You know that you have a preschooler when you hear "Why?" all day long. "Children this age have a deep sense of wonder about the world, and that makes them natural scientists," says Heather Pinedo-Burns, director of Hollingworth Preschool at Teachers College, Columbia University. The next time your 3- or 4-year-old asks a question help him suss out the answer in a science-y way.
Observation is the first step in any scientific inquiry, and you can help your preschooler observe anywhere, says Fran Favretto, Ph.D., director of the Center for Young Children at the University of Maryland in College Park. A simple way to help encourage your child's inquisitiveness is to get her a clipboard. She may not be able to write words or draw detailed pictures yet, but she can record what she sees in a way she understands -- even if it's in scribbles.
Learning how to group objects together helps your child organize his thoughts and observations, says Pinedo-Burns. "Changing the categories and then regrouping the objects can also help him see things in different ways." For example, once your child can organize his seashell collection by color, what about size, shape, or texture? Eventually, your child will be able to create his own categories. And then he'll be able to group things by more than one attribute at a time. The flat, white shells go in this pile, and the large, brownish shells go in that pile.
When 3-year-old Talia Martinez, of Cincinnati, asked why the plants need water, her mom, Andrea, posed the question back to her: "Why do we need water?" Talia replied, "Because we're thirsty!" Now she waters the plants because "they need a drink," says her mom.
Look for ways to spur your child's critical thinking by asking what she suspects the answer is, and why, suggests Dr. Favretto. If your preschooler gives up and says, "I don't know," lead her back to observing. In a discussion about why there are lots of bugs underneath a rock you turned over in the park, you might say, "The rock feels moist and cool underneath -- does the top of the rock feel damp too?" A hint like that will trigger guesses. Maybe the bugs like the cool, wet underside of the rock, and not the hot, dry climate on top.
Construct simple experiments to come up with answers to your kid's questions. When Shari McGuire's son, Trevor, was 3, she told him they couldn't make a snowman because the snow wasn't sticking. His response? "We could tape it together!" So she let him try it. Not only did the Maple Grove, Minnesota, mom show Trevor that it's okay to take guesses and come up with solutions, she offered praise for his idea even when it didn't pan out. "It's easy to get discouraged when your hypotheses fall flat," says Pinedo-Burns. "Support your child when he experiments and encourage him to keep trying."
Originally published in the January 2013 issue of Parents magazine.