or in a book.
Natural materials are an excellent resource for early childhood classrooms, but only if the children are engaging with them. In the comments I’d love to hear about the natural materials you use in your classroom and what you do to encourage children to explore them.