Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

Tools of the Mind and Inquiry Science: Bringing It All Together


The wonderful thing about inquiry science education in early childhood is that this approach can be woven into any curriculum that your classroom is already adopting. Incorporating elements of inquiry learning can add a rich dimension to the dynamic of your classroom while ensuring that high-quality, developmentally appropriate science education becomes part of the fabric of your students’ view of their world.

One curriculum that is gaining traction in Washington, DC public schools (DCPS) is the Tools of the Mind curriculum. Tools of the Mind is a pre-kindergarten and kindergarten curriculum that encourages both cognitive learning and social-emotional self-regulation through dramatic play. This research-based curriculum offers teachers the ability to cover all areas of early childhood development while promoting individual creativity in the classroom. For pre-kindergaraten, Tools of the Mind has created a series of themes for students to explore throughout the year, including Hospital, Restaurant, Grocery Store and Pet/Veterinarian.
I had the opportunity to talk with Teacher Nicole Nesper from Takoma Education Campus in Washington, DC, who presently uses the Tools of the Mind curriculum and is a teacher leader in the STEM Inquiry in PreK program in DCPS. Nicole understands that integrating science, technology, engineering and math concepts (STEM) into the Tools of the Mind curriculum can be a little tricky for some since teachers have to build background knowledge of the curriculum themes in addition to understanding STEM themes. She takes a fluid approach to incorporating science in her curriculum while maintaining the integrity of science concepts at an appropriate age level. For instance, some of her tips for their Pet/Vet theme are:

Transforming Centers
• The science center transformed into the dog park. So, Nicole cleverly decided to incorporate Nature themes by having students:
o  Grow grass and flowers in this center and recording their observations over time.
o Study the life cycle of butterflies with real eggs and caterpillars.
o Go outside to dig for bugs and create terrariums.
• The block center transitioned into a zoo center. The block center is already a “science center” since students exploring building structures are really exploring the science of engineering and problem solving! With the Pet/Vet theme, students can use dramatic play of the zoo to build enclosures for the animals. Enclosures builds upon their work on towers and offers new challenges to solves problems such as creating space for animals, providing shelter and protecting them from the elements.
• The zoo center is also a space to continue their explorations of Shadows and Light.  Students can trace animal shadows using the projector, or even make shadow puppets.


Students create enclosures for their zoo.

“Science Talks”

Another strategy Nicole uses to integrate Science learning in her curriculum is to incorporate science talks in her “Share the News” time, which is a Tools of the Mind morning meeting component. For instance, Nicole will introduce “Share the News” by saying “We are going to discuss shadows with our partner. What do we know about shadows?” After sharing with partners, she creates a K-W-L chart (What we Know, What we Wonder, What we Learn) about shadows. This is a way to not only introduce the science topic but as students learn their topics this format can be a way to continue science talks, encourage students to reflect with each other and be provided with another challenge.

Science Journals

Nicole uses Science Journals as a space for personal reflection to encourage scientific thinking. These can be used throughout the year within the Tools of the Mind curriculum. For instance, she uses journals in her Pet/Vet theme for recording observations in Nature, such as studying the life cycle of the butterfly as part of their dog park center.  Students can also use the journal to record structures that they have created, or shadows that they have observed. This document is an excellent tool for building upon inquiry; students can review what they have recorded and use those explorations to learn how to problem solve in the future. The Science Journal offers yet another dimension to inquiry that can flow from one activity to another within the Tools curriculum while building on their science thinking slowly over time.

Incorporating science into any literacy activity is an excellent way to help students make connections. When introducing a new science theme or an aspect of one, Nicole reads theme-related books and then has students do a Tools of the Mind literacy activity called "Write About It." For example, they read What Makes a Shadow? by Clyde Robert Bulla and discussed this book using a Learning Facts card (a small group literacy activity where students learn to identify things that were interesting, new, or made them curious). They then drew what they learned about shadows and wrote the sentence stem "I learned..."

These are just some tips for enhancing science learning within an established curriculum. Are you familiar with the Tools of the Mind curriculum? How have you incorporated science learning as a part of your day?