In a developed society like Australia math, science and technology are ubiquitous. Therefore it is crucial for early childhood educators to know that in the period of early childhood young children remain actively engage in acquiring concepts and learn fundamental process skills that form a basis for mathematical understanding (Charlesworth and Lind, 2003, p.2), science (School Council Publications, 1973) and technology (Mitchell, 2007). Contemporary research proves that young children gain knowledge most effectively if they are engaged in interaction rather than in simply receptive or passive activities (Bruner, 1999; Wood & Bennett, 1999). Skills and concepts for mathematics, science, and technology can ideally be acquired if children are engaged spontaneously in activities at a very young age. These activities include play, cooking and to take part in outdoor activities. Young children who take part in such activities obtain opportunities for experiencing math, science, and technology related activities in their natural environment which lays the foundation of, and understanding and interest in, future learning (American Association for the Advancement of science, 1993).
How fundamental concepts and skills develop
Exploration and discovery are the primary teachers of children. In early childhood, mental and physical actions support each other and learning keeps engage both the mind and the body. Young children experience life kinesthetically and they learn through those experiences which keep engage all their senses (School Council Publications, 1973).
Even without having an organized curricula and instruction, children through interaction with people and things form or intuitive base of knowledge of concepts in the disciplines of math, science and technology. Knowledge surfaces from an environment that ties individuals, objects, cultural tools, and symbol systems (Kohn, 1999; National Research Council, 2000). Such environment provides them with opportunities for considering number of objects, observing physical phenomena, using technologically driven equipments (telephones, televisions) and making hypotheses concerning cause and effect. Nevertheless some of the concepts they form are incorrect (probably due to limited experience and immature understanding), the process of "doing" science and math and using technology is betterly established as children get maturity (National Research Council, 2000).
During the early years of young children the important role played by the environment in the process of knowledge acquisition or learning is shown by Piaget (1973, p. 703). He asserts that neither in the learner nor in the environment knowledge and intelligence can be originated instead by interaction between the two. Therefore children learn regarding the needs and life cycle of living things, physical changes in solids and liquids, quantity and measurement etc from the world around them.
According to the Constructivist approach 'knowledge is acquired, and cannot be given or transferred' Steff et al., 1988; Ernest, 1989; Jaworski, 1989 - all theses extended the work of Piaget). This means that textbook or teacher cannot convey knowledge to a child instead s/he has to create it for himself/herself. Dienes (1960) believes that learner should be kept actively engage in the process of the learning program by playing with objects and playing games that have been arranged and provided systematically for ensuring an intuitive learning outcome.
According to Charlesworth & Lind (1995) specific learning experiences with children are distinguished as naturalistic (or spontaneous), informal (or structured) depending on that who controls the activity: the adult or the child. In naturalistic experiences a child initiates any activity spontaneously while adult initiates activity for a child in informal learning experiences. Informal learning experiences are not pre-planned - they take place if the adult's experience or intuition or both show that it is time to act. For example, a child would need only a cue or encouragement if s/he is on right track for solving a problem. Likewise sometimes an adult would take advantage of a teachable moment to strengthen some concepts.
How math, science and technology concepts are acquired and constructed
Concepts are considered as the building blocks of knowledge that permit people to organize and categorize information. Children acquire fundamental concepts and learn fundamental process skills in the early childhood. According to Charlesworth & Lind (1995) at different stages of development if we watch children in their daily activities we can notice them constructing and using concepts such as:
One-to-one correspondence - sitting together on a table and pass on one apple to each child;
Counting - similarly sitting together on table and counting the number of straws needed for every child;
Classifying - Putting square and round shapes objects in separate piles;
Measuring - pouring sand or any liquid from one container to another container.
Young children start to construct mathematics, and science including technology concepts during the pre-primary period. For exploring more abstract inquiries and concepts in math and science, children apply their early basic concepts that help them to understand more complex concepts in mathematics such as multiplying, division, and the use of standard units of measurement (Charlesworth & Lind, 1995).
Concepts used in science grow and develop in early childhood. Children are born curious and explore the world with their own senses (School Council Publications, 1973) and have interest to know all about their surroundings. The moment they learn to crawl, to stand, and to walk, they are free to find out on their own and learn to think for themselves. They start to learn ideas of size: as they look around and sense their comparative smallness. They go over, under and into large objects and find out the size of these objects comparative to their own size. Apart from size they also learn about shape while holding objects and discover that some fit their tiny hands, and others do not. They learn about weight when they are not able to lift items of the same size.
Daily children come across new information through play and they connect such new information to their own existing knowledge and to make sense of it. Play includes "free choice, process orientation, and positive affect" (Johnson, Christie, & Wardle, 2005, p.216). Activities based on children's interest in the surroundings promote all domains of learning - mathematics, science, and technology, develop metacognitive skills and improve abstract thinking. Many activities that solve factual problems in the classroom and on the playground, in addition to stories, block building, and dramatic play etc inherent math, science and technological thoughts. Pretend play provides important opportunities to children to develop their process skills and they gain knowledge of mathematical, scientific, and technological concepts that make them confident to develop and employ the tools of scientific thinking and testing (observing, recording, exploring changes, asking questions, making predictions) in order to find ways of testing out their hypothesis.
In daily activities children play with computers and engage in technology related activities, therefore, they expand their own ways of thinking and develop their abstract thinking skills through play and technology (Hertzog & Klein, 2005; Nir-Gal & Klein, 2004). Children' natural curiosity can be nurtured through the use of play and technology. To prepare children for life in a modern society, opportunities should be created and provided to them to experience and to explore technology for developing their problem-solving skills (Bowman, 1998).
Teaching / learning strategies
For teaching / learning procedure Dienes's theory is divided into six different stages of participation as postulated by Bell (1978, pp.123-128);
To play freely
To search for commonalities
Below is brief description of theses stages which can be employed for acquisition and construction of knowledge regarding math, science, and technology in young children.
1. To play freely
During free play learning activities do not have any systematic patterns. In this stage learners are just involved in the manipulation of such activities. Different experiments are conducted by learner to discover various elements of concepts that have to be learned. According to Rey and Post (1973, p.40) learner in this stage 'interacts directly with physical material within the environment. Different embodiments provide exposure to the same basic concepts, but at this stage commonalities are observed.' During this stage mental structures and attitudes are developed in learners that prepare them to understand mathematical concept (Dienes & Golding, 1971) as well as scientific and technological thoughts (Barbara, 1999).
After passing through the stage of free-play, learners start to comprehend that certain events are governed by some patterns and rules. Activities focused on games necessitate for following these rules and patterns. In games students are allowed to experiment with the parameters and variations within the concept that encourage students to inquire through problem-solving (Bell, 1987, p.25).
3. Search for commonalties
Learners look for common properties in the concepts during this stage. The games assist them in tracing these properties and their applications. For example when the fundamental concepts of math - to compare, to classify, to measure (referred as process skills) are applied for solving science problems as well as for solving simple technological oriented problems.
After finding out commonalities by the learners then the need for the representation of the concept arises. The teacher can help in providing such a representation which may include, inter alia, an oral explanation/representation, or an example, a diagram etc (Dienes & Golding, 1971).
5. To symbolize
Mathematical, scientific and technological and verbal symbols become essential once the learners develop the ability of making representations of concepts derived from the games. Before pointing/displaying correct symbols to the learners it would be better to motivate and encourage them to make their own symbols to represent their ideas.
6. To formalize
In the formalization proofs and disprove can be formulated. Properties and commonalities acquired in previous stages can be applied and achieved in formalization through construction and analysis.
The combination of the different stages and aspects of learning highlighted above provides an appropriate basis essential in the teaching of math, science, and technology. This combination approach constitutes the constructivist approach. This approach emphasizes on the involvement of the learner in the manipulation of learning opportunities that have to be provided by the teacher in or outside the classroom.