Physics In Action - DuPage Children's Museum

Physics In Action

July 7, 2016

Approaching the topic of science with young children can be daunting to those with little science background, or for those who may not have had the most positive experiences with science in their own childhood. As a result, science anxiety impacts how teachers approach engaging their students in the classroom, and thereby, the quality of the experiences young learners are having.

Here at DCM, we strive to empower teachers and caregivers to see that you don’t need a degree in chemistry or physics to engage children in ways that will build their scientific knowledge. What it takes is a shift in perspective, the ability to be the children’s partner in the learning process, and recognizing that you are not only the teacher, but also the learner, discovering the limitless learning possibilities with children. It is about embarking on a mission of learning where the goal is not to find the right answer, but rather to explore the possibilities.

This is the heart of constructivist philosophy which the foundation on which everything here at DCM is built upon. As a constructivist based institution, we believe that children actively construct their own knowledge of the world, and the things in it. This, in part, means that performing an action, in other words, actually doing something is crucial to children’s understanding. Piaget, a developmental psychologist, asserted that children’s knowledge is connected to their actions on objects, and what they observe happens as a result of their actions.

We know that early experiences with basic activities around physical science promote children’s understanding of physics concepts, in particular the movement of objects, the changes in objects, and the interaction between the two. We also strive to present children and the significant adults in their lives, with experiences to develop, strengthen their capacities for scientific inquiry, and understanding. So what exactly is physics? In a recent article in the journal Young Children, the authors cite Nevis Laboratories at Columbia University as describing physics as the “study of matter and energy… how matter and energy relate to each other, and how they affect each other over time and through space.” Correspondingly, “physicists, who study topics like the properties of matter, motion, forces, and energy, investigate fundamental questions about the world, like why things change and what rules govern an object’s movement.”

For example, the exhibit, Make It Move, was intentionally designed to present children with exactly these types of opportunities. As children explore the movement of objects (i.e. pushing, rolling, throwing, dropping, kicking), they are making a direct connection between their actions and physics concepts. Through this active exploration, they are formulating theories about the relationships among objects, and classifying the similarities, and differences in the properties of objects. The other day I observed a group of children working together at the Archimedes Screw (see picture below). As a result of their investigation, they were able to come to the conclusion that the whiffle balls were slower because they had holes in them, the wood balls were faster, and that the golf balls were the fastest because they were heavy. This is a testament to how children actively construct an understanding of the physical world when presented with the right opportunities and materials.