On the Study of Physics in Preschool Classrooms: Pedagogy and Lesson Planning

Beginning Your Unit

Though it may seem natural to begin your study of the physical universe with the moon, educators working in urban areas should skip ahead to section two, for in cities, especially large ones like New York and Tokyo, the moon is mostly irrelevant. Appearing small and weak behind skyscrapers, it fails to capture the imaginations of urban children and parents alike. They may wonder at the wastefulness of the moon, which sits in the sky contributing nothing when it could very well be used as a site for low-income housing or made into a screen on which the time and the weather are perpetually displayed. Teachers in suburbs and rural areas should begin with a simple observation of the moon. After all, it is thanks to the moon that humankind ever noticed the sky. Something always indicates the presence of nothing.

For this lesson you will keep the children quite late. Take them out to a place where the grass is unmowed and the horizon unobscured. Direct their attention to the subtle curve of the Earth, and let them experience themselves standing on something round, a globe, which lives in constant relation to another globe, which they will see, pale and pocked, above their heads.

Share silence and wonder with them.

Those of us in cities will not bother attempting this. Our skies are deserts. Those of us in cities will wait until day.

The Sun

When day breaks you turn your study to the sun, which works without ceasing to create useful products like light and warmth. Take the children outside for a twenty-four-hour period. Have them don protective goggles and let them stare at the sun. When night falls they will stare at the lack of sun. Have them draw on construction paper their impressions of the sky at various hours. Ask them why the sun appears here and then there. Ask the children where it is when it is not visible. Most likely they will note its slow, steady movement. After sunset they will tell you that it is just over that hill in the distance.

Then take the children to the sun for a twenty-four-hour period. Bring sunscreen with a high SPF to protect their skin and yours. Pack snacks for the long journey there and back. This time the children will observe the movement of the Earth. They will come to understand relativity as a general concept, and one of the children (most likely not more than one, or possibly not even one) will look at you with a new understanding.

Keep in mind that preschool-aged children think that their teachers are simply an aspect of the classroom, existing only for that role, rising and setting just for them. Keep in mind that you believe this too—that the children, at least one of them (Gabriel, age three) was born to hear what you have to say. Look into this child’s eyes as the two of you stand on the surface of the sun and you will share an understanding of independence and mutuality and yes, yes, relativity! Then gaze off at the setting Earth and forget this shared insight. Fall back into particularity. Return home to Earth, to the classroom, and teach this child as if his ears were made for your words, and he will learn as if the classroom were built for his sake alone.

An Overview of Your Unit

Observation of the moon and sun will lead to observation of the sky, and observation of the sky will lead to observation of the stars. Observation of the stars will lead inward upon itself to that which lies at the center of stars and is witnessed at their death. This we call a black hole, and observation of a black hole will lead to observation of nothing, because a black hole is made of nothing. Learning this, the children will become frightened and depressed. And this will lead to observation of the self, because the children will need an affirmation of that which is not nothing, not emptiness. This will lead to observation of matter and energy. At this point in the year, hatch ducklings in an incubator. Raise butterflies in cocoons. Cook muffins. Finger paint. And then the children, reminded of life and matter, will be ready to turn back to the sky. This time tell them to look past the moon. Tell them to look past the stars. Their eyes will strain into the darkness. They will find the boundary of space-time. This will lead to observation of ultimate truth. And then the year will be over, and the children will leave and grow and forget.

Gabriel, A Case Study

Gabriel (age: three) and I sat together and played with Play-Doh.

“Look,” he said. “It’s a pizza.”

“Wow,” I replied. “It looks very good.”

He reshaped it and said, “Look, it’s a car.”

“Wow,” I replied. “It looks very fast.”

He reshaped it again and said, “Look, it’s the Earth.”

“Wow,” I replied. “It looks very round.”

He reshaped it again and said, “Look, it’s a star.”

“Wow,” I replied. “It’s so bright.”

He reshaped it again and said, “Look, it’s a quasar.”

“Wow,” I replied. “It’s so luminous and radioactive.”

He reshaped it again and said, “Look, it’s a pizza again. But this time it has pepperoni.”

The Big Bang

Explain the Big Bang to the children at story time. Tell them that once upon a time there was no time. Tell them that this all happened in a place that wasn’t a place. Remind each child of his or her mother and how he or she used to live inside her. Ask the children where they were before they were in the belly, and when they answer, you will see that they have understood the story of the Big Bang and may even remember it. Suddenly, you will remember it too, remember the day when infinite density gave birth to matter and distance and collision and emptiness.

Field Trip

A field trip to the moon is recommended for any classroom learning about physics. Remember, ideally—contingent on the urban or nonurban setting of your school—the moon has served as the children’s introduction to this course of study, rolling about as it does like a bowling ball in a vast blackness.

Do not invite parents to be chaperones. The moon is a place to be alone.

To prepare for this trip, use Play-Doh to make a baseball-sized model of the Earth as well as another body roughly the size of Mars in proportion to this. Show how the Mars-sized body collided with Earth hundreds of thousands of years ago and sent a portion of our planet hurtling off into space. Show how the moon was cast away and forgotten and how the centuries passed and humankind was born and saw the moon as something foreign and mysterious.

Tell the children that on July 20, 1969, the Earth and the moon were reunited when humankind rocketed into space and landed on the lunar surface. Tell them that the moon thought someone had at last come to take her home. Tell them that humankind did not recognize the moon. Tell them that humankind played golf and then went home without her.

Let the children run and explore. Watch them struggle and writhe. Watch them soar and dance and then become terrified and frustrated and cry and hide in craters. Do not hurry to comfort them. Let them feel abandoned.

As you jet back to Earth serve graham crackers and juice. Read a story aloud. Better yet, sing a soft song and encourage them to sleep as gravity reclaims them.


How to Grow a Star

Having observed the sun and the moon, the children will certainly ask you how it is that energy coalesces into form. Do not attempt to describe it with words, for any such descriptions are nonsense. Rather, demonstrate it inside the classroom.

Clear all matter from a small area. Ask the children to aid you in this by using tweezers to pull particles from the area. This can be a great exercise for the development of fine motor skills. Make sure that a teacher is holding the boundaries of the newly created void at all times so that it doesn’t snap shut into a singularity that could possibly consume a child, or the whole school, or the entire Earth and the moon and the planets and all things past and yet to come.

Next have the children add atoms of hydrogen and helium into the void and observe the swirling nebula that results. Record their observations. “It looks like a rainbow,” they may say. Or “It’s like a sandbox.”

The atoms will coalesce into a sphere. Nuclear fusion will begin to take place within the star, rapidly increasing its heat and brightness. The star will begin to glow as electrons shoot off into the void. The children will see heavy elements such as carbon being formed. This will cause planets to form around the star. Pluck the new planets from their orbits and hand each, as it is made, to one of the children.

Have the children paint and name their planets. Place the planets over the cubbies to cool and let the children take them home at the end of the day.

Some personal notes: the first time I attempted this activity I saw that life had emerged on Gabriel’s planet. But by the time he showed it to me the inhabitants of this tiny world had come and gone. I looked closely and saw unearthly landscapes and petrified vegetation. He named his planet “Ortexuan” and when I asked him how to spell it he said “O, t, 1, r, r, g, c, 6, y.”

A warning to teachers who have never worked with stars before: that day, as the class and I watched our star die, it collapsed in upon itself and formed a black hole. This is exactly what you will want to avoid. All the children were pulled into the black hole, and I was nearly pulled in myself. I managed to turn the thing off and pull the children out, but their atoms were all mixed up. It took me the whole rest of the day to reassemble them, and one student (Rachel, age four) never got her freckles back.

Keeping a Tidy Classroom and Thermodynamics

Be sure to keep an organized plan book. Be sure to keep an organized classroom. Organize the toys on the shelves, and the puzzles too. Organize the cabinet where the snacks are kept, placing the crackers to the left and the pretzels to the right. Organize the drying rack where the soppy finger paintings are laid to dry. Organize the children’s cubbies where the detritus of their days accrues: the mittens, the lunchboxes, the crinkled crayon drawings.

Never cease in your battle against the second law of thermodynamics, that of entropy, of chaos, of mixing up. Teach the children how things come together, how energy coalesces into matter, into time and place, into life and color and humanity. Do not tell them that life is only a futile last stand against entropy, the inevitable breaking up of things. Only the janitor will learn this lesson. Nod politely to him as you depart from your classroom each day. This man works hard. He sweeps the staples off the floor, vacuums the crumbs from the rug, and wipes the encrusted Play-Doh from the remotest corners of the classroom. And only he fully understands that no matter how hard teachers strive for the opposite, all lessons are only about entropy.

Mapping the Stars

Many children are familiar with connect-the-dots drawings. These can be an excellent introduction to the study of the stellar geography.

Give the children blank star maps and have them design and name their own constellations. I recall that in my class, Margaret (age: two point five) and Tommy (age: three) both named their constellations “Mommy,” while most of the others called theirs by their own names.

It was Gabriel who connected every star on the map to every other star. He named it the Foof, and when I asked him what a foof was he told me that it was a monster that ate itself up and then ate its own mouth.

I desperately wanted to ask for further details, such as how a thing could eat its own mouth, and whether or not the Foof knew he was a foof. No doubt Gabriel would have had some answer for me, but I wasn’t ready to let him see how little adults sometimes know.

Concluding Your Unit/the Multiverse

Your classroom’s exploration of the physical principles of the universe will never truly conclude.

Move on, but revisit and review by having the children count the atoms in a cracker at snack time, or by asking them to identify the difference in the wavelengths of light reflecting off purple and yellow paints.

The children’s capacity to recall the material will surprise you. Gabriel, for example, asked if it were the case that nothing drawn or written down is true. I told him that, yes, nothing drawn or written is true because the truth is too complex to be captured by human efforts. It was then that he showed me a drawing he had made of the singularity in which all matter and energy were contained at the beginning of time.

It was, I was surprised to notice, perfectly accurate, and so I had to recant my prior statement. Being perfectly accurate, this drawing hummed with the desire to know the distance and emptiness and confusion it depicted, and it opened up like a flower into a new universe that runs, to this day, mostly parallel to our own and which can only be witnessed, occasionally, on sheets of construction paper.

“Another foof,” Gabriel told me.

Be sure, brave teachers, to recognize such accomplishments. Hang the children’s work on the bulletin board. Tell them that their parents will be proud. Perhaps, if the work warrants such a reaction, fall to your knees and let your head become heavy with new insights.

When the children’s work is done, tell them that you will be moving on to a new unit. A unit about vegetables and healthy foods, perhaps, or about words that rhyme.

This will be your final opportunity, so fight your own weariness, and beg the children to sit still on the rug just a moment longer.

Speak your closing words about time and space. Remind the children that the two are not separate, that both are relative, that clocks lie, that schedules lie, that time only appears to move in one direction, that the universe is both finite and infinite, and that anything true is impossible to fit inside your head.

Then pack the children up to go home. Sing the good-bye song and send them on their way.