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Building science knowledge with picture books

by Louise Parks


For all of us, books are a dynamic vehicle for knowledge acquisition. For young children, those who can’t yet read to discover new information, shared picture books help construct the foundations that explain the how, why, who, and what of the world.

Preschoolers don’t typically understand the differences between fiction (story) books and non-fiction (information) books. Instead, they gather stories about talking trains (Thomas the Tank Engine by W. Awdry), driving pigeons (Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus by Mo Williams) and tasting letters (Eating the Alphabet by Lois Ehlert) that need to be dissected, categorized, and compared to separate what is real from what is pretend. For example, pigeons don’t drive but, busses and pigeons are as real as the emotional urge to drive and command control.

As you spend time each day sharing great books you likely point out text, discuss illustrations, and ask questions that help children construct knowledge about the world and the people in it. Consider the opportunity to engage children in conversations about science—how the world really works. Many children’s picture books include science concepts—some factual and some fanciful. Both have merit that magnifies as children learn to distinguish the two.

Teaching science (in the way we remember high school biology classes) is meaningless for young children. Instead, they need hands-on, concrete, sensory experiences that help them explore, experiment, and discover. For young children, explaining gravitational theory is much less effective than dropping objects so often that they recognize that things always fall down. Children need your help translating theory into experiences that involve the senses—even before there are words to form a hypothesis and test it. Gravity works, every time.


Guidelines for choosing and sharing books
As you prepare to use picture books to build science knowledge, choose books that are well written—that is, both clear and informative. The book should have logical organization that helps children make the contents understandable. Consider the elements that make Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar a perennial favorite. The illustrations are engaging—the apple is an apple, the pizza a pizza—and the caterpillar eats to grow. Its metamorphosis follows the same steps (however simplistic) as a caterpillar in nature; the information is accurate even though caterpillars don’t actually eat pizza. The best books are also interesting. They engage children and stimulate curiosity and an eagerness to know more about the subject.

The youngest toddlers begin to construct knowledge through picture books that depict basic concepts—like colors, shapes, numbers, or opposites. Concepts are ideas that represent a group of objects or events like balls, trees, and birthday cake. For babies, the best concept books introduce a single, focused concept and are typically wordless with clear, crisp photographs—images of real things in the world. Quality concept books tend to help children think about ideas long before they have the vocabulary to describe those ideas. Some examples include Tana Hoban’s Is it Red? Is it Yellow? Is it Blue? and Exactly the Opposite, Lois Ehlert’s Lots of Spots, and Ellen Stoll Walsh’s Mouse Shapes.

Older children use books that include information to generalize and refine concepts, strengthening the intellectual database. With each book experience children compare the information in the book with knowledge they already have—broadening, refining, and making more accurate. Always help children identify fact versus opinion or a value position, especially stereotypes, in books. Point out anthropomorphism (giving human feelings and thoughts to animals and inanimate objects); preschoolers will be eager to show off the new vocabulary word while refining concepts.

For example, consider the differences between Gene Zion’s Harry the Dirty Dog and Lynn Reiser’s Hardworking Puppies. Both books are about dogs but in the first, cartoon illustrated Harry plays and gets dirty. In the second, clear illustrations describe breeds of dogs that rescue, herd, perform, or guard. While a most worthy theme, Leo Lionni touches on human ideas of diversity and inclusion in descriptions of fish and marine ecology in the classic Fish is Fish. Important learning happens when children are encouraged to identify and separate the characteristics of humans from those of animals.

Let the following books and activities inspire you to build science concepts with picture books. Enjoy the books for the stories they tell with words and pictures. Then use the same books to support young scientists. Explore concepts and vocabulary in age-appropriate, literature-based, hands-on activities.


Plant science
Aston, Dianna. (2014). A seed is sleepy. New York, NY: Chronicle Books.
Bang, Molly & Chisholm, Penny. (2009). Living sunlight: How plants bring the earth to life. New York, NY: Blue Sky Press.
Levenson, George. (1999). Pumpkin circle: The story of a garden. Berkeley, CA: Tricycle Press.
Messner, Kate. (2017). Up in the garden and down in the dirt. New York, NY: Chronicle Books.
Zoehfeld, Kathleen W. (2014). Secrets of the garden: Food chains and the food web in our backyard. Columbia, CA: Dragonfly Press.


Vocabulary and concepts
Tree parts (bark, roots, leaves, trunk, branch), tree species and varieties, tree uses (shade, nuts and fruit, lumber), plant parts, growth cycles, farming, seasons, weather, decomposition, quantitative comparisons (weight, size, number), soil, microbes


Weed, seed, and pod collage
Here’s what you need:
dried weeds and seed pods
white construction paper
white glue


1. Gather a variety of weeds and seed pods in a vacant field; ask families for donations from their home gardens. Pods from Texas mountain laurel, crepe myrtle, and oak trees are plentiful and diverse.
2. Help children examine the plants with magnifiers. Notice color and texture variations. Open a few pods to compare the seeds.
3. Encourage children to create collages with the plant materials. Glue the plants in place.

Variation: Offer younger children adhesive-backed vinyl for the collage. Let the children gather plants and place them directly on the plastic.


Seed and tree sort
Here’s what you need:
pictures of familiar plants and trees
laminator or clear, adhesive-backed vinyl
seeds and nuts that correspond to the pictures


1. Gather several photographs of plants and trees from gardening catalogues. Protect the pictures by mounting them on cardboard and laminating. Cut to a consistent size.
2. Show children the collection of seeds and nuts. Ask questions that encourage children to evaluate sizes, shapes, and colors. Use magnifiers to explore texture differences.
3. Help children match the seeds to the plant and tree images. Discuss how the size of the seed doesn’t always correspond to the size of the grown tree.

Try to include pictures and seed samples from pecan trees, oak trees, avocado plants, corn stalks, sunflower plants, an orange tree, a pumpkin, and an apple tree.


Green leaf prints
Here’s what you need:
green leaves with stems
12-inch squares of cotton muslin cloth
permanent marker
waxed paper
hammer and workbench


1. Gather green leaves from trees, vines, or plants. Thick dark green leaves will print best, but gather a variety so children can make comparisons.
2. Provide a square of cloth for each child. Invite the children to sign their cloth squares.
3. Show how to place leaves top side down on the muslin. Tape the leaves in place if necessary.
4. Place squares of waxed paper on top of the leaves.
5. Hammer the leaves. Pound evenly and hard over every part of the leaf. Watch carefully as the leaves transfer their color, chlorophyll, to the cloth.
6. Remove the waxed paper and peel away the leaves and tape. An imprint of the leaves will remain on the cloth.
7. Examine the print with magnifiers. Try to see the imprint of leaf texture and veins.


Animal science
French, Vivian. (2000). Growing frogs. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick.
Heller, Ruth. (1999) Animals born alive and well. New York, NY: Grosset & Dunlap.
Knowles, Laura. (2018). We build our homes: Small stories of incredible animal architects. London, UK: Words and Pictures Press.
Na, Il Sung. (2015). Welcome home, bear: A book of animal habitats. New York, NY: Knopf.
Parker, Nancy Winslow. (1987). Bugs. New York, NY: Mulberry Books.
Willems, Mo. (2010). City dog, country frog. New York: Hyperion.


Vocabulary and concepts
Insect, life cycle, cooperative colony, insect body parts (head, thorax, abdomen), anatomy, habitat, behavior, entomology (study of insects), species, animal families, sounds, pets and pet care, specimen, hibernation, data analysis, mammal, arachnid, reptile, amphibian, observation


A pet or not a pet?
Here’s what you need:
pictures of animals
chart paper


1. Make a sorting chart. Draw a vertical line down the center of the chart paper. Draw a horizontal line about 5 inches from the top of the paper. On the top left, write Pet. On the top right, write Not a pet.
2. Share pictures of animals with the children. Be sure to include jungle animals, ocean animals, land animals, domesticated animals, and farm animals.
3. Talk with the children about the characteristics of pets. Ask questions and share experiences about care, feeding, play, companionship, cost, size, and housing.
4. Ask children to separate the pictures into the Pet and Not a pet categories.
5. Invite the children to create a collage, gluing the pictures onto the chart.


Observe insects
Here’s what you need:
illustration of insect body parts
clean, clear-sided plastic container
small insect net
small garden spade
nylon mesh
rubber band


1. Introduce the word entomologist—someone who studies insects. Share the chart and review the significant characteristics of an insect—six legs and three body parts. Invite conversation about familiar insects gently correcting misinformation.
2. Encourage children to tell what they know about the benefits of some insects. Ask for examples of how some insects can be dangerous or harmful.
3. Introduce the concept of observation. Explain that insects don’t make good pets but are terrific subjects for short-term observation.
4. Search for insects to collect. You might find crickets and grass hoppers under rocks or decaying lumber. Look for praying mantises on the leaves of shrubs.
5. Scoop the insect with a net—or use your hands. Place in the jar with a little dirt and some twigs and leaves.
6. Cover the jar with a piece of nylon mesh and hold it in place with a rubber band around the neck of the container.
7. Help children use a magnifier to examine the specimen.
8. After study (within a few hours) release the insect to the habitat in which you found it.

Variation: Study fruit flies. Place a few slices of banana in an open container. Leave the container outside overnight. Cover the jar with nylon mesh and bring indoors. Invite children to observe the container over several days. They may be able to identify adult flies, eggs, and young flies. Discard promptly and properly.


Where do I live?
Here’s what you need:
photographs of animals
large open space indoors or outside


1. Collect photographs of a variety of animals including land animals, aquatic animals, and birds. A Google images search will provide photos of common and unusual species.
2. Gather the children in a large group and introduce three pantomime actions: flapping arms for animals that fly, patting the ground for land animals, and holding hands together, undulating back and forth for aquatic animals.
3. Show a photograph and encourage the children to pantomime the habitat.
4. Be prepared for giggles and some controversy about where, for example, a salamander lives.

Variation: For large body play, twist the game to dance the animal in its habitat. Play a recording of Saint-Saëns’ “Carnival of the Animals.” Listen and lead a free dance to the march of the lion, hens and roosters, donkeys, a tortoise, an elephant, kangaroos, fish, a cuckoo bird, fossils (the bones of dead animals), and a swan. Stop and start the recording as the music changes for each animal.


Silhouette match
Here’s what you need:
pictures of items found near or in the ocean
sheets of dark paper
laminator or clear, adhesive-backed vinyl


1. Collect pictures of ocean and beach ecology. Include, for example, pictures of sea gulls, feathers, sea urchins, fish, shells, sea turtles, sea stars, driftwood, and small boats.
2. Mount the pictures on cardboard and laminate. Trim the pictures neatly so that the shape of the object is clear.
3. Trace each shape on dark paper, laminate, and trim.
4. Scramble the two sets of images—the photos and the silhouettes.
5. Guide the children as they examine, guess, discuss, and match the photo to its silhouette.

It is valuable to provide real objects for the children to explore. Ask parents to help you gather items related to sea ecology.


Earth and space science
Becker, Helaine. (2018). Counting on Katherine: How Katherine Johnson saved Apollo 13. New York, NY: Henry Holt.
Dempsey, Kristy. (2019). Papa put a man on the moon. New York, NY: Dial Books.
Gibbons, Gail. (1998). Planet earth/Inside out. New York, NY: Harper-Collins.
Kamkwamba, William. (2012). The boy who harnessed the wind. New York, NY: Dial Books for Young Readers.
Paul, Miranda. (2015). Water Is water: A book about the water cycle. New York, NY: Roaring Brook Press.


Vocabulary and concepts
Rocket, orbit, planet, atmosphere, pollution, environment, fuel, power, weather systems, force, gravity, resources, soil, pond, river, lake, ocean, wind, rain and the water cycle, geology, volcano, lava, mountain range


Five-senses walk about
Here’s what you need:
standard preparations for a field trip
identified locale rich in natural objects—a park, nature preserve, greenbelt, or a friend’s herb garden, for example
pencils and paper on clipboard
simple identification guides


1. Prepare children in the group for a nature field trip by asking, “What do you think is happening at the park today?” Encourage active sensory participation: listening, smelling, looking, touching, and even tasting.
2. Once you’ve gathered at the site, ask the children to close their eyes and listen. Softly direct them to really hear birds (there may be many different songs and calls), insect noises, leaves rustling (wind in cottonwoods sounds like crackling while whispering through pines), water rippling, children laughing, or passing traffic. After a few minutes of listening, chart the sounds the children can recall.
3. Begin walking with the children. Stop frequently to sniff the air. Does the trail smell dry or is there the musty odor of wet soil? Is there mint growing nearby? Do you smell freshly mown grass or the scent of fruit tree blossoms? Again, chart what the children identify.
4. Continue the walk, and emphasize looking. Talk with the children about shapes, colors, patterns, and textures. Encourage the children to draw sketches of some of the things they see—rocks, leaves, soil, tree bark, or wildflowers.
5. Show children how to touch. Grasses have long, sharp-edged leaves, sometimes with tassels. Silver-green lamb’s ear is soft and velvety. Rosemary is spiked and pungent like a miniature pine tree. Use as many adjectives as possible to describe tree bark, flowers, moss, and dried leaves.
6. Where appropriate, employ the last sense—taste. If you’ve visited a farm or herb garden, arrange for a picnic-like taste and savor time. Gather the children, ready to chart preferences and descriptions of freshly plucked strawberries, blueberries, thyme, parsley, or a fresh tomato.


Square foot gardening
Here’s what you need:
4-foot square of garden space
edging lumber
tape measure
heavy string


1. Build the garden space by measuring the space, and edging it with lumber. Mark off each side of the square at 12-inch intervals. Tack the string into place creating a grid of 16 spaces.
2. Engage the children in gardening by offering a square foot of space for each child to plan and care for.
3. Square foot options could include a desert garden made with sand, pebbles, stones, and colored glass (and no plants); a butterfly garden planted with marigolds surrounding a saucer of water; a teatime garden of mint and lemon verbena; or a simple herb garden of rosemary, sage, or oregano. Of course, a simple planting of vegetables—one per square—works too. Easiest to grow are radishes, lettuce, kale, chard, and bush beans, all perfect for snacking and a tasty lunch.


Move like the water
Here’s what you need:
large open space, indoors or outside


1. Introduce the activity with a conversation about water—where it comes from and how we use it.
2. Encourage the children to spread out for a movement activity.
3. Tell the children that you will call out the name of a form of water and that they are to move as though they were a calm lake, a geyser, a water hose, a fire hydrant, a winding river, a washing machine, a waterfall, a lawn sprinkler, an ocean wave, a filled bathtub, a gentle rainfall, and a park fountain.
4. Be prepared to stop to describe the water form and encourage the children to use descriptive words (adjectives) to anticipate and prepare their movements.

Variation: This is an activity that children can manage by themselves. Provide note cards with words and pictures. Turn the cards face down. Invite children to take turns drawing a card, calling out the form, and joining classmates in the movement.

Variation 2: Use the same system exploring fire, moving as a match being struck, a bonfire, a flame dying, a forest fire, a camp fire, a flickering candle, a stove flame, and a doused fire.


Mountain, mountain, volcano
Here’s what you need:
large open space, indoors or outside


1. This activity is a variation of the classic Duck, Duck, Goose but without competitive chasing.
2. Gather the children in a large circle. Introduce the activity with a conversation about volcanoes, lava flow, and mountains. If possible, share photos of the 2008 eruption of Mount St. Helen’s. Use the word molten and describe lava flow.
3. Begin the game: Move around the outside of the circle whispering either “mountain” or “volcano.”
4. Mountains assume the shape of a mountain, holding their places in the circle.
5. Volcanoes, in contrast, erupt lava and flow to the ground to the inside of the circle.
6. Move around the mountains allowing children to either change their mountain form or having a chance at volcanic eruption. At the end of the activity there will be a giggling jumble of children who have demonstrated their ability to erupt and flow.

Nutrition science and growth
Child, Lauren. (2003). I will never not ever eat a tomato. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press.
Ehlert, Lois. (1996). Eating the alphabet. San Diego, CA: HMH Books for Young Readers.
Gibbons, Gail. (1983). The milk makers. New York, NY: Macmillan.
Hughes, Shirley. (1982). Alfie’s Feet. New York, NY: Lothrop, Lee, & Shepard Books.
Rockwell, Lizzy. (2009). Good enough to eat: A kid’s guide to food and nutrition. New York, NY: Harper-Collins.
Rockwell, Harlow. (1975). My dentist. New York, NY: Penguin Press.
Sharmat, Mitchell. (2009). Gregory, the terrible eater. New York, NY: Scholastic Paperbacks.


Vocabulary and concepts
Nutrition, diet, food pyramid, exercise, sanitation, allergies, food safety, food preparation, digestion, anatomy, energy, food preferences, coordination, muscles, bones, senses, dental health


How have I grown?
Here’s what you need:
roll of calculator tape


1. Cut 4-foot lengths of calculator tape, one for each child in the group.
2. Attach the paper to a classroom wall where it will be undisturbed through the year.
3. Early in the year, label each length of paper with a child’s name.
4. Have each child stand next to the appropriate tape and mark the height. Date the mark.
5. Repeat measurements several times during the year, each time discussing changes. Note that some children will experience growth spurts while others seem to be unchanged from date to date.
6. Let the children take the tape home at the end of the year.


How do you see it?
Here’s what you need:
wall mirror
small jars with screw-on lids
index cards
small box with top
8- to 12-piece jigsaw puzzle


1. Talk with children about mirrors. Mirrors reverse images making some tasks easier (combing the hair) and some tasks much more challenging.
2. Set up a series of tasks for children to perform without a mirror. For example, ask that they draw a circle on paper, put index cards through a slit in a box lid, screw the top on a jar, and put together a simple jigsaw puzzle.
3. Challenge children to perform the same tasks while looking in a mirror instead of their hands and the actual materials.
4. Talk about the results. Why did working with a mirror make each task more difficult?


Attack the plaque
Here’s what you need:
small, soft bristle toothbrush for each child
paper cup
plaque-disclosing tablets
kitchen timer


1. Help children check on how well they brush their teeth.
2. Ask them to brush and rinse in the usual way. Most dentists recommend a small pea-sized dab of paste and two minutes of brushing time. Most children brush for about 15 seconds.
3. After bushing, give each child a plaque-disclosing tablet. Instruct the children to chew the tablet and swish the saliva around the mouth for a few seconds. Then rinse.
4. Look in the mirror to discover red stain on the teeth. These are the spots that weren’t cleaned thoroughly and likely to harbor decay-causing bacteria.
5. Invite the children to brush again. Set the timer for two minutes and encourage the children to brush the red stain away. Repeat the activity every few months to help children correct their own brushing skills.


References and resources
Titmus, Dawn. (2018). Fish (Cool pets for kids). New York, NY: PowerKids Press.
Carle, Eric. (1969). The very hungry caterpillar. New York, NY: Philomel.
Cross, Aerial. (2012). Narure sparks: Connecting children’s learning to the natural world. St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press.
Dance, S. Peter. (1992). Shells. New. York, NY: DK Books
Ehlert, Lois. (2010). Lots of spots. New York, NY: Beach Lane Books.
Forestieri, M. & Mitchell, D. (2018). Simple STEAM. Lewisville, NC: Gryphon House.
Gillis, J. S. (1992). In a pumpkin shell. Pownal, VT: Storey Publishing.
Hoban, Tana. (1978). Is it red? Is it yellow? Is it blue? New York, NY: Greenwillow.
Hoban, Tana. (1990). Exactly the opposite. New York, NY: Greenwillow.
Jalongo, Mary Renck. (2004). Young children and picture books (2nd Ed.). Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Lovejoy, Sharon. (2009). Toad cottages and shooting stars. New York, NY: Workman Publishing.
Pica, Rae. (2001). Wiggle, giggle, & shake. Lewisville, NC: Gryphon House.
Powers, Julie & Ridge, S. W. (2019). Nature-based learning for young children: Anytime, anywhere, on any budget. St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press.
Simon, Seymour. (1995). Pets in a jar: Collecting and caring for small wild animals. New York, NY: Puffin Press.
Ellen Stoll Walsh. (2007). Mouse shapes. San Diego, CA: Harcourt.