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Children are born scientists – they are innately curious about the physical environment and naturally open to making meaning through their exploration and conversations with others. Science teaching and learning has a place in all early learning services.

Science teaching and learning is about introducing children to the ways scientists think about and investigate the physical environment. Scientists do this in two ways.

  1. They explore and confirm ideas about the physical environment we live in through investigation and exploration.
  2. They form hypotheses or “working theories” to make sense of the physical environment and identify these as science knowledge.

Science has traditionally been separated into five disciplines:

  • Living world (biology) – for example, plants and animals
  • Physical world (physics) – for example, forces, light, and sound
  • Material world (chemistry) – for example, melting and dissolving
  • Planet earth (geology) – for example, rocks and soil
  • And beyond (astronomy) – for example, planets and stars

Each discipline has specific ways of exploring and investigating the physical environment.

Alongside this “western” framework of science sits a Te Ao Māori world view. An example of a difference between the two is that from a Te Ao Māori perspective, water and planet earth (papatūānuku) are living entities, while for western science they are objects and substance with no life force.

In Aotearoa New Zealand, there is a growing interest, appreciation, and integration of mātauranga Māori (traditional knowledge) in our understanding of the world. A rich curriculum for science is one that acknowledges, respects, and draws on the similarities and differences between both world views.


Children exploring the natural environment.

Learner focus

Enriching children’s science-related thinking and knowledge

An effective science curriculum foregrounds the learning of skills, knowledge, and dispositions that enable all children to think and investigate scientifically.

For kaiako who remember their own experience of science at school as primarily activities and experiments, this may require a shift in approach. While resources and activities have a role to play, it is the quality of kaiako interest, interactions, and responses that grows young scientific minds most effectively.

Early learning services that encourage scientific learning have three characteristics.

  • They value play as the way children learn about the world around them, both the social ideas and the physical environment.
  • They value freedom to investigate the real life experiences, interests, and cultural and whānau connections that children hold.
  • They value the freedom – for children and adults – to express a point of view or have a change of mind.

More specifically, children learn science related thinking and knowledge through:

  • having time to explore and manipulate their physical environment – for infants this is where scientific thinking begins, especially when kaiako gift them vocabulary related to these explorations.
  • talking with kaiako and peers about science-related observations and ideas
  • having opportunities to lead open-ended investigations and make meaning for themselves about the results of their investigations
  • kaiako making science learning visible to them through conversations, thoughtful questioning, and documentation
  • access to visual representations of science ideas that catch their interest, for example posters of insects and drawing a seed that they have watched germinate
  • seeing their working theories in assessments of their learning
  • dramatic play inspired by their experiences of learning science, for example, playing out a concept such as germination from seed to plant
  • ready access to children’s non-fiction and fiction picture books that deal with science-related ideas, for example where different animals live.

Kia heke iho rā i ngā tūpuna, kātahi ka tika

This whakataukī, taken from Te Whāriki, refers to intergenerational expertise and the respect Māori have for the wise counsel of the ancestors. It is a reminder to consider the ways science teaching and learning is enriched through the integration of traditional Māori knowledge and values.

Examples can include the following:

  • for Māori learners, using contexts from their cultural experience to explore science ideas and processes – like the force needed to move a poi through the air
  • acknowledging that ngā pūrākau (legends) often describe actual geological understandings, for example, Te Ika a Māui – the lifting of the North Island out of the sea
  • incorporating Māori values and practices that contribute to environmental sustainability, for example understanding the role of kaitiaki to the natural resources that Papatūānuku provides
  • using storytelling to narrate science explanations that children are interested in hearing more about.

Kaiako who are effective in promoting science learning through play:

  • role model a sense of wonder for children, enthusing them to think and be in awe of how our physical environment works
  • have the capacity for surprise – seeing the unexpected as a bonus
  • are curious and willing to inquire into cultural views and values that can enrich scientific learning
  • advocate for an inclusive approach where all children can participate in scientific thinking and learning – working to eliminate real or imagined barriers
  • are attuned to children’s interests and their potential for exploring scientific thinking and language, for example responding to a child who notices a spot of light on the wall by saying, “yes, the sunlight is reflecting off your shiny lunchbox onto the wall”, or, seeing an interest in mixing substances as an opportunity to talk about “dissolve” and “immiscible” (a substance that cannot dissolve, like a small stone in water)
  • accept that they will not always know the answer and that this becomes a rich opportunity to practice the process of scientific inquiry with children, for example to ask, “I wonder how we can find out together?”
  • encourage using a variety of ways of finding out (using Google searches and other sources with critical awareness)
  • provide an environment rich in diverse physical resources, both natural and manufactured, for children to explore.
  • Useful resources

    Useful resources Useful resources

    ECE Learning Programmes – Te Papa

    Te Papa has a range of hands-on educational experiences, led by a knowledgeable and enthusiastic education team. There are a range of curriculum-linked learning programmes, which can be tailored for education environments. You can contact the Education team at Te Papa to find out more about how they can help support your programme.

    It’s a Bug’s Life: How to help young children do science

    Te Papa Tongarewa, in conjunction with three early childhood centres, has developed a comprehensive guide on scientific literacy, providing examples of practice, teaching strategies, and resources that align to the Ministry of Education’s five science capabilities. It explains: “Scientific literacy is essential in today’s society. By enabling young children to investigate the living world, you’ll help them build confidence, broaden their interests, develop scientific thinking skills, and build knowledge” (It’s a Bug’s Life, Te Papa, 2016).

    Kei Tua o Te Pae – Book 13: Exploration

    This resource includes commentary and a number of exemplars that illustrate a scientific lens on practice.

    Te Whatu Pōkeka

    This is a useful foundation for considering and discussing a Te Ao Māori worldview in relation to science in early learning services. It also contains examples of practice, some of which link well to promoting scientific thinking and learning.

    Mātauranga Māori in modern day research

    This is a video of a panel discussion that took place at Te Papa in conjunction with The Royal Society Te Apārangi. The panelists are three distinguished Māori scientists discussing their experience of drawing on mātauranga Māori and mainstream science.

    Useful resources

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