Who ever said that learning science had to be solemn and serious never talked to Albert Einstein – he is quoted as saying “Play is the highest form of research.”

That being the case then, the playground is the child’s laboratory where they routinely ask the questions “I wonder what would happen if…” and “Can I do it again?”, “I wonder how high, how fast, how slow etc….”, “How can I…?”, “Can I make that happen again?” This starts very early in life as children are mastering moving around their world and working out the relationship between their bodies and the objects they experience.

Science in The Toddler Years – A Hands-on Proposition

There is no meaningful learning without getting hands (and sometimes feet and other body parts) and all the senses actively involved to help connect thoughts and ideas. Reasoning skills at this stage are reliant on established:

  1. Object permanency: an understanding that objects (and people) continue to exist even when they can’t see them
  2. Cause-effect: “If I do this, then that happens”

They are also developing understanding of:

  • Form and shape: they can complete increasingly difficult puzzles, starting with shape sorters and moving onto multi-piece pictures
  • Concepts: Language relating to position (in, on, under, between, over, in front of)
  • Weight: learning to understand what is heavy or light
  • Size: sorting in order of size
  • Categories: by how they are used, by colour or shape
  • Language to describe the properties of things: weight, size, shape, colour, texture, temperature
  • The power of the tool and how to use them: spoons, toy hammers, cups, jugs, crayons, scissors, blocks, boxes – the list goes on, and on…
  • Construction: blocks and boxes, beginning arts & crafts
  • Imitating a sequence of related events e.g. cooking a pretend meal, feeding a baby doll

All these skills allow the scientific and mathematical thinking skills of observation, comparison, measurement, categorization, assessment, use of tools of all kinds. They are learning how to express ideas by putting plans into action and evaluating how well they worked, and then modifying the plan to improve the outcome – or test if the same thing happens again.

Toddlers are great at this, they love games that are highly repetitive and allow them to learn how to predict how objects move in space – fast, slow, up & down – they are fascinated with the properties of objects and utensils, how they work and how to use them. As ordinary as they seem, these very abilities are part of their yet to emerge executive functioning skills, so pivotal for not only academic progress but success in all areas of life.

Encouraging The Development of Scientific Thinking in Your Toddler

So how to encourage their inner scientists? Following are a few simple strategies to follow to support your child’s scientific thinking:

  1. Model and encourage curiousity and exploration – touch, smell, move new objects and allow your child to do so. Avoid telling them what to do, or how to play with it, instead, let them explore (where and when it is safe and appropriate to do so) – comment briefly to the level of their ability at the time to understand – “Big!”, “Heavy”, “Fast” etc
  1. Give them problems to solve – it could be as simple as hiding the toy they are playing with and helping them rediscover it, giving clues to their level of understanding.
  1. Provide opportunities to explore a wide variety of materials, containers and “tools” . Rotate toys in the playroom to avoid them locking down” on just a few toys with which they play repetitively.


Some Cool Toys, Games & Experiences to Try:

  1. Moon Sand: Easy to make – just mix 4 cups sand + 2 cups cornflour + 1 cup of water. Moon sand repels water, and can be used over and over again. Low cost and loads of fun. Add moulding tools such as buckets, cookie cutters and sand play tools to the mix – would be an idea to put in large box with a lid and have a drop sheet handy as it tends to get everywhere. Add natural food colouring for a bit of variety.
  1. Water & Sand Tables: Well worth the investment – allows active exploration of the properties of sand and water, and keeps your little ones busy for long happy periods. They don’t have to be fancy to be effective!
  1. Bath Toys: Variety is key here – Water wheels that attach to the bathroom wall allow exploration of mechanics and power in playful way, just as quirt toys, cups, boats (plain floating and wind up) and plastic animals and people allow imaginations to fly as they experience the magic of water and how it interacts with objects.
  1. Water Flutes: I seem to be on a theme here with water don’t I? But it really is a great tool for exploring how the world works. Water flutes are wonderful as you child can have fun learning about how sound behaves through water – watch them experiment with varying water levels to produce different pitches.
  1. Bubbles: You can never have too many in my opinion! There are so many shapes and forms to explore –large wands, dinosaur bubble pipes that blow them through their eyes, stackable, long-stay ones, bubble machines, and traditional ones. I also love to play with bubbles in the bath tub with long clear tubes from the hardware store (that way you can be sure that they are clear of any mould and seeing if your little one is sucking rather than blowing!). Not only does exploring bubbles serve a valid basis for the development of scientific enquiry – they are great for settling the unhappy child!

There is so much early learning going on through the senses at this point in life, so if there are any difficulties with tolerating or clearly processing auditory, visual, tactile, smell, taste, joint movement or whole body movement sensory information, it has the potential to disrupt, delay or distort their learning experiences and skills. Don’t hesitate to seek advice if you suspect that is the case for your child. It’s always best to intervene early!

For more ideas about toys, games and variations on play, refer to our book The Smart Parent’s Guide.