Text Rebecca Lorenz ––– Photography
Next comes the sodium bicarbonate, says Leonie, focusing hard on the mixing bowl in front of her. She steadily measures out two tablespoons of the powder before adding it. A little more red food colouring, a squirt of soap, and then the little girl places the mixture inside a small model volcano made of papier-mâché and grasps a pipette. “Let’s see if the experiment works.” And indeed – after just a few drops of vinegar, the artificial volcano starts to erupt. The six-year-old points incredulously at the frothing, red liquid. “Look – it works!” Once the show is over, she turns excitedly to the teacher. “Can I do it again?” Experiments like these are part of everyday life at the Protestant nursery in Herborn-Schönbach. “Children are naturally curious. They will spend hours examining things in their surroundings. You just have to give them the chance,” explains Christine Michels, the nursery’s director. Children hit upon even complex phenomena such as chemical reactions, physical states and gravity all by themselves – simply by watching, touching and trying things out. “Whether it’s a volcano erupting, snow melting or a scarf falling onto the floor, children ask all sorts of questions – they want to understand how the world works.”
Shared journey of discovery
Instead of simply providing the answers, the teachers in Schönbach encourage the children to find things out for themselves. “Of course, each child has a different knowledge base, depending on its particular interests,” Michels says. But this doesn’t hamper their experiments. “The children think things through together, talk with one another and keep on searching for a solution until the experiment works.” This not only helps them to understand basic principles in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), but also helps to develop the “soft” skills they will need throughout their lives – such as teamwork, creativity and the ability to communicate and solve problems.
The task of the nine teachers at the Schönbach nursery is to offer the children the best possible support in their endeavours. To help achieve this, for the past six years Michels and her co-workers have been going along to the “Little Scientists’ House”. This charitable foundation works throughout Germany to promote early learning in the STEM subjects. The Federal Ministry of Education and many local network partners support the project. One such partner is the Mathematikum science museum in Giessen.
“We equip the teachers with the necessary tools in practical training sessions,” explains Lisa Peter, a coordinator for the “Little Scientists’ House” at Mathematikum Giessen. After all, STEM subjects are still frequently overlooked in the training courses to become nursery teachers, particularly in Germany. “We want to show the participants that there’s nothing to be scared about. Even topics such as water, optics and light can be fun and are easy to teach – as long you relate them to children’s everyday lives.” Conducting experiments and trying things out therefore play a key role alongside theory and methodology.
“Of course, we provide the teachers with ideas and inspiration – but the idea is for them to also think up and try out their own experiments,” explains Melanie Schmidt, another coordinator at Mathematikum Giessen. “By the time they have completed this additional training, they should feel they can help the children to explore and research whatever grabs their attention.” Peter and Schmidt place great store on group reflection to achieve this high level of confidence. How can experiments be incorporated into everyday nursery life? What age groups are they suitable for? How can experiments be adapted to cater for younger children? The course raises and answers these kinds of questions, amongst others.
The effect this additional guidance has on teachers’ everyday work is exemplified by Simone Rehr’s experience. She is one of two teachers from the nursery in Schönbach to regularly attend training sessions. “Of course, there are subjects that I feel unsure about. This regular training gives me the confidence I need.” Not only that, but the rest of the team also benefits from the new ideas, as Rehr is more than happy to share them with her co-workers.
It’s not just the teachers, but also the children that the “Little Scientists’ House” has a lasting effect on. “We can see the rewards that the project is reaping in the open-mindedness of the children and the way they ask questions about everything,” Rehr reports. Instead of relying on the adults’ knowledge, they develop their own problem-solving strategies. This shows the children that they can achieve things with their own knowledge, which boosts their self-confidence. “As the profound effect of the ‘Little Scientists’ House’ has been scientifically proven in numerous studies and regular quality control, six years ago we decided that the Rittal Foundation would donate regularly to the project,” says Friedemann Hensgen, Chair of the Rittal Foundation. The foundation has handed over almost 50,000 euros so far to enable 34 teachers from 17 nurseries in central Hesse to regularly attend the training run by the “Little Scientists’ House”. The results speak for themselves, as 13 of the sponsored nurseries have now been certified by the “Little Scientists’ House”, four of them already for the third time. In real terms, this means that they have shown how they’ve integrated research into everyday nursery life, thus paving the way for the children’s educational success.
“This is another reason why the commitment shown by the ‘Little Scientists’ House’ is so important to us – because promoting education is one of the foundation’s key missions,” Hensgen explains. The fact is underlined by the foundation’s support for projects such as Hippy (promoting migrant children’s language development), the Amadeus Junior Academy (early-years musical development) and social work in schools. “Anyone who strongly believes in equal opportunities for all should lose no time in encouraging children as early as possible. This already starts building a solid foundation for equal educational opportunities at nursery level.”
The Rittal Foundation is not alone in promoting sound education, as the Friedhelm Loh Group behind it has been doing the same for many years. “The Friedhelm Loh Group aims to ensure that fully rounded education is achieved in the regions where it operates,” Hensgen explains. After all, the increasing pace at which digitization and globalisation are transforming the working environment is reinforcing the need for lifelong learning. Based on the motto “Knowledge – Ability – Action”, the group invests a lot of effort in training school leavers and graduates, and also in continuously developing its staff through the Loh Academy.
“But even a top-notch training programme won’t help if those taking part aren’t interested and curious enough to engage,” Hensgen points out. Because the seeds for this mindset are sown in early childhood, he considers the ‘Little Scientists’ House’ a game-changer. This is why the Rittal Foundation will be upping its commitment to the project once again this year. “The ‘Little Scientists’ House’ has just added a new component – IT. This enables us to equip the children even better for the digital future.” The teachers at Schönbach are also very interested in this development. “I can’t wait to see what the seminar’s like,” says Rehr. “Because I’ve never tried my hand at any programming before.”