Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

Getting Ready to Think Like Scientists


My son turns 3 today and I have a 3 month old baby girl. It is amazing to see how far my son has come along in 3 short years when I look at how new everything is to my daughter. In that time he has already experienced so much of the world around him. Although there are tremendous developmental differences between toddlers and 4 year olds, children start out as curious explorers. It is not too early to gently encourage toddlers to begin thinking like little scientists. With you as their guide they will begin to interact with the world and make sense of it at their own pace in an enjoyable way.

Think about inquiry with toddlers just as you would with older children, only at a slightly different level. Using building structures as an example, let’s break down the inquiry cycle, toddler style.

Are these blocks going to make the tallest tower? 

Open Exploration
Don’t expect too much when introducing blocks to little ones. My little guy started out using the blocks more as shuffle board, sliding blocks across the rug and under the couch. This was great fun. He was exploring these materials for the first time. What do they do? How do they feel in my hands? Do I like how they feel? How do they sound when I throw them? Or slide them? Or put them in my mouth? (yuck!) He would even take one block and try to draw on the wall with it. Eventually he began trying to stack them.

Open Exploration with young toddlers is a great opportunity to balance their exploration with a bit of parallel play from you. Parallel play is a type of play in which children play side-by-side, but do not interact with each other. As a caregiver or parent, you can explore the blocks yourself, laying them side-by-side, stacking them, letting them fall. My son could see how I interacted with the blocks. This will make your toddler relax a little and become more familiar with the materials.

Eventually I walked away and had him build on his own and get immersed in his own world. At first he would get upset when his stacks of blocks fell. This is the time to begin a “language” of speaking about building structures and problem solving.  Using phrases such as “Oh dear! Let’s try again” or “Sometimes our buildings fall, but we can try again” give your toddler tools for communicating strong, frustrated feelings.

Focused Exploration

Focused Exploration with toddlers simply means that you will be approaching a certain challenge and guiding them how to look closely and observe what they are doing. Just having a toddler pay attention to what they are doing is a big deal! This won’t happen right away, especially with very little ones. When they do start to observe, it will be fleeting! Just remember that the inquiry cycle is a learning process that builds slowly over time.

Our favorite challenge when my son was about 2 years old was to “make a cake” with the blocks. I was say, “You made mommy a cake!” (reminder: it doesn’t look like a cake at all!!) “I see how you used different shape blocks! Look how tall! Look how wide (point with fingers) how many blocks did you use? Look at that triangle top! How can we make the cake bigger?” This is a great time to use vocabulary words, shapes, tall, wide, counting, triangle, and so much more. 
Your focused explorations will begin to evolve into so much more. Towers, castles, zoos, you name it!

With toddlers you will be constantly reflecting as you explore these materials together. Find ways to make these conversations a natural part of your day, just as you would in a four-year old classroom, only the pint-sized version! Shorter lengths of time and with a parent or caregiver one-on-one or through parallel play are great ways to reflect. Encourage deliberate looking and descriptive language and vocabulary. And remember, most of the time you will feel like you are talking to yourself! Don’t expect answers to questions, and don’t expect too much! Just as you would see with older children, inquiry more about their own self-driven exploration, and for toddlers they are at the very beginning of interacting with the world around them.If you have more than one toddler in a group, create stations for exploration, or experiment with having them work together. They may be for short periods at a time but it’s still worth exposing them to building structures at such a young age.

Even my 3 month old is starting to kick her legs when she watches her brother knock blocks down…..

Building a tower using identical blocks