Young children begin their study of matter by examining and qualitatively describing objects and their behavior. The important but abstract ideas of science, such as atomic structure of matter and the conservation of energy, all begin with observing and keeping track of the way the world behaves. When carefully observed, described, and measured, the properties of objects, changes in properties over time, and the changes that occur when materials interact provide the necessary precursors to the later introduction of more abstract ideas in the upper grade levels.
Students are familiar with the change of state between water and ice, but the idea of liquids having a set of properties is more nebulous and requires more instructional effort than working with solids. Most students will have difficulty with the generalization that many substances can exist as either a liquid or a solid. K-4 students do not understand that water exists as a gas when it boils or evaporates; they are more likely to think that water disappears or goes into the sky. Despite that limitation, students can conduct simple investigations with heating and evaporation that develop inquiry skills and familiarize them with the phenomena.
When students describe and manipulate objects by pushing, pulling, throwing, dropping, and rolling, they also begin to focus on the position and movement of objects: describing location as up, down, in front, or behind, and discovering the various kinds of motion and forces required to control it. By experimenting with light, heat, electricity, magnetism, and sound, students begin to understand that phenomena can be observed, measured, and controlled in various ways. The children cannot understand a complex concept such as energy. Nonetheless, they have intuitive notions of energy—for example, energy is needed to get things done; humans get energy from food. Teachers can build on the intuitive notions of students without requiring them to memorize technical definitions.
Sounds are not intuitively associated with the characteristics of their source by younger K-4 students, but that association can be developed by investigating a variety of concrete phenomena toward the end of the K-4 level. In most children's minds, electricity begins at a source and goes to a target. This mental model can be seen in students' first attempts to light a bulb using a battery and wire by attaching one wire to a bulb. Repeated activities will help students develop an idea of a circuit late in this grade range and begin to grasp the effect of more than one battery. Children cannot distinguish between heat and temperature at this age; therefore, investigating heat necessarily must focus on changes in temperature.
As children develop facility with language, their descriptions become richer and include more detail. Initially no tools need to be used, but children eventually learn that they can add to their descriptions by measuring objects—first with measuring devices they create and then by using conventional measuring instruments, such as rulers, balances, and thermometers. By recording data and making graphs and charts, older children can search for patterns and order in their work and that of their peers. For example, they can determine the