Naturally Curious: The Impact Play has on Early Science Literacy

As I begin to write this post, I’m trying to think of the right words to express exactly how excited I am about the topic at hand, and how incredibly important it is. Today we’ll be exploring the idea of toddlers as scientists, an idea that has only recently been studied in depth.

When you think about it, it’s actually an easy concept to understand, isn’t it? Children are naturally curious--they want to learn everything they can about the world around them. They do this by poking, pushing, sniffing, tasting, dropping, shaking, throwing, and touching everything in sight. Through this exploration, children are investigating how things work.

Science can be thought of in many different ways. Some people see science as the learning of facts, the study of scientific discoveries, diagrams, models, and teacher focused instruction. On the contrary, as educators, we know science to be much more about the process of discovery, the construction of our understanding of how things move, what they’re made of, and how it all relates. These discoveries build our basis of understanding the natural world, and they begin at birth (Trundle, 2009).

When your child attends LEAP, they are exposed to a highly stimulating environment, one that encourages unstructured play and hands-on investigation. At the sensory bin, when your child pours water from one bucket to another, he explores the concepts of space, water flow, cause and effect. He learns…

  • What happens when I tip the bucket that is filled with water?

  • Does a big bucket hold more water than a small bucket?

  • How is using a bucket with holes different than one without holes?

  • What happens when I cover the holes with my fingers?

As your daughter gets messy in the mud and sticks her hands in bowls of paint, she explores textures, color, patterns, and gets to have a blast while getting dirty.

We emphasize choice at LEAP and allow mixing and matching across stations because we know this is where the real discoveries happen. Children experiment with what works and what doesn’t. They wonder…

  • What will a solid block look like on the light table?

  • Do leaves and feather look different when I hold them up in front of the light?

  • What if I stack things on top of each other?

All of these questions happen internally at this age, and teach children about light, dark, shadows, and shapes.

Each station brings a new topic to explore, new objects to manipulate, and exciting discoveries to be made. These discoveries are critical in establishing a foundation for understanding future scientific concepts, they impact a child’s ability to problem solve, and positively influence literacy and math skills (Duschl, Schweingruber & Shouse, 2007). This process of scientific discovery takes time, and requires repeated exposure to the same materials and frequent opportunities for learning. Children can revisit the same activity, such as building, week to week, and deepen their understanding each time.

Exposing children to various materials and allowing time for unstructured play is critical to early science literacy.  As parents and educators, our role is a simple but important one. Provide opportunities for your child to engage with the natural world and engage with them. By making verbal observations of their actions and yours, you are expanding their knowledge of the world around them as well as their vocabulary. Have fun with it! Laugh and get messy. Try new things together. Let them choose and watch as they investigate and experiment. Enjoy it!

Thank you all for allowing us to be a part of such an important and incredible time in your child’s life and for playing in the dirt and getting covered in paint with us, we love every moment of it!  After all, it’s all in the name of science!

-Emily Van Laan 


Duschl, Richard A.; Schweingruber, Heidi A.; & Shouse, Andrew W. (2007). Taking science to school: Learning and teaching science in grades K-8. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Trundle, Dr. Kathy Cabe. (2009). Best practices in science education: Teaching science during the early childhood years. National Geographic Hampton-Brown.