Why science for under 5s?


Science from the Start is all about enabling families to give their children under 5 opportunities to learn about the world around them. The ‘science’ part doesn’t involve complicated equipment or laboratory-style demonstrations – it’s about exploring, questioning, experimenting and developing ideas (scientific thinking!). And this all links into other areas of development too; learning new words, understanding numerical concepts such as number, size and position, developing motor skills, expressing themselves and building relationships and self-esteem.

Adults sometimes think that very young children are too young to take part in ‘science’ activities, but with adult involvement, all of this can start from (or even before!) birth.  Sensory play – anything which stimulates senses such as sight, hearing, taste, smell or touch – is fundamental for exploring and understanding the world around you. This naturally encourages scientific thinking and is something that generally happens spontaneously through everyday life, often without you even realising it’s happening. But once you do, it opens up lots of possibilities for building on to what you’re already doing. There are lots of ideas for sensory play around on the internet (just search for ‘sensory play’) and we’ve got some examples on our sample activities page too. If you want to find out more about how sensory play helps children’s development, try starting here, here or here (this last one is more detailed).

Despite all these benefits, there are fewer organised informal science learning opportunities (those outside of formal education settings, where you aren’t necessarily consciously or deliberately learning (1)) for preschool-age children in the UK than there are for older children (2). There is, of course, some brilliant provision around for children younger than 5 years – you can find a list here – but such opportunities are not widespread.

Play and parent/carer involvement are hugely important for young children’s development, and deliver lots of benefits for the adults and children (3; 4). (For more information about the importance of play, have a look here for starters). Parents/carers are the ‘first teachers’ of children. Sometimes, for lots of different reasons, parents don’t recognise how good they are at teaching their children things (3; 5); especially for something like ‘science’ which can conjure up images of laboratories and professional scientists (the Public Attitudes to Science report is really interesting if you want to read more about this). Everyone who understands the world around them understands aspects of science though…you know what happens to water when you move it in to and out of the freezer – basic physics!

In the EYFS (the framework for pre-school learning in England), science-based learning falls within ‘Understanding the World’ (6). Children’s Centres sometimes run sessions such as ‘Messy Play’ which do encourage exploration of different materials and textures, for example, which is great, but they don’t provide an explanation of the scientific basis of the learning involved as standard (5). It’s been shown the USA that getting parents involved with their pre-school age children’s learning at home leads to better results when the children get to school, and this is made more effective by engaging families and developing specific knowledge and skills (7). For STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) in particular, the involvement and of parents/carers in children’s learning, and how parents view their children’s abilities, has a significant impact on their future progress in these subjects, from an early age (8; 9; 10).

So, Science from the Start activities all use low-cost, readily available materials and are accompanied by basic explanations of the science behind them, so that families can do, and learn about, them together. And our feedback forms show that parents gain confidence in helping their children through attending sessions (5), so that’s us happy 🙂


(1) Wellcome Trust, 2012a. Review of informal science learning. London, England: Wellcome Trust.

(2) Wellcome Trust, 2012b. Analysing the UK Science Education Community: The contribution of informal providers. London, England: Wellcome Trust

(3) Ball, C., 1994. Start Right: The Importance of Early Learning. London, England: Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce.

(4) Taylor, A.F., Wiley, A., Kuo, F. and Sullivan, W.C., 1998. Growing Up in the Inner City: Green Spaces as Places to Grow. Environment and Behavior, 30, 3-27

(5) Hobbs, L.K., 2015. Play-based science learning activities: Engaging adults and children with informal science learning for pre-schoolersScience Communication, doi:10.1177/1075547015574017

(6) Department for Education, 2014. Statutory framework for the early years foundation stage. Setting the standards for learning, development and care for children from birth to five.

(7) Henderson, A.T. and Mapp, K.L., 2002. A new wave of evidence: The impact of school, family and community connections on student achievement. Annual Synthesis, 2002. Texas, USA: Southwest Educational Development Lab.

(8) Ruby, M., Kenner, C., Jessel, J., Gregory, E. & Arju, T., 2008. Gardening with grandparents: an early engagement with the science curriculum. Early Years, 27(2), 131-144

(9) Archer L., DeWitt, J. and Willis, B., 2014. Adolescent Boys’ Science Aspirations: Masculinity, Capital, and Power. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 51, 1-30

(10) Bleeker, M.M. and Jacobs, J.E., 2004.  Achievement in Math and Science: Do Mothers’ Beliefs Matter 12 Years Later? Journal of Educational Psychology, 96(1), 97-109


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