Science Process Skills

img_20160614_192612976In our Family Inventors’ Lab, the topics we teach (our weekly themes) are from the fields of science and engineering. There are some basic scientific concepts we hope to teach each week. That’s the “what” kids are learning. But at least as important is

  • the attitudes we try to convey about science – the “why”

The [attitudes about science] include such things as being curious and imaginative…  enthusiastic about asking questions and solving problems. (Source)

  • and our process of learning – the “how”

The processes of doing science are the science process skills that scientists use… Since science is about asking questions and finding answers to questions, these are actually the same skills that we all use in our daily lives as we try to figure out everyday questions. When we teach students to use these skills in science, we are also teaching them skills that they will use in the future in every area of their lives. (Source. Italics are mine.)

There are thirteen science process skills, six of which are appropriate for young children. In order from least to most sophisticated, they are: Observation, Communication, Measurement, Classification, Inference, and Prediction.


Observation is the fundamental skill of science. We observe with all our senses.

One of the best things we can do for our children’s science learning is to help them observe more closely – look for more details. We do this by asking questions.

When a child is looking at something new, we can ask them to tell us what they notice about it. They may begin with only the simplest observation – often a label, if they know what the object is called. “It’s a leaf.” If we ask them to describe it, they might just choose one way to describe it: “it’s green.” We can encourage them to think about it in more depth by asking them what they can observe with each of their five senses: what does it look like? smell like? taste like? sound like? feel like? We can show them more ways to explore it… pick it up, turn it over to look at it from all sides, take it apart (what happens if you tear the leaf), see how it interacts with other things (can you cut the leaf with scissors?), shake it or crumple it to see if that changes the noise it is (or isn’t) making. We can introduce them to tools they can use to enhance their observation, such as a magnifying glass or microscope. We can encourage them to draw a picture of it or write a description. The process of trying to draw an object usually brings up questions for the child which motivate them to look more closely to figure out how to get the drawing right. As they write or draw, we can ask more questions to help them notice finer details. We can ask them to break it into parts and make observations about just one part: instead of describing the whole cat, can they just describe a cat’s paw?

We did a full unit on the five senses and observation. Find our lesson plan here.


Observing and communicating those observations go hand-in-hand. Children need to learn lots of adjectives… lots of commonly agreed upon ways to describe what we observe so that others can understand us. When talking with a child about what they observe, we often teach new vocabulary. If we ask them to describe a color and they think it’s kind of blue-ish, kind of green-ish, we can teach words like teal and turquoise. When I show children how to identify an Oregon grape plant, they need to learn the words serrated and glossy. When describing different types of music, we can talk about tempo, mood, etc.

When we’re sitting side by side with someone looking at the same thing, it’s easier to use a made-up word to describe something we can both see… last night, I was working on a jigsaw puzzle with my husband and son. I said “why can’t I find this piece?” They asked what I was looking for, and I said – “this kind of brownish-beige-ish donut color with this hooked dog leg kind of shape coming off of it.” In context, where they could see the rest of the donut, and see the space into which that shape would fit, that made sense. But out of that context it means almost nothing.

So, to communicate, not only do we need to know the words, we also need to be able to understand the perspective of our listener. What do they already know about what we are trying to describe? If I’m talking to an outdoorsy kid from the Pacific NW, and I say that I saw a banana slug, they know what I mean and can visualize it. But if I was talking to a kid in Arizona, I would need to describe it in detail. If I describe a tree as “big”, that also might conjure a different image for each of those two kids.


Measuring is a special case of observing and communicating. Observing how big something is by measuring it against something else, and then communicating that information to someone else using commonly agreed upon units. So, I could describe my big tree as being 12 foot tall, or as being 40 feet tall. Counting and weighing are part of measurement.

We can show kids that sometimes it is entertaining or even useful to use non-standard measurements. But they also have to know standard units. In our house, my son could probably tell you that a snake puppet he has is 12 Shopkins long. If you know what a Shopkin is and how big they are, you’d have a guess that the snake was around 10 – 12 inches long. But if you don’t know what a Shopkin is, we’d have to do that translation into standard units for you.

Here’s a lesson plan full of activities about measurement.

Classifying Into Groups / Sorting

Sorting is a way of creating order, or making sense out of a large collection of objects by using your observation skills to notice what things have in common with each other and how they are different from each other.

A simple method of classifying is putting things in serial order: lining them up from smallest to biggest, or arranging them by color in the order of the rainbow (Roy G. Biv), or smoothest to roughest.

Objects can be sorted into binary categories: magnetic or not magnetic; plastic or wood, vertebrate or non-vertebrate. These sort by a single criteria – you could also have more than two categories, such as sorting into: red, yellow, green or blue or reptile, mammal, bird, fish, insect. You can also do a multi-stage classification. First, sort out the plastic from the wood, then sort the plastic ones by color, then sort the red plastic ones by size. Or sort out the mammals from other categories, then find the canines, then find the dogs. Or sort out mom’s clean laundry from kid’s laundry, then sort kid’s socks from kid’s underwear, then find the matching pairs of socks.

Check out this link to learn a lot more about: sorting and classification. Or check out our lesson plan on Animal Classification.


An inference is an explanation or interpretation that follows an observation. We observe with all five senses, but we interpret what we sense based on our prior experience and knowledge. Observation results can be called data or facts. The inference is what those facts mean.

On our walk to school, we observe that this plant dropped things sort of like pinecones. But as they dry out, they open up and reveal bright red berries that we can observe. But, we had to infer that the red color probably attracts birds who eat the berries and carry them other places to spread the plant. We can infer that because we know that is often the evolutionary purpose of brightly colored fruit. Also on our walk, there was a sign about a lost cat. We can observe that the sign has been there for a long time. My son infers that is because the owners are still hoping to find their lost cat. I infer that the owners have given up on the cat, but either forgot about the sign, or find it too depressing to take it down.

Ask your child about their assumptions: why do they think that? Ask: what does this remind you of? Help them sort out the difference between facts – anyone looking at this object would see the same thing – and inferences – different people could interpret this data in different ways, based on their experiences.


A prediction is an educated guess, based on our observations and inferences, about future events. It is always based on data. We identify trends in the data which let us predict what will happen. Predictions can be tested: if I do X, does Y happen?

Our mail usually arrives after 2:00 pm but before 4:00 pm. If our son asks to go check the mail at 3:00, we tell him that it may or may not be there. His grandma sends him the Sunday comics each week (it’s a tradition going back almost 20 years to when my oldest child was in preschool). So, if he asks whether he has mail on any given day, we can ask him to think about whether he’s gotten this week’s comics yet or not. If not, it’s more likely there will be mail for him (the comics). If so, then it is less likely that he will be receiving a random unpredictable piece of mail. Each time we check the mail, we have a chance to check our assumptions (inferences) and adjust our prediction about future phenomena.

How do children benefit from learning science process skills (source)

First, they learn science better. Hands-on process based learning is much more effective than textbook-based science. The hands-on experience also builds small motor skills as they manipulate a wide variety of materials.

Math is the language of science. The more science kids do, the more proficient they become with the language of math. But hands-on science also teaches literacy skills: as they communicate about their experience, they are building vocabulary, building oral and written language skills, and learning how to describe detail in depth.

They also learn critical thinking skills.

These include inductive reasoning, formulation of hypotheses, deductive reasoning, and a variety of mental skills such as analogy, extrapolation, synthesis, and evaluation. (source)

Every one of the science process skills is a skill we can use in many contexts in our lives. They are all about much more than learning “science.”

Read more about process here and about tinkering here.

Resources for learning more:


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