Seeing What They Can’t See

If children are going to be scientist, they also need tools. Tools can help children see things they can’t see otherwise. Magnifying glasses are often provided, but I have found that they don’t provide much that a child can’t see by looking closer. On the other hand, a portable stereo microscope is fairly inexpensive and can be brought outside. Unlike compound microscopes, which require specimens to be mounted on slides, stereo microscopes allow the specimen to be simply placed under the lens. Worms and insects can crawl under. Pine cones, leaves, or any object under four inches in width can fit and the lenses can be focused on different parts of the object. Children can often see patterns on wings and leaves invisible to the naked eye. For younger children who may have a hard time looking into the microscope, you can hold a camera to one of the eyepieces and children can look at the camera’s screen.


In my preschool classroom, one girl watched a worm move across the base of the microscope. She noticed the setae on the worm help it move across the base of the microscope. After watching it, she held the worm and felt it tickle her hand. She realized she was feeling the setae. She had felt this before, but looking in the microscope helped her notice it.






Another way for them to “see what they can’t see” is to open up the object. Hammers, knives and saws can be used by children over the age of three with adult supervision. Hammers can be used to crack nuts and other hard objects. Pumpkin carving knives can be used to open many firm vegetables. Depending on the size of the group and the abilities of the children, other knives could be used as well. An adult should hold the object unless it is big enough to stay still on its own. Saws can be used to open many other things. You need to clamp the object down so the children don’t have to hold the object while sawing. In general, preschoolers only pay attention to one thing at a time so they shouldn’t have to worry about steadying the object while cutting it.


Several years ago I asked my class how a marker works. There were several theories, some more realistic than others. Then I clamped the marker to a workbench, and helped the children saw the marker open. Even the kids who had predicted accurately were amazed to see the color-filled cylinder. I have done the same with golf balls, soccer balls and a guitar (all broken).


Many appliances or machines can be opened with screwdrivers. An adult should open it first to assess any risk of injury from sharp corners or moving parts. Adults may also find that there is very little for young children to see to understand how the machine works. While children can’t open up every appliance on a whim, they may look closer and machines they may have otherwise looked right past.




Giving children time and tools to explore the world around them, allows them to be the scientists researching the world around them. They are not just opening a walnut or a seedpod or a washing machine. They are opening a door to a new world. They are opening themselves up to wonder.

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