Never too young to experiment
Funny how the national curriculum is starting to trickle into the nursery: there's talk about using information technology, doing science and even about something called "key stage 0".
Exploring science with the under-fives is not a new idea. What's interesting now is the way stirrings in the higher layers of the system, such as key stages 1-4, are causing unintentional ripples at the bottom. People are discussing how you do science and they're realising that it arises from the things you do all the time: so children playing with toys or bringing in something from outside presents opportunities to teach.
At last month's Association for Science Education annual meeting, adviser Paul Craig told how nursery schools in Salford were adding "structure" to nursery activities. This means thinking about the sorts of questions and vocabulary to use to expand children's grasp of the subject.
"If we set out an interest or an investigating table, we would write out the questions we needed to develop the science," he explained. "We would put the words on the table, not for the kids, but to encourage parents and nursery staff to use them to move the children on. Or if a child is playing with a toy car in the sand tray, we might highlight questions such as 'is it easier to push a car in the dry sand, and does it make bigger tracks in the wet sand?' "
So maybe you don't need lots of extra equipment for science in the nursery? Pam Wadsworth, senior education lecturer at the University of North London, would be surprised if most nurseries didn't already have some resources to start work immediately. "You have boats that move in different ways: paddle boats, boats you blow along and boats you pour water through. The science is as much to do with the thinking behind it all, as the equipment you have," she says.
This approach can be used when choosing, say, construction sets where a range of types, each fitting together in different ways, will get scientists thinking. The other bit of advice here is to set challenges to extend what the children are doing - asking, for example, how best can we build it, and can you make it stronger?
The more "sciencey" things, like magnets and magnifiers, are particularly good at focusing us on science. "The bigger, the better" is the key idea when catalogue shopping. So those giant, almost cartoon-like, horseshoe magnets (Pounds 6.50), which most suppliers offer, will do nicely. (For starters, put it into some coins and see what sticks: then puzzle over why some pennies do and some don't.) Magnetic marbles (Pounds 3.50, Commotion) aren't so big but they can be arranged into chains and necklaces, and they're just plain fascinating.
However, there is more to science than magnets. For work on colour and light, there are lenses, prisms, concave mirrors, convex mirrors and bendy mirrors which give a wobbly view of things. Children can peer and shine light through large, coloured acetate sheets (Pounds 3.50, from Commotion).
And if you are after something for electricity (to make bulbs glow and buzzers buzz) the First Electricity Set (Pounds 40, TTS) is big and about as easy as you can get.
Books like What's Inside? will help build curiosity. So What's Inside Toys? (Pounds 4.99 Dorling Kindersley Family Library) shows you the innards of a teddy bear, a Christmas cracker, a dolls house and a few others. It sets children thinking about how things work. Other titles in this DKFL series include cars and insects - things you might not dissect for real!
Another useful series from Dorling Kindersley, Let's Explore Science (Pounds 6.99), is more practical and shows children things to do with colour and light, or sound and music. And the gorgeous Baby's Book of Nature (DK Pounds 5. 99) contains a little text and lots of pictures to ask questions about. I'd start by asking if a frog really is as big as a crocodile, as that's how things look in print. But the pictures are very stimulating, and the creatures are almost touchable.
Then there's the real thing. At St John the Baptist nursery in Hackney, in east London, they keep animals including a terrapin, a rabbit and a guinea pig. Headteacher Brian Sharman warns that it causes problems in the holidays but feels the benefits more than compensate.
"There's enormous value in watching a three year old handling a rabbit. The animals are so daft and the children love it," he says. They certainly learned a lot when a rabbit died.
At St John's they've built a garden on the roof, and each class has a patch which they water and weed. Look no further, this kind of activity makes its own list of digging, watering and minibeast studying equipment.
St John's takes computers seriously too. Nowadays there are programs which can talk, show moving pictures and involve a mouse - features well-suited to young children. Using a mouse needs a bit of practice and it's big for their tiny hands, so you might start with child-sized alternatives such as roller-ball controllers.
* Dorling Kindersley Family Library, 1 Horsham Gates, North Street, Horsham, West Sussex, RH13 5PJ. Tel: 01403 270274
* Dorling Kindersley, 9 Henrietta Street, London WC2E 8PS. Tel: 0171 836 5411
* First Steps (TTS), Unit 4, Park Road, Chesterfield, S42 5UY. Tel: 01246 850085
* Hands On! (Commotion), Unit 11, Tannery Road, Tonbridge, Kent, TN9 1RF. Tel: 01732 773399
* Several suppliers produce specialised pre-school catalogues, such as that available from NES Arnold, Ludlow Hill West, West Bridgford, Nottingham, NG2 6HD. Tel: 0115 945 2200