Engaging Parents in Early Childhood Learning: An Issue of Civic Importance

Michelle Kortenaar,
Allison Sribarra,
Tamar Kushnir,
Cornell University













At the Sciencenter, a hands-on science museum in Ithaca, NY, we watch young children learn through play. They explore, make observations and inferences, and perform experiments just like scientists. What we see every day on the museum floor has also been researched and documented at Cornell’s Early Childhood Cognition Lab and other labs around the country. Children make inferences about cause and effect and use statistical evidence to make predictions about their world (Kushnir and Gopnik 2005; Kushnir et al. 2010). The same curiosity that leads to exploratory play also leads to explanation-seeking behavior. Children ask “why” when events are unexpected or surprising (Legare et al. 2010). In other words, young children, given the opportunity to explore, do so in the same ways that scientists do.

At the Sciencenter, we have also learned that not all children have the opportunity to experience rich play environments and the freedom to explore and experiment. There is a gap between what researchers know about early childhood cognitive development and how some parents, caregivers, and educators interact with the children in their care. We see evidence of this knowledge gap every day as parents and caregivers interact with their children at our exhibits and out in the world. We see parents concerned that their children will get too wet if they play with water, or parents who move their children along to new activities when the children are engaged in repetition to see if the outcome stays the same.

Giving parents the tools and confidence to encourage their children’s scientific exploration and engaging parents and caregivers in current research in cognitive development are matters of civic importance, and time is of the essence.

Early childhood is a time of rapid development. By age three, for example, children have already learned 50 percent of what they will eventually know as adults (Landry 2005). Young brains start pruning neural connections that go unused at age four, and—remarkably—children’s brains are 90 percent fully developed by age five (Woodhead 2006). We believe that giving parents the confidence and tools to allow their children to explore like young scientists will help create the best learning environments possible for young children and set the stage for future learning.

Since 2012, researchers from Cornell’s Early Childhood Cognition (ECC) Lab have been using the museum floor at the Sciencenter as a research space. By working at the Sciencenter, ECC Lab researchers are able to recruit child participants for their studies. The ECC Lab is discovering how children think and learn while they are playing games with puppets and stickers. One recent study, conducted at the Sciencenter, looked at the effect of choice on sharing behavior (Chernyak and Kushnir 2013).

While children participate in research, their families are able to watch research in action and discuss the latest theories about how children learn with real scientists in this “living exhibit.”

The Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities-Informal Science Education (SENCER-ISE) partnership projects gave us the perfect opportunity to leverage this research partnership and engage undergraduate students in real-world learning while giving parents the tools and confidence to support their children’s explorations. As one undergraduate participant said, “In the lab, we examine children’s learning and thinking using activities and games specifically designed for a controlled lab setting…. This project examines children’s learning in the organic and messy real world to see how they learn in informal learning environments.”

As part of the SENCER-ISE project, Cornell undergraduates have helped develop and test signs to encourage parents and children to make connections between different exhibits and other areas of their lives through the use of common vocabulary. The first set of exhibit signs has the word “water” and an image of a water drop. The signs are placed on aquariums, water play areas, and a model of human blood. Undergraduate researchers from the ECC Lab are studying the kinds of parent-child conversations that arise as a result of the prompt from the signs. This is a real-world application of a theory undergraduates learn in their “Concepts and Theories in Childhood” course: children expect to find commonalities between things that are labeled with the same word. As is always true in the real world, there have been some surprises. Student researchers have found that “parents and children engaged in meaningful and purposeful play at the water exhibits.” “Parents were also likely to ask their children causal and predictive questions, as well as offer causal explanations to their children’s questions.” The results also indicated, however, that the signs did not promote conversations. In fact, “while parents and children engaged with exhibit materials, they rarely noticed the signs.” That is why in the second year of the SENCER-ISE grant, we have introduced a “scavenger hunt” to encourage children to search for the signs

In addition, undergraduate and graduate students have shared current research at workshops for parents and teachers both at the museum and at Head Start sites in the county. Since 2014, over 460 adults have attended these workshops, which highlight some of the research into early childhood cognitive development and provide tools to support their children’s science exploration. Early childhood teachers have learned that even young children can and do use science and science skills and have practiced science process skills. Through these workshops, undergraduate researchers have had the opportunity to apply their theoretical learning about early childhood cognition in an informal setting, creating richer learning experiences for them as scientists and students of children’s learning.

As a result of the SENCER-ISE project, we are confident that the undergraduate students see the topic of early childhood development not only as something they are researching, but as an issue of civic importance. They experience the real-world applications of their theoretical learning and see the differences between learning environments and parenting styles firsthand.

In turn, we at the Sciencenter have access to current research and expert advisors so that we can continue to integrate research into exhibits, programming, and our outreach efforts in ways that improve the learning environments for the young children in our community. We have been honored to be a part of the SENCER-ISE project and look forward to continuing this work.

About the Authors

Michelle Kortenaar serves as the Director of Education at the Sciencenter, a position she has held since 2011. Ms. Kortenaar has a formal science education background, both as a master teacher and as a department head at the middle and high school levels, as well as 6 years of informal science education experience. She has a master’s in education from Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada.

Allison Sribarra has been the Grant Administrator at the Sciencenter since 2012. She has worked closely with Sciencenter educators on early childhood programming. She has a decade of experience working with non-profit grant management and administration and holds a master’s of public policy from the University of Maryland.

Tamar Kushnir is Associate Professor at the College of Human Ecology at Cornell University. She received her M.A. in Statistics and Ph.D. in Cognitive Psychology from the University of California, Berkeley, and was a Post-Doctoral fellow at the University of Michigan. Dr. Kushnir’s research examines mechanisms of learning in young children. She continues to explore the role that children’s developing knowledge – in particular their social knowledge – plays in learning, a question with implications for the study of cognitive development as well as for early childhood education.


Chernyak, N., and T. Kushnir. 2013. “Giving Preschoolers Choice Increases Sharing Behavior.” Psychological Science 24 (10): 1971–1979. http://pss.sagepub.com/content/24/10/1971 (accessed May 9, 2015).



Kushnir, T., F. Xu, and H.M. Wellman. 2010. “Young Children Use Statistical Sampling To Infer Preferences of Others.” Psychological Science 21 (8): 1134–1140. http://pss.sagepub.com/content/21/8/1134 (accessed May 9, 2015).


Kushnir, T., and A. Gopnik. 2005. “Children Infer Causal Strength from Probabilities and Interventions.” Psychological Science 16 (9): 678–683. http://pss.sagepub.com/content/16/9/678 (accessed May 9, 2015).


Landry, S.H. 2005. Effective Early Childhood Programs: Turning Knowledge Into Action. Austin: University of Texas System with Rice University. http://www.childrenslearninginstitute.org/library/publications/documents/Effective-Early_Childhood-Programs.pdf (accessed May 9, 2015).

Legare, C.H., S.A. Gelman, and H.M. Wellman. 2010. “Inconsistency with Prior Knowledge Triggers Children’s Causal Explanatory Reasoning.” Child Development 81(3): 929–944.


Woodhead, Martin. 2006. Changing perspectives on early childhood: theory, research and policy. Geneva?: UNESCO.

http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0014/001474/147499e.pdf (accessed May 9, 2015).


Author: seceij

Chuck Gahun is the content manager for the SECEIJ website and technical consultant for NCSCE

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