In May over 3,000 children, all between four and seven, attended an event designed to show how first-hand experience and information books can and must go hand in hand from the earliest years.
Pat Triggs reports.
The event tasted for two weeks. The children came from 26 schools in Avon – in many cases teachers and parents accompanied the whole school or infant department – and were invited to have hands-on experience of a variety of science-based activities devised around a number of themes: mirrors, air, the skeleton, taste, smell, bees, eggs. Each activity had its own area and its own associated books. Illustrations, in some cases whole pages or spreads from some books, were enlarged (with permission) to provide explanation, demonstration or suggestions for what to do or look at. The emphasis was on everyday things, and activities involved only materials which are easily available.
The children came in groups and stayed for about 75 minutes. Their visit began with a story; everyone gathered together for a lively telling – with demonstration – of a version of the Archimedes story. This was followed by a brief introduction to two sorts of books: `Story books’ and `True books about real things’. Then, before their own exploration of the activities, adults and children joined together in some prediction and problem solving which involved bonking a very original percussion frame and discovering that we don’t all mean the same thing when we use the same words. At the end of every session everyone came together again for a puppet show, ‘Sky High’, with a storyline which included the kind of subjects that could be included in a topic on Air. It also posed a problem for the children: sorting out which of the puppet characters could only appear in a story book (Superman, the Snowman) and which could be found in a `true book about real things’.
Response to the event has been enthusiastic from teachers and children. Although children were involved, Eureka was also designed as an in-service activity for teachers.
I talked to Sue Stops and Chris Ollerenshaw, the two teachers who devised, created and presented Eureka, about how they went about choosing the books to accompany the events. They were unanimous that it had not been easy. `There are very few books which are really excellent; far too many either under- or over-estimate the ability of children in this age range.’ And the availability of titles over the topics they had chosen to highlight varied enormously. `There’s quite a lot on the senses and plants, animals, insects – in fact all the natural history, stuff; but we could find very little on things like mirrors and light. Books on physical science are practically non-existent – there are enormous gaps to be filled by enterprising publishers.’
Science for infants is about active enquiry. Many books were rejected for being `too recipe-based’; they told the children what to do to find answers, told them what answers they should find. A `good’ book is one which suggests starting points but doesn’t give all the answers, one which has a problem-solving approach. If this is so, why are so many books prescriptive rather than open-ended? The clue to this seems to lie in the assumptions authors and publishers make about who a book is for and how it will be used. Are books for teachers or children? What role does the teacher play?
If you assume that children will be using these books with no support from an adult then the `recipe’ approach is inevitable. For the organisers of Eureka books are a support for the teaching process. Teachers must have read the books, and know what they have to offer. The teachers builds a framework within which successful enquiry can happen, ensures that appropriate materials are available to be `discovered’, creates an atmosphere in which failure is greeted positively. There is no expectation that the books will do the job alone.
As well as starting things off (and this can happen through picture books as well as non-fiction) books are needed to support observations and assist identification. For all these purposes the quality of illustration is crucial. Pictures for infants should be easy to `read’, should tell children who have a less than complete mastery of text what they need to know.
From the many books considered, these are some which were chosen for Eureka.
What’s That series
Kate Petty and Lisa Kopper, Franklin Watts, £2.95 each
Colour?, 0 86313 386 X
Taste?, 0 86313 384 3
Noise?, 0 86313 383 5
A series for the youngest which deals in familiar experiences. The emphasis is on the language we use to describe and define events – good for investigating and checking what we mean when we say something. The text is excellently complemented by Lisa Kopper’s expressive illustrations. Taste? is packed with starting points for going into concepts like sweet, sour, salty, bitter, savoury, hot (meaning peppery) and so on. Five more titles in series.
Henry Pluckrose, photography Chris Fairclough, Franklin Watts, £4.95 each
Tasting, 0 86313 277 4
Touching, 0 86313 276 6
Smelling, 0 86313 278 2
Excellent photographs and a text which covers similar ground to the What’s That series. Here though, children are more directly engaged by being encouraged to answer questions, make choices, even project into unknown experience. `Can you imagine what it would be like to touch the trunk of an elephant?’ What’s That Taste? states `A drink of water has no taste at all’ while Thinkabout Tasting asks `Does water have a taste?’ A neat illustration of two different approaches to the reader – the second of which leaves room for more speculation. Two more titles in series.
Susan Baker, ill. Joanna Stubbs, Macdonald 345, £2.50 each
huff puff blow, 0 356 09957 1
eat drink grow, 0 356 09958 X
eyes, 0 356 07831 0
This series, which seems to have been designed for pre-school children and their parents, is useful for the classroom. The books start firmly with the child’s own everyday experience, and deal with (quite advanced) scientific concepts in a way which, while not underestimating children’s capabilities, uses familiar accessible language. huff puff blow is particularly successful in dealing with air and breathing; it finishes with some things to try – blowing bubbles, whirling windmills, cooling hot drinks, warming cold fingers – which could lead to more enquiry. Three more titles in the series.
Starters Science series
Albert James, different illustrators, Macdonald, 95p each pbk
Balancing Things, 0 356 09284 4
Strong and Weak, 0 356 09277 1
Wheels, 0 356 09276 3
Wet and Dry, 0 356 09285 2
Published first in 1973, this is a series that is still to be recommended for getting it more right than many more recent titles. The illustrations, never the series’ strongest point, have aged a little in 13 years – mini-skirts, flared trousers and platform shoes are all visible – but the steps in developing understanding are taken at the right speed for infants. The approach is ‘almost recipe but not quite’; activities are suggested but followed by open-ended questions and no answers. Teachers following a problem-solving approach find this a useful support for children experiencing failure or running out of ideas. With detailed knowledge of the books, it’s possible to say with confidence, `Didn’t that work’? See if you can find some ideas in one of our books.’ In this way book search becomes a natural adjunct to scientific enquiry. Lots of fun activities using familiar materials; doing things, handling materials, trying things out, observing, collecting, are all encouraged. A simple index. Notes for parents and teachers. Ten titles in the series and, of course, terrific value at the price.
Read and Do series
Doug Kincaid and Peter Coles, Arnold-Wheaton, £1.65 each pbk
Eyes and Looking, 0 08 026411 5
Touch and Feel, 0 08 026408 5
Ears and Hearing, 0 08 026409 3
Taste and Smell, 0 08 026410 7
Light and Dark, 0 08 030586 5
Wet and Dry, 0 08 030590 3
Hot and Cold, 0 08 030584 9
Quiet and Loud, 0 08 030588 1
A simple design formula (left-hand page offers information, right-hand page suggests things to do) with excellent, readable photographs makes this a very good series indeed. Again the approach is `recipe but not quite’ with open questions and an invitation to experiment further. The series is very attractive visually with a text designed for beginner readers. The photographs are particularly well-chosen to reflect our multi-cultural society – a welcome bonus.
Julie Fitzpatrick, ill. Sara Silcock, Hamish Hamilton, £4.50 each
In the Air, 0 241 11205 2
Mirrors, 0 241 11207 9
This wasn’t a first-choice series for Eureka – it’s too recipe-based for an open-ended problem-solving approach. An investigation of air starts not with `Let’s catch some air. How could we do it?’, but with `Make a bag-on-a-stick like this.’ Making kites and parachutes is similarly prescriptive and narrow. That said, it was included because it covered topics like air and mirrors not well served in other books and because it contained good ideas for teachers about where to begin and what might be done. Children might consult it to check on or extend their own experimentation after they have got started.
Usborne First Science
Science Surprises, Gaby Waters, ill. Graham Round, 0 86020 914 8, £1.75
Usborne’s usual crowded, lively pages. All recipe-based experiments but lots of fun. Designed with home in mind but useful for school. `Further explanations’ provides additional scientific information for supporting adults. Good index.
What happens when you series
Eat?, Joy Richardson, ill. Colin and Moira Maclean, Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 10969 8, £2.95
There are some things you can’t discover by experimenting; that’s when books really come into their own. This series is very accessible with very clear drawings and everyday vocabulary. `Inside the intestines the walls are very wrinkled.’ Suggestions for experiments to illustrate some of the digestive processes.
Annette, ill. Navah Haber-Schaim, 0 233 96339 1
Make a Bigger Puddle, Make a Smaller Worm, 0 233 96337 5
Another, Another, Another and More, 0 233 96644 7
Marion Walter, Deutsch, £3.95 each
(In paperback, The Magic Mirror Book, The Second Magic Mirror Book, Scholastic, £1.50 each.)
It’s amazing that these remarkable books aren’t better known, especially since the first one appeared in 1971. With the help of the small (unbreakable) mirror which comes with the book, you are invited to explore, make and change the pictures in the book (Another, Another … has two mirrors). An exciting way of using books – not just to consult but to do things with the pages. There should be more authors like Marion Walter who can exploit the book itself so children make discoveries by doing. Pop-ups haven’t been fully exploited yet for information books.
Snails, Althea, ill. Helen Herbert, Longman, 0 582 39165 2, £2.95
This is a good example of a book (and series) which does one job rather well. It presents a life-cycle clearly; the sentences are simply structured and the text can be read right through with page-turning impetus. It is probably not a book to use for close and accurate identification – the illustrations are designed to be attractive and to support the text rather than be very detailed and accurate. Seven other titles in the series.
First Nature Books
The Spider, Gunilla Ingves, A & C Black, 0 7136 26500 X, £2.95
Clear unambiguous drawings are linked with a text which manages to make specialised terminology understandable and natural. A very good series for the early years with lots of child appeal. Eight more titles in the series.
It’s easy to have a … to stay series
Caroline O’Hagen, ill. Judith Allan, Chatto, o/p
A straightforward narrative addressed directly to the child reader tells how to invite minibeasts into home or classroom for a brief visit and a chance for close observation. Caterpillar, ant, ladybird, snail, worm, woodlouse accommodated.
Small World series
Bees and Wasps, Henry Pluckrose, ill. Tony Swift and Norman Weaver, Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 10540 4, £3.75
Very high quality illustrations make this a book to go back to after observation or experiment. Use it to clarify, ratify, make new discoveries. The text includes specialised vocabulary and has a good index which makes it a good series to encourage learning how to look things up. 14 titles in the series.
Chicken and Egg, Christine Back and Jens Olesen, 0 7136 2425 6
Tadpole and Frog, Christine Back and Barrie Watts, 0 7136 2426 4
Snail, Christine Back and Barrie Watts, 0 7136 2708 5
A & C Black, £3.95 each
Three titles from a remarkable series that we have recommended before. Photographs which are beautiful as well as informative (compare those in Snail with the drawings in the Longman Life-Cycle series). Text at two levels, supplementary drawings, a consolidating sequence of photographs at the end and good index all combine to create a model information book. Some children were concerned about how the photographs of the chick inside the egg had been taken – what had happened to it? Was it still alive? Teachers, the Eureka staff and the series editor also confessed to some ambivalent feelings on this score while still admiring the book. Eight books in the series.
You and Your Body series, Dorothy Baldwin and Claire Lister, Wayland, £3.95 each
The Clue Book series, Gwen Allen and Joan Denslow, Oxford, £2.95-£3.95 each
Nature series, Althea, Dinosaur Fontana, £2.95 each hbk; £1.25 each pbk
A First Book of Birds, Peter Holden and J T R Sharrock, Macmillan, 0 333 36935 1, £1.25
These books were chosen because although they were in the main more suitable for older children they contained picture material of a very high standard. The question `Can you find out more about …?’ is the start of training in using information books (all these have a good index) and reading pictures. Not all the information contained here will be relevant to infant enquiry but with informative pictures and diagrams specific search or general browsing are rewarding activities and a basic for generating new questions.
Mabel’s Story, Jenny Koralek, ill. John Lawrence, Picture Puffin, 0 14 050.518 0, £1.75
Home Sweet Home, Maureen Roffey, Piccolo, 0 330 28454 1, £1.50
A House Is a House for Me, Mary Ann Hoberman, Picture Puffin, 014 050.394 3, £1.75
The Bad-tempered Ladybird, Eric Carle, Picture Puffin, 0 14 050.398 6, £1.95
Busy Wheels, Peter Lippman, Picture Lion, 0 00 660674 1, £1.25
Fiction can also provide good starting points for scientific enquiry with infants. Mabel’s Story really got them thinking about air and flight; Home Sweet Home and A House Is a House for Me are essentially about recognising that all living things have an appropriate habitat; The Bad-tempered Ladybird makes a marvellous start to discussing relative size of different animals and insects (as well as being informative about the ladybird diet); and Busy Wheels contains a marvellous collection of working wheels of all sizes and designs.