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The maths and science of puddles

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Annie O’Sullivan returns to Amplify with a wonderful (and wonder-full) contemplation on intentional teaching, play-based learning, mathematics, sciences, and puddles. Not sure how all of that comes together? Read on! Annie’s story covers theory and practice around connections with children and makes use of the puddles that naturally occur in many children’s services and schools after rain throughout the year. Her article also includes four intentional teaching experiences which will help you build children’s lifelong foundations in maths and science with nothing more than some puddles, sticks, and string.

You can read Annie’s previous Amplify article here: On your bike! Lessons learned in risk

Rainy days

The rain has poured and poured and in your outdoor play space huge puddles have formed … just waiting for an intentional educator to use them for some maths and science learning.

Really, you ask? Is it that simple?

Young children find the attraction of water difficult to resist and will play in puddles. We have all seen it. The joy, the delight, the squealing and the laughter! So, yes, why don’t we harness that for some maths and science learning?

Connect play and learning.

Research suggests early childhood educators value play-based learning but often struggle to connect play with content knowledge, and have difficulty supporting learning through play.

Researchers and theorists like Vygotsky, Feuerstein and Malaguzzi help us appreciate that learning occurs in the conversations and relationships between the child and the educator.

So, if we critically reflect on a child’s play exploring the puddles that occur naturally after rain an observant and intentional educator will recognise an opportunity for learning – in this case, learning about mathematical and scientific concepts and processes.

 What’s going on

A child will engage with puddles naturally, wondering about the water in the puddle and noticing what is happening during their play. As they do so, they can inquire, explore, compare, imagine, theorise, investigate, measure and experiment.

When supported by intentional teaching and facilitation from the early childhood educator, scientific and mathematical processes and concepts can be promoted. This occurs through the educators’ engagement, their questioning, the provision of appropriate resources and the conversations between the educator and child.

Recognising opportunity

The informed early childhood educator will recognise when to be a coach and when to be a fan, as ‘educators’ professional judgements are central to their active role in facilitating children’s learning’ (EYLF, p 11).

Such professional judgement allows the educator to strike a balance between allowing time for independent exploration, and stepping in to extend the child’s experience. These choices respect the child as a strong and capable learner who is an active participant and decision maker.

Striking the right balance will ensure the educator values and builds on the child’s mathematical and scientific skills and knowledge and safeguards the child’s engagement in and motivation for this learning now and in the future.

Where’s the maths and science?

But what mathematical and scientific learning can happen using a puddle?

Here’s just some ideas, you probably can think of lots more!

Earth Sciences

  • sinking and floating experiences exploring the properties of water
  • water cycle – understanding weather

 

Chemical Science

  • water cycle – understanding liquids, gases and solids, constancy and change
  • floating and sinking – density, properties of matter, cause and effect

 

Measurement

  • attributes of depth, area and circumference
  • time – duration, the sequence of events, days of the week
  • comparison – size, depth, location, temperature, colour, shape

 

Space

  • spatial awareness and relationships

Environmental Science

  • sustainability
  • interdependence of living things on water

Intentional, everyday teaching in puddles

And here are some intentional teaching experiences which are hands-on, play-based and designed to use the natural fascination and everydayness of water to enhance mathematical and scientific learning for children. They could form the basis of an ongoing project around ‘The Puddle’.

1. Sinking and floating experiences

  • Ask children to collect natural resources, such as sticks, leaves and rocks from the play space around the puddle. Also have some previously collected natural resources, such as, pumice, shells, pebbles and bark.
  • Prior to the exploration of whether each object will sink or float, ask the children to hypothesise what they think will happen, and why.
  • Use statements such as I wonder if… and open-ended questions such as Why do you think that stick floated? Why did the rock sink?. This will encourage hypothesising and comparison.
  • By scaffolding children’s wonderings and questions, an intentional educator can share knowledge and encourage experimentation with these concepts that apply to sinking and floating:
    • Density: look at the relative weight of an object and how it behaves in the puddle. High-density objects are heavy for their size and low-density objects are light for their size. A same-sized rock and piece of pumice are good examples.
    • Changes in matter: what happens when a little dirt is sprinkled onto the puddle? What happens when lots of dirt is combined with the puddle?
    • Cause and effect: combine heavy and light objects such as placing a pebble on a leaf to see what happens
  • Use a water-table in the indoor environment to explore and experiment with both natural and man-made resources (intentionally scaffolding children’s scientific understandings). This activity encourages children to transfer and adapt their learning from one context (the puddle) to another (the water-table) by making connections between experiences, concepts and processes.
  • Children can make boats to explore and experiment further with density and cause and effect.
  • Support the children to create a visual representation of their learning using a chart with the headings Float and Sink. Children can draw the objects in the appropriate column. You can Introducing technology by using a digital camera or iPad for the child to take photos of floating and sinking experiments.
  • Read and discuss the picture book, What Floats in a Moat? by Lynne Berry and Matthew Cordell.

2. Measuring and mapping the puddles

  • Measurement
    • Ask children the question I wonder if the puddle will get smaller or bigger by the end of the week?
    • Mindmap the children’s predictions and the reasons for their thoughts.
    • Use informal measuring resources: sticks can measure depth, string can measure the circumference. Talk about why these methods of measuring work and what other things could be used to measure size. Take photos of the area the puddle covers.
    • Suggest that children create a visual representation to map the outcomes of measuring each morning of the week. Discuss ideas with children about how to use the measurements from the sticks and the string to compare each day’s measurements.
    • Each day encourage children to estimate if they think the puddle has become bigger or smaller before measuring. You can use mathematical and scientific words such as depth, circumference, area, bigger, smaller, deeper, shallower.
    • At the end of the week, compare all the measurements and discuss the results. Encourage the children to hypothesise why the results occurred and if they differed from their predictions.
    • Introduce a tape measure for more formal measurement to assign a number to the measurement assisting in the child’s number sense and proficiency in measurement.
  • Mapping
    • If there is more than one puddle in the environment, create a map of all the puddles. Understanding and creating maps draws on the child’s knowledge of shape, position, direction and relationships between shapes, position direction and the relationships between spatial objects.

3. Exploring the water cycle

  • Eventually, puddles dry up and children who have been playing and learning in these natural pools may ask, Where did the puddle go? If they don’t, an intentional educator can ponder aloud, I wonder where the puddle went?
  • Encourage the children to hypothesise by gathering their voices to the act of wondering.
  • Suggest the use of the internet to find the answer. This is one example of a video, chosen because of its simple and fun explanation using stages of the water cycle. The video below uses scientific terms to explain the concepts of evaporation, condensation and precipitation as well as transpiration and sublimation.

  • Set up an experiment to show the water cycle in action: boil an electric kettle full of water. As the kettle boils the child can see the vapour coming out the spout. Capture the vapour with a glass or dish so children can easily see the condensation and the vapour or gas turning back to a liquid. This demonstrates the cycle of water between vapour and liquid states.
  • There’s a further activity which will help children’s understanding of the three states of matter which water can attain (liquid, vapour, solid), as well as the concept of constancy and change. Encourage children to collect some natural resources from their outdoor environment in a large container (one that can fit in the freezer). Fill the container with water and then put it in the freezer. Predict, observe and discuss the changes that may be taking place while out of sight. Once frozen,remove the ice from the container and place it outside to once again predict, observe and discuss the changes that occur.

4. Developing environmental awareness

    • Read the story of Tiddalick the Frog. There’s a well-known book Tiddalick, the frog who caused the flood, by Robert Roeenfeldt, or you may find other versions online like this, or this.
    • Older children might enjoy making a mindmap how water could be saved in your setting
    • The actions from the mindmap could extend into sign making, water catchment ideas and projects for the next time puddles form in our outdoor environment, and family and community involvement around preservation of water.
    • Go beyond the gate into watery environments. You might have access to the beach, rock platforms, or a creek bed in a park. There the children can translate their puddle play to new spaces and further investigate the interdependence of all living things.

Puddles! The possibilities are endless

The possibilities are endless and are only limited by the knowledge, skills and creativity of the intentional educator.

We, the children and educators, are mathematicians and scientists.

We live maths and science every day.

Annie O'Sullivan

I have over thirty years’ experience in the EC profession working as an Early Childhood Teacher/Nominated Supervisor in a variety of capacities, including a mobile preschool and co-owner/operator of a long day care service. Currently, I facilitate professional learning opportunities and policy development with a colleague as the 'Early Years Education Specialists' and teach part time as a lecturer in the Early Years degree at Wollongong University. I have recently graduated from Macquarie University with a Master of Early Childhood and have had a paper published in the Asia-Pacific Journal of Research in Early Childhood Education titled ‘Educator Decision Making about Outdoor Learning Spaces in Early Childhood Education and Care Services’. I have been very fortunate to travel widely and visit many early childhood services worldwide, especially in Africa and Asia. This has reinforced that the care and education of young children is the responsibility of the whole community. As an old African proverb says “It takes a village to raise a child”. So too with educators. We need to share our knowledge, skills and experiences to ignite enthusiasm, challenge the status quo and think outside the box so that all children receive the best possible education and care. As Nelson Mandela said “Our children are our greatest treasure. They are our future.”

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