By the time children enter formal school environments, most have developed an impressive array of cognitive skills, along with an extensive body of knowledge related to the natural world.6 It is also likely that they have become familiar with numerous ways of accessing scientific information other than through formal classroom instruction: reading, surfing the Web, visiting the local library, watching science-related programs on television, talking with peers or adults who have some expertise on a topic, or exploring the environment on their own.7 These activities continue throughout the years in which young people and young adults are engaged in formal schooling, as well as later in life.8
It is also common for elementary school children to bring the classroom home, to regale parents with stories of what happened in school that day and involve them in homework assignments. These events help to alert parents to a child’s specific intellectual interests and may inspire family activities that feature these interests. A child’s comments about a science lesson at school may encourage parents to work with the child on the Web or take him or her to a zoo or museum or concoct scientific experiments with household items in order to answer a specific question. In these ways, informal experiences can supplement and complement school-based science education.
To a considerable extent, children are dependent on others to provide opportunities for science learning—formal or informal. Especially in the early years of childhood, young people look to parents to provide access to reading materials, media resources, programmed environments (such as school, museums, zoos, or libraries), and materials that can enhance informal science learning. Because of their limited knowledge base, children are also more dependent on adults to organize and interpret aspects of their learning experiences. However, children are also quite adept at creating learning opportunities from the resources available to them and deriving scientific insights from these opportunities, even at an early age.9