Preschoolers explore the physics of floating

What happens when children and adults explore chemistry and physics together at preschool?



Swedish researcher Jonna Larsson has 20 years’ experience as a preschool teacher. She has worked extensively with science, especially birds and other biology-related topics. All the same, there was a lot she did not know about what happens when children and early childhood educators take a deep dive into physics together.

‘I didn’t know quite what to expect when physics and chemistry are introduced at preschool level, as prescribed by the curriculum in 2011. What will the children do, what will the teachers do, and how should this be approached?’ wondered Larsson.

Video as a tool

To learn more about how ECEC institutions work with physics, Larsson decided to use a camcorder to shadow children and adults in two selected kindergartens. In one of them, the children were working on a major project about boats. They were eagerly investigating what makes objects float or sink.

Larsson followed adults and children alike through different activities designed to explore this question. Thanks to the camcorder, she captured several moments she would have missed without this tool. For example, she recounts an incident when the children had made boats out of clay and were going to test whether they would float or sink. One of the children held a little boat over the water, and the teacher asked the children whether they thought it would float. When the child placed the boat on the water, it sank. Everyone laughed, and the teacher exclaimed: ‘Wow, it sank!’ ‘It was too heavy’, commented one of the children. ‘Was it too heavy?’ asked the teacher. The child responded quietly: ‘The water couldn’t hold it.’

The girl spoke in such a low voice that the teacher missed what she said, but the camcorder picked it up. ‘That moment would have been impossible to capture had it not been for the audio and video recording’, Larsson contends.

Having many opportunities leads to better understanding

The episode with the clay boat is also an important example of one of Larsson’s main findings: Through experimentation and talking about the topic, the children gained an increasingly better understanding of why some objects float, while others sink. The children were focussed and eager, shared important developments and learned from each other, as well as from the teacher and from their own experiences.

The children in the group came from a number of different linguistic backgrounds, and several of them were not initially certain about the meaning of the terms ‘float’ and ‘sink’. During the activities that Larsson shadowed, the children developed an increasingly better understanding of these concepts.

‘I was fascinated by the fact that one of the children actually identified the water’s buoyancy or lifting power’, remarks Larsson.

She emphasises how important it is that the activities she observed and recorded were part of a specific topic. The children had gone for a boat ride, visited the Maritime Museum and worked with boats in many ways over time.

‘Giving children many opportunities to talk about things like floating and sinking may allow them to acquire broader knowledge. One-off exposure is not enough. They have to have time to think, ponder and try again and again. This is what happens, of course, when the children’s play and what they learn from the teacher actually coincide. Children can learn a great deal on their own, but they need help to understand such abstract concepts. That is when things get exciting for a researcher’, she smiles.