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We are trying to develop a scientific study to test preschoolers (3-5 years old) ability to learn a new science concept. The problem is that children that young can only remember concepts based on how they look but cannot remember any abstract information. So we are trying to find a science concept that can be taught to young children purely visually (feature based), that they can remember and then be tested on. What is a good example of this?

Example of a purely visual concept. (Differentiating species based on features):

enter image description here

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to Psychology.SE. Where did you get the idea that "children that young can only remember concepts based on how they look but cannot remember any abstract information"? $\endgroup$ – Chris Rogers Jun 19 '19 at 10:30
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    $\begingroup$ Research has found that young children seem to have a bias to learn based on perceptual features - and only later are they able to develop an understanding of more abstract scientific concepts (Sloutsky, 2010). - Several of our own studies have found the same results; when children are taught concepts (whether science related or not), they are only able to remember visual information. - It may be then that young children learn best by focusing on visual information, and that more abstract information is distracting and does not help them form an understanding of concept. $\endgroup$ – SurpriseDog Jun 19 '19 at 15:51
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    $\begingroup$ This sounds like a list question? If so, then perhaps it doesn't fit the SE model, or at least should be a wiki question. Anyway, take a look at the transformation of the shape of bubble and see if it's a good example? $\endgroup$ – Ooker Jun 22 '19 at 2:05
  • $\begingroup$ What is the purpose of this scientific experiment? What are you trying to achieve? $\endgroup$ – Ricardo Jun 24 '19 at 23:21
  • $\begingroup$ Does it have to be limited to visual or is it ok to include visuals? $\endgroup$ – Ricardo Jun 26 '19 at 2:18
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At this age I find it limiting not to use verbal communication in combination with visuals and ACTION.

If you can't remove this limitation, please disregard this answer. Otherwise, keep reading it!


In my experience with kids at this age, they respond positively with:

  1. fun physical activities: ludic games, moving around, challenges using their body (e.g. psychomotricity)
  2. instigating stories: using puppets or props, emotions (lightly exaggerated facial expressions, peculiar ton of voice, events happening to characters)
  3. concrete projects: arts and crafts, building blocks, toys, music
  4. media: videos, iPad games, etc
  5. nature: bringing them outdoors (green park, beach, etc), playing with animals or watching them,
  6. love: serenity, care and patience from the facilitator, positive stimulation, challenge proportional to the cognitive level, respect for his or her individuality

Considering that at this age most kids cannot develop abstract thinking, I never expected to test them on the concepts I'm helping them to build (if she doesn't know the answer, it's ok!). I always thought more like I'm facilitating them to form "building blocks" internally, like "planting seeds", that will grow with them and help them in the future, when their cognitive system is better developed.

I also follow some educators & philosophers that regard this age as a time to teach moral values, social and emotional skills, rather than science and informational skills [I'll provide some reference later ].


Here are some ideas:

  1. Paleontology concepts, Earth's history, care for species:
    1. tell the story of the extinction of the dinosaurs using puppets and emotions;
    2. play a relate video appropriated for the age (maybe scenes from Iced Age?);
    3. test (and reinforcement): ask them to draw the characters of the story and talk about what they have learned and how they wanted the story to end
  2. Water cycle / care for environment:
    1. play the video of the water cycle;
    2. present a skit with characters showing the consequences for the water system on throwing trash on the floor or using plastic bottles, etc;
    3. test (and reinforcement): have them build props using recycled materials and ask them how to protect the environment and what are the consequences of not doing it
  3. Human body / hygiene:
    1. play a video showing the "nasties" (or monsters) inside our mouth, that are flushed away when we brush our teeth;
    2. play another video with a catchy song about brushing our teeth (or play the song with them using musical instruments);
    3. bring a gigantic brush and simulate brushing gigantic teeth made out of toilette paper rolls (or something similar to a tooth); have them playing with the gigantic brush, pretending to brush their teeth; give them challenges
    4. test (and reinforcement): have them make the "mouth monsters" with playing dough and ask them how to prevent that from happening, using their life examples

Some educators that inspired this answer: Pestalozzi, Montessori, Comenius, Rousseau, Rivail, Jesus of Nazareth, Socrates

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How about some experiments on gravity. Gravity is a fairly simple concept if kept to the level of a simple attraction between two material objects. Students will be able to relate a number of their personal experiences with this. Then maybe you can ask them questions about:

  1. Flow of water in a pipe maze wherein the pipe nodes are at different levels, all subjected to gravity on Earth(in the usual way)...or the path taken by a rolling ball when left free to move in a maze with nodes at different levels from the ground.
  2. The trajectory of a ball thrown at an angle from the ground where gravity is absent.
    ....and so on.
    Why I think this is a good idea: It is a simple concept which will purely use the student's imagination power and that was what was expected. More over a myriad of questions can be formed on this simple concept by increasing the complexity.
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Consider showing a visual representation of the Earth-Moon-Sun system: either with videos or with globes.

  1. Show a globe of the Earth, that it's round but looks flat up close, and that it spins.
  2. Show that the Sun is also round, much larger than the Earth, but very far away, and looks like a circle from far away.
  3. Show that the moon is also round, smaller than Earth, but not as far away (people have been there, the landing spots can be pointed to at night, and there are pictures of Earth from the Moon)
  4. Show that the Moon orbits the Earth, that's why there are moon phases (notice how the lit side is always pointing towards the Sun) and the moon disappears every month (the Sun outshines the Moon when they coincide in the sky)
  5. Show that the Earth orbits the Sun (this one is harder to intuitively demonstrate)
  6. Show that the Earth axis has a tilt, and that's why there are seasons (might be stretch).
  7. Then to really challenge them, you could even tell that some people don't believe any of this, and instead they believe that the Earth is flat and argue with each other about various details of how it's flat.
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  • $\begingroup$ It seems like a creative idea! How was your experience with kids at this age in teaching them abstract concepts? On my experience, 3-5 years old kids cannot build some of these analogies yet (specially items #6 and #7) and, in general, they may seem to understand the previous concepts but may not be able to explain them later on. One may say "the Moon if far away and the Sun is far far away" and stop there. $\endgroup$ – Ricardo Jun 24 '19 at 23:37
  • $\begingroup$ @Ricardo gets it. Do you have any ideas? $\endgroup$ – SurpriseDog Jun 25 '19 at 15:24
  • $\begingroup$ Your bullet #4 is incorrect - the moon "disappears" every month because of how it's illuminated by the sun (its phase), not due to its orbit. The moon always appears to pass overhead every single day. The new moon passes overhead at roughly noon with the non-illuminated side facing us, which is why you can't see it - it's not because the earth is blocking the line-of-sight to the moon. Bullet #5 is also wrong - moon phases are due to the moon's orbit around the earth, not the earth's orbit around the sun. $\endgroup$ – Nuclear Wang Jun 25 '19 at 15:33
  • $\begingroup$ @NuclearWang thanks for the feedback, I've updated the answer. $\endgroup$ – Justas Jun 25 '19 at 18:55
  • $\begingroup$ Ricardo and @Benjamin I'd say which concepts will be retained and to what extent will vary on the sample of kids and the teaching method employed. I would expect none or few kids to comprehend all the above bullet points (e.g. 6&7), but I would also expect that most or all would comprehend and retain at least some of the items. You could split up the bits of info in the bullet points and then obtain estimates of the probabilities of the kids retaining each bit from a small scale experiment. $\endgroup$ – Justas Jun 25 '19 at 19:08

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