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Photo: Caroline Silber for Strategies for Children

It’s an exciting time to build upon three-, four- and five-year-olds’ natural curiosity about the world around them. So it’s promising that Massachusetts is updating its preschool framework for science, technology and engineering.

A draft of the framework is online here.  It covers biology and the life sciences (plants and animals); earth and space science; and the physical sciences. And each section links to related content in the pre-k math curriculum frameworks.

“We have to increase our expectations for little kids, which tend to be much too low,” Karen Worth, the chair of elementary education at Wheelock College, said in a recent interview. In partnership with the Department of Early Education and Care, Worth is helping to revise the framework so that it aligns with the state K-12 standards and blends into the existing pre-k math and literacy curriculum frameworks.

Pay attention to the verbs in the draft of the framework, Worth advises. She expects that children will talk, think, observe, explore, evaluate, construct, identify, and explain – that they’ll use evidence and learn about concepts, while developing the skills, knowledge and active sense of curiosity that will give them a strong foundation for later grades.

The draft itself says, the framework is not a checklist or a curriculum, and “does not imply that science/technology and engineering are to be isolated and taught directly.” Instead, the framework’s ideas and practices are meant “to be integrated into the lives of children in the classroom in ways that will support the development of the children’s abilities, dispositions and understanding.”

“A lot of what you need is there,” Worth said, explaining that sometimes what’s missing isn’t activities or materials, it’s depth. Teachers who are already taking children on nature walks, for example, can enhance what they do by asking probing questions.  It’s not just about asking children to collect or name leaves.  It’s also asking questions such as, “I wonder how that plant survives in this setting?” That creates a chance to talk about water, roots and sunlight. Teachers thus promote a language-rich learning environment while expanding children’s science-oriented vocabulary.

Similarly, preschool programs don’t have to buy expensive computers or tablets to teach technology and engineering. A fork or a plastic bottle will do, Worth says.  Children can use common items to engage in the engineering design process of using materials to solve a problem. The goal is to get kids to go through a process of developing a plan, devising a design, building a prototype and then testing its effectiveness, and finally redesigning it.

One example of how to use these standards in a real world setting can be found  in a 2002 article on the website of the National Association for the Education of Young Children called “Science in the Preschool Classroom.” Authors Kathleen Conezio, an educator, and Lucia French, a developmental psychologist, describe the cross curricular possibilities of science, vocabulary building and snack time by sharing an anecdote about a preschool where children were exploring the concepts of light and shadow. They collected different kinds of materials to see which created shadows and which let light through. “After several days of experimentation, they realized that while opaque materials create shadows and transparent materials allow light to pass through easily, there are some things that don’t fit in either category.”

One such material?  The strawberry flavored, moon- and star-shaped jello snacks they were eating one day.  One little girl declared that the snacks were “transparent.” Another girl correctly noted that snacks were actually “translucent,” because “you can only see through it a little.”

The final draft of the Massachusetts framework should be completed in June. This, however, will only be a first step. Early educators will also need professional development opportunities to learn about how to put the framework into action. Parents should be educated about the new frameworks and about how they can weave science, technology and engineering into at-home activities.

In a world of rapid-fire change in computers, healthcare, construction and other fields, children are a priceless resource. Loaded with questions and curiosity about the world, they are natural scientists, technologists and engineers. The states new framework should provide an opportunity to build on this natural talent by encouraging methods that inspire children to think, act and learn.