Taking Time to Grow Series: Embracing Spontaneous, Unstructured, and Ugly Science

Featuring special guest bloggerStefany Cunningham, B.S. (Areas of study include kinesiology, early childhood development & education, and psychology)

The Internet has an abundance of science experiments for children. Most often, these experiments require children to follow specific steps, have cute and matching containers, and are usually intended to produce some sort of colorful end-product. These types of experiments can be fun on occasion, but children need more science in their life than what we can realistically provide if we only view science as these structured, cute, adult-initiated, and costly activities. 

Children need more opportunities for spontaneous and unstructured science because children learn about the components of science through genuine exploration. Children learn about science by building, digging, crashing, filling, dropping, bouncing, and spinning all on their own accord. Spontaneous and unstructured science allows children the opportunity to ask their own questions, make decisions, create, destroy, problem-solve, and be leaders in their own learning experience. 

More often than not, these spontaneous and unstructured experiments don’t meet society’s standards of “pretty” or “cute,” but that’s okay! The goal here is to provide child-led learning opportunities, not produce perfect pictures for social media. 

Luckily, this type of science requires little to no effort from families and caregivers (other than assisting with clean-up!). Children are naturally inclined to ask questions and experiment. The most effective ways for families and caregivers to encourage their children to learn about science is to give them time and space to fully explore their questions, offer supportive prompts, and of course, keep them safe. 

The following are descriptions of the components of science with prompts that families and caregivers can use to support their young child’s learning. This blog post doesn’t include specific activities because science is found everywhere, in everyday experiences, from digging in the backyard to bath-time to building forts. By shifting our perspective of science away from organized, structured, and adult-initiated activities, we can find more opportunities for science in everyday experiences and can easily provide more opportunities for exploration and learning. 

Physical Science 

Authors of The Creative Curriculum For Preschool, Diane Trister Dodge, Laura J. Colker, and Cate Heroman (2003), defined physical science as, “…the physical properties of materials and objects” (p. 142). How do we typically explore physical properties? With our five senses! Think about the five senses while supporting your child while they explore science:

  • “What do you feel? Is it bumpy/smooth/rough?”
  • “What does this smell like to you?”
  • “This sounds like it’s getting louder to me! How does it sound to you?”
  • “What do you notice when you pick that up and put it on top?”
  • “Why do you think that tipped over/fell down?”
  • “Do you see anything on the inside/outside? What about underneath?”
  • “Can this move/change? How? Can you smash/mix/pour it?”
  • “Do you think this will sink or float when I put it in the bathtub?”
  • “You stacked those really high! Are they stacked straight up and down or do they lean a bit?”

Life Science

Life science is the study of living things. It’s that simple! You and your child can explore life science when playing with your pets, sitting in your backyard, or walking through the park. 

  • “What do our bodies need to grow? What about animals/plants?”
  • “You found a bug! Why do you think it was hiding under that rock?”
  • “What kinds of animals eat bugs?”
  • “How are animals and plants different?”
  • “What happens to plants when the weather gets really cold?”
  • “When you threw that rock, those birds flew out of that tree! Why do you think those birds like sitting in that tree all the time?”

Earth and the Environment 

This last science component overlaps with life science, but also incorporates weather and the physical characteristics of our environment. 

  • “What’s the weather like today? How does it feel? Will you help pick out clothes that will keep us cool/warm/dry?”
  • “What does the sky look like right now? How is it different when it’s day/night?”
  • “Can you see any mountains from here? What about rivers/fields/ponds?”
  • “I’m noticing the ground changes when you dump water right there. What do you see?”
  • “What can we do to take care of our neighborhood?”
  • “How is our kite staying in the air?”

Keeping these components in mind and thinking of prompts in the moment will get easier with time. To adults, child-led science can feel uneventful and it might even feel like you aren’t doing enough. Your child, however, will be experiencing your love and support as they explore their world in ways that are new and exciting to them. They will feel eager and empowered to share with you what they discover as they lead an exploration or experiment! 

So, take a moment. Sit back, give your child some space, and embrace spontaneous, unstructured, and ugly science. Children have this handled! 


Dodge, D. T., Colker, L. J., & Heroman, C. (2002). The creative curriculum for preschool (4th ed.). Teaching Strategies.