You are here

Oobleck, cloud dough, popcorn and volcanoes: Supporting scientific learning through intentional teaching

Erin McFlynn, Ann-Marie Day, Catherine Vaughan, Rachel Young, and Brooke Maxwell

An intentional teaching approach provided a Wellington kindergarten with valuable avenues for supporting the teaching and learning of young children from refugee and immigrant backgrounds. Despite reservations about implementing this approach, teachers found that it was possible to use it in a child-centred way. The teachers’ research inquiry into scientific learning provides examples of how intentional teaching supported positive and beneficial learning outcomes for young children. The inquiry highlighted the importance of slowing down, the value of repetition, the depth of child engagement in scientific activities and the significance of sensory learning. Intentional teaching was found to contribute to significant learning happening over time.

Oobleck, cloud dough, popcorn, and volcanoes

Supporting scientific learning through intentional teaching

Erin McFlynn, Ann-Marie Day, Catherine Vaughan, Rachel Young, and Brooke Maxwell

An intentional teaching approach provided a Wellington kindergarten with valuable avenues for supporting the teaching and learning of young children from refugee and immigrant backgrounds. Despite reservations about implementing this approach, teachers found that it was possible to use it in a child-centred way. The teachers’ research inquiry into scientific learning provides examples of how intentional teaching supported positive and beneficial learning outcomes for young children. The inquiry highlighted the importance of slowing down, the value of repetition, the depth of child engagement in scientific activities and the significance of sensory learning. Intentional teaching was found to contribute to significant learning happening over time.


As teachers at Newtown Kindergarten in Wellington, our exploration of intentional teaching came about unexpectedly. Two lines of inquiry coincided for us: our participation in a Marsden research project about belonging with refugee and immigrant children, and a strategic internal review of our own teaching practice.

For the first line of inquiry, the Marsden project, we were invited to carry out a small research project that we would design ourselves. In this project we would explore an issue related to belonging for refugee and immigrant children. The second line of inquiry, our strategic internal review, had identified a need to strengthen scientific teaching and learning in our kindergarten. These two strands of inquiry merged to become one: we took our identified need to explore our scientific teaching and learning, and made that the focus of our Marsden project on belonging.1 We approached belonging through an equity lens, as supporting access to the power literacies of a society supports equitable inclusion (Janks, 2010). We were able to take this approach by viewing scientific literacy as part of a holistic approach that also highly valued home language and culture.

Our kindergarten review process had identified Western scientific knowledge as an area for focus. Within that broader topic, we decided on transformation of substances as our research topic. We hoped that researching transformation of substances would build on our own knowledge, while also providing opportunities to support children’s curiosity and grow children’s knowledge. Transformation of substances was something we had observed that children were already interested in, as it featured frequently in our daily teaching and learning plans.

We came up with a process that would support the intentional, sustained teaching of scientific transformations. However, the intentional teaching approach for this project felt like it was led by teachers rather than children. Typically, we identified our approach as “child-led”. While we do plan in our work with children, planning this far in advance and this extensively was confronting for us as a team and required a more in-depth understanding of what was meant by the term ‘intentional teaching’.

Intentional teaching: An overview

Intentional teaching, sometimes called intentional pedagogy, can be described as “teachers’ planful, thoughtful and purposeful use of knowledge, judgement and expertise to organise learning experiences for children” (McLaughlin & Cherrington, 2018, p. 35). Intentional teaching includes teacher-child interactions that are purposeful in building concepts, skills, and even values in early childhood settings (Fleer & Hoban, 2012).

Intentional teaching is not teaching by rote—in fact it is the opposite, instead being a pedagogical approach involving interactions that actively promote children’s learning through a variety of consciously selected strategies to develop high-level thinking capabilities (Lewis, Fleer, & Hammer, 2019). As McLaughlin et al. (2016) write:

The frame of intentional teaching helps teachers become more purposeful, deliberate and reflective in their practice. This requires planned and spontaneous judgements that draw on multiple sources of professional knowledge and knowledge of children, families, and communities, including child and family cultural and personal values and preferences (p. 191).

As Lewis et al. (2019) note, knowledge about children and their families is one of the sources teachers draw on. However, whereas exclusively child-led approaches can inadvertently position teachers in a passive way, intentional teaching repositions teachers as active agents (McLaughlin & Cherrington, 2018).

Intentional teaching can also benefit the learning acquisition of specific kinds of content knowledge, in our inquiry, scientific knowledge. Fleer and Hoban (2012) write, “scientific concepts and their associated terms often do not come spontaneously to children in an everyday situation but sometimes need to be explicitly introduced to children in a purposeful and meaningful context” (p. 62). While scientific investigation can be incorporated easily into play, children also need scientific explanations that elaborate on their everyday understandings and observations, as well as opportunities to explore these further (Fleer & Hoban, 2012). As Lewis et al note (2019), “Scientific concepts require a higher form of thinking, or thinking in concepts and conscious generalisation” (p. 9). Such “thinking” opportunities can be facilitated by intentional teaching.

Our process

We all took responsibility for a particular experience or experiment which we built into our daily session. The experiences were open to all children to participate in. We recognised that we would lead many of the activities, but we hoped through expanding our own content knowledge we could also deepen the learning for children.

We selected five activities, with one of us responsible for each: popcorn (before it was banned); water and ice; baking soda; foam; and oobleck and cloud dough. These activities had connections to things the children were interested in. Popcorn was always popular with the children and we were growing it in the garden to support this interest. Volcanoes in the sand pit are a regular request, so that became the chemical reaction of adding baking soda to substances such as vinegar. Water play is almost always accessible to children, and ice and freezing are often an extension of water play and learning. Children often participate in the ritual of making playdough in the mornings and we often have gloop, so oobleck and cloud dough are a variation of play dough. Cloud foam was chosen because when that teacher began her experiments, we were in COVID alert level two and unable to cook with children.

We took turns to carry out the activities. When each member of the teaching team had carried out her agreed activity once, that would constitute a single cycle, with each cycle taking a few weeks to complete. Then, as a team, we would reflect generally on what had happened for us in each one of our activities, with some of us choosing to write those reflections down.

At the end of the project, we analysed and interpreted the data using a thematic approach, where we identified themes through consensus in our discussions together. Our focus here was identifying themes that had supported the learning (scientific or otherwise) of the case study children. We also identified learning that had been of benefit to us as teachers.

Methodology and ethics

Newtown Kindergarten is a culturally diverse kindergarten located in inner city Wellington. About two-thirds of our whānau are recent immigrants, some with a refugee background. Many of our whānau live in social housing and apartments, and many children and their whānau have English as an additional language.

Data analysed in this article came from teachers’ reflective writing, group discussions among teachers, photographs and video recordings of selected case study children engaging in science experiments, and teachers’ pedagogical documentation.

Parents gave written consent for photographs and video recordings of their child and the gathering of documentation about their child. Teachers explained the project to children, and invited them to participate and to give their assent for participation. Ethical approval was obtained through the Faculty of Education University of Waikato Research Ethics committee.
In this article we discuss data from four case study children: Waleed (male), Deih No (female), Christian (male), and Child A (female). Parental consent gave parents the option to use their child’s name, or to ask for a pseudonym. The last child’s parents was the only one to request a pseudonym, but did not stipulate what they wished that to be. The team decided to use the generic term “Child A” to represent this child and her learning.

Each of the four children regularly attended the kindergarten, and came from either a refugee or immigrant background. Most had some experience in speaking English, although Deih No’s English was still emergent. All children were learning English as an additional language. The children were aged between 4 and 5 years.


The six themes discussed in this article were selected because they were the ones our team deemed as having the most impact for the focus children. They are: the importance of slowing down, the value of repetition, the depth of child engagement in the activities, the significance of sensory learning, the value of intentional teaching, and how we observed significant learning happening over time. Each theme will be discussed in turn.

Slowing down

We have learnt that “slowing down” supported the intentional teaching we were undertaking. Clark (2020) discusses the value of slow pedagogy, which is positioned as a counter-culture to fast-paced living. Within a slow pedagogy, children are encouraged to slow down and observe the world around them carefully. This includes moving beyond one’s initial thoughts, and instead lingering, revisiting, and rethinking over time. Slow pedagogy includes the provision of first-hand experience, where children are able to revisit in depth, in the same environment, drawing on their feelings and senses to make meaning (Clark, 2020). In this instance, we drew on slow pedagogy to support the intentional teaching of scientific content knowledge.

We found that moving slowly through the scientific work was important. We were able to slow down the pacing of the experiments, although this did have a downside. Sometimes we felt like the research was going so slowly that it would be easy to assume it was not going to happen at all! Key strategies we kept returning to, again and again, were to slow down, and repeat. We wanted to slow down to be inclusive, and to be equitable by providing time for children to work and think on their own terms. We wanted to give children time for scientific understandings to occur through discovery, and to have opportunities for inquiry. This included adjusting our strategies to support higher level thinkers. In the process, we also found ourselves supporting tuakana/teina relationships, and nurturing leadership opportunities, by inviting children and then encouraging their friends to observe alongside them.

Deih No’s work provided a clear example of how slow pedagogy, as part of an intentional teaching approach, can support a child. We all found that at the early stages, Deih No would only participate alongside her friends, and this mainly took the form of standing back and observing. We observed that it took a month for Deih No to feel comfortable, during which she was building and strengthening relationships with all teachers and gaining confidence so she was not lost in a crowd. We all noticed that she seemed to feel empowered with a small group of children and a teacher leading an experience. Lots of repetition seemed to provide a sense of familiarity and more security for Deih No. Lots of time provided her with opportunities to explore with her senses. She built up confidence over time, and moved from observer to participant, and then to leader.

Slow pedagogy not only benefitted the children, but also us as teachers. The gradually unfolding process gave us time to consider many reflective questions. Should we stop? Should we completely change direction? We had time to work through these questions to understand more. Our participation in the research project has especially made us feel more comfortable with much smaller steps than we previously thought. We believe this has supported the growth of equity and inclusiveness among children in general, and particularly with our ESOL children.


Repetition often has the connotation of conducting drills (DeKeyser, 2018). However, in this context we mean repetition to represent tasks that are designed to practice elements of language or skill acquisition, where tasks are representative of the real world (DeKeyser, 2018), and therefore, both contextualised and useful for those undertaking them. Such task-type repetition (DeKeyser, 2018) provides opportunities for children to revisit, grow in confidence and move into a leadership role where they could support their friends’ learning.

The value of repetition in the development of scientific content knowledge is illustrated by our observation of Deih No and Christian’s interactions. With Deih No, our teaching team found that at the early stages, Deih No was only happy to participate alongside her friends, standing back and observing. It took a month of practice in the different experiences for her to feel comfortable, including building and strengthening her relationships with all teachers, and gaining confidence in small group settings. She was able to rely on prior knowledge obtained from repetition, which relieved pressure on her having to be reliant on language to understand what was happening in the moment. We all realised that she felt empowered and safe in this group work, where she was able to develop an idea of what to expect, with a teacher leading an experience. From these experiences she was able to build up confidence and moved from observer to participant and then leader. With Christian, in the very last experiment with reactions, Ann-Marie noted that Christian was able to predict that the two substances would “fizz” when mixed together, an observation he had developed through lots of prior experiences where he had mainly observed and said little.

This opportunity to practice, coupled with the degree of certainty provided by familiarity, supported both children to grow more confident to share their predictions in further experiments. This was especially evident in the ice experiments and the baking soda and vinegar experiments. With all the repeating of experiments, and the revisiting of the different transformational processes, Deih No and Christian were able to move from being participant observers to engaged participants, as they had lots of time and opportunity to observe closely, and talk about what they were seeing.

Child engagement

The biggest surprise for us was the depth of child engagement in the experiments and experiences. Child engagement is defined as the period of time that children spend in appropriate interaction with their environment, with engagement seen as covering a spectrum of interaction (Raspa, McWilliam, & Maher Ridley, 2001).

We really were not comfortable with foregrounding intentionally-taught experiences and talked about it a lot! At times we felt our “experiments” were set-up and even formulaic, which went against our team preference for predominantly child-led learning involving free play, and teacher responsiveness in the moment. However, in small group settings we all observed our research participants grow in confidence and develop higher levels of engagement with scientific learning.

This was especially the case with Deih No and Christian. Our strategic internal evaluation had identified that both children were “flying under the radar” with regards to scientific learning.

For Deih No, engagement was evident in her increased use of language with both her friends and peers and teachers, as her confidence and sense of belonging grew. She began responding to our questions, and increasingly offered her own ideas unprompted. This resulted in her sharing more of her ideas. It showed her initiating and seeking out opportunities to engage in the experiments, picking up the concepts that the different experiments were trying to convey.

Initially Christian would hang back a lot watching, but not talking. We discussed this a lot in our meetings. Was he really participating if he appeared interested and was just watching, or was he wanting to hang out with his friends or both? We came to realise that he was interested and needed time to gain confidence. He was also gaining confidence and learning by being with and observing his friends. After comparing and sharing experiments and experiences we were each offering, we started realising he was participating nonverbally. Our perception was that he was growing his curiosity, an observation that was borne out as his scientific engagement did indeed emerge over time.

However, because they became familiar with the intentionally-taught scientific activities, they also became more comfortable with engaging in the activities. Familiarity through the repetition of experiments had helped the children learn patterns of practice that they could rely on. These patterns supported the developing English of the children, and also helped them feel comfortable in small group work because they were able to predict some of the group’s work based on the acquired knowledge of similar experiences. The children knew what was expected during the experiments, and that exploring, and making mistakes was okay.

We were surprised at the benefits some of our children seemed to gain from intentional teaching approaches. We saw this particularly through Deih No’s engagement, where her increased use of language with both her friends, peers and teachers, and her growing confidence and sense of belonging increased from her sustained engagement over time in the intentional teaching sessions. She began responding to our questions, and increasingly offered her own ideas unprompted. Deih No also began to initiate opportunities to engage in the experiments, picking up the concepts that the different experiments were trying to convey. With the experiments involving ice, she appeared to enjoy that the experiments were predictable. Deih No especially strengthened and built trusting relationships with all the teachers due to working closely with them over a sustained period of time. These relationships of trust have lasted after the research project finished.

We realised that intentional teaching activities can create a comfort zone that supports the building of confidence for some children in our community. Such activities provide a place where children are not “lost in the crowd”. For these reasons we believed that groups initiated by intentional teaching increased the sense of belonging and equity for our children.

Learning through all the senses: An observation

The significance of sensory learning was an observation we made because we were reflecting deeply on our work.

In our discussions throughout the research project, we talked about the sensory aspect of learning. Our experiments and teaching in transformation of substances reminded us that children learn through all their senses: sight, smell, touch, hearing, taste, and touch. This kind of learning can be particularly significant for children from refugee and immigrant backgrounds (Mitchell & Cowie, 2021), who can be reassured by sensory-scapes that make connections to their own home experiences, for example, familiar smells of cooking, symbols and artifacts, and sounds of home languages and music. In our context, using a scientific lens, we wanted to increase children’s experiences with new content knowledge, and observed that sensory learning supported that process. We agreed that sensory engagement can be easy to forget, or overlook, and that sensory learning is more than just one aspect of sensory engagement, such as visual (Mason & Davies, 2009) or tactile experiences. We observed that learning through the senses was an important aspect of inquiry for many of our children, especially when they were either reluctant to verbalise or could not verbalise their questions or working theories in English.

Our close observation of children during these investigations and experiments told us that through using their different senses, children had opportunities to observe and draw conclusions without immediately verbalising. By using all their senses, children had the opportunity to learn about new phenomena and test out ideas (e.g., licking ice, touching, and smelling oobleck, feeling the heat of popcorn popping, smelling the popcorn as it popped). Child A is a great example of sensory experiences being an equitable learning tool.

At first Child A did not want to even touch the oobleck, foam, or ice. After observing the other children’s enjoyment, her curiosity seemed to grow. First it was a finger, soon it was the whole hand. With the regular repetition of our experiments, she had plenty of opportunities to observe before participating. We learnt from this child to expect the unexpected. Rather than language, Child A used facial expressions and gesture to communicate, at one point gently grabbing another child’s hand in her enthusiasm to share the cloud dough mixture.

In our post-evaluation discussions, we talked about our increased awareness of using sensory experiences as a tool in our scientific investigations and experiments with children. It also became a way for us to encourage our less confident, non-verbal children (or those with less English), to participate in an investigation. We are reminded that sensory experiences are an equitable learning opportunity in our community—as everyone has senses that they can use in their learning, to explore their working theories and in their investigations, even if they are not yet able to express their findings from their explorations verbally. Additionally, just as a sensory landscape can create connections to a child’s home world (Mitchell & Cowie, 2021), we also think that sensory learning can help to create new connections to the places children are in now. We have really wanted to grow this aspect of our curriculum so, looking forward, we have a planned review of sensory opportunities in our outdoor environment for the future.

Teacher development through an intentional teaching approach

Because we were also growing our own content knowledge around transformation of substances, lots of revisiting and repetition gave us as teachers more time to share and support one another with our different content knowledge. The development of teacher content knowledge is about more than curriculum delivery. It is also about the knowledge that teachers develop over time, through experience, regarding how to teach particular content, in sense-making ways, for the students that they have (Loughran, Berry, & Mulhall, 2012). To accomplish this, teachers need a “rich conceptual understanding” (Loughran et al., 2012, p. 7) of their particular topic area, including its nuances and idiosyncrasies.

A rich conceptual understanding of science is the kind of content knowledge the teaching team sought to build during this research project. We needed time to think and reflect on the children’s learning, to adjust our teaching, to think and plan how to teach different children who are at different levels, and to share with one another what was happening in our parts of the research. This was one of the reasons we had chosen an intentional teaching approach for our work: we knew that we had to make time and support one another to carry out these experiences, and wanted to be purposeful in doing so. We talked about the difference between how teachers set experiences and what we thought we would be exploring, and what the children wanted to learn/explore. This was sometimes different and not always what we were expecting, but the path of implementing our teaching plan, and then reflecting on that plan, helped us to develop our content knowledge over time, and in response to our learning community

During our journey, we also talked a lot about equity. We talked about recognising participatory democracy as a value and a practice in education, and that children learning content knowledge is an important part of equity in education (Janks, 2010). We acknowledged that all our tamariki bring with them to kindergarten their own funds of knowledge, who they are in relation to their culture, language, identity, and life experiences. We hoped that by strengthening our own content knowledge, we would create a greater sense of belonging with the science curriculum in Aotearoa New Zealand, through increasing their access to scientific learning. We considered these approaches as taking real steps in our journey to create a more equitable curriculum (McLaughlin et al., 2016).

Significant learning over time

A month after finishing the formal research project, two of the teachers did their experiments with the children again. Christian showed the most dramatic improvement in his understandings with regard to making predictions, and using tools, language, and learning. He had initially seemed distracted or the observer in earlier experiments but now, clearly comprehended what was happening. He knew the names of the ingredients and what would happen next. He showed constant enthusiasm for trying things out. Around this time Christian approached Erin about making ice, which Erin then did with a group. Christian and Deih No very much took the lead within the group that gathered, confidently telling others that the water will turn into ice, and that the cold of the freezer makes that happen. They determined that the ice will be ready “tomorrow”, and were looking forward to the following day when they could “lick the ice”.


Persisting with an intentional teaching approach in creating more opportunities for the acquisition of scientific knowledge took our team down some unexpected paths. However, in the process we came to realise there were many benefits to such an approach. Often, these were benefits we did not anticipate, such as high levels of child engagement, and providing certainty through repetition for children who were learning English as an additional language. This approach provided familiarity and support for children, not only for scientific learning but for their sense of belonging in small group activities. Through reflection, we can see the benefit of intentional, teacher-guided experiences for children.

A second conclusion we have drawn from our work is that in hindsight, we can see that we actually approached intentional teaching in a very child-centred way. By using children’s interests to spark our initial planning, and by being mindful of the individual needs of our children as they participated, we were able to keep the child at the centre of our work. This was both surprising and heartening. Working in this way has given us more confidence to thoughtfully pursue this kind of work in the future, as we continue to move forward with our children.


The research was supported by the Marsden Fund Council from Government funding, managed by Royal Society Te Apārangi.

Thanks to the Newtown Kindergarten parents and children for their willingness to participate in this research study.


1While the research project itself was of a few months duration, the broader inquiry sparked by our strategic internal review continued for several months and included a variety of perspectives and approaches. What is shared here is a small portion of our overall work.


Clark, A. (2020). Towards a listening ECEC system. In C. Cameron & P. Moss (Eds.), Transforming early childhood in England: Towards a democratic education. UCL Press.

DeKeyser, R. (2018). Task repetition for language learning: A perspective from skill acquisition theory. In M. Bygate (Ed.), Language learning through task repetition (Vol. 11). John Benjamins Publishing.

Fleer, M., & Hoban, G. (2012). Using ‘Slowmation’ for intentional teaching in early childhood centres: Possibilities and imaginings. Australasian Journal of Early Childhood, 37(3), 61–70.

Janks, H. (2010). Literacy and power. Routledge.

Lewis, R., Fleer, M., & Hammer, M. (2019). Intentional teaching: Can early-childhood educators create the conditions for children’s conceptual development when following a childcentred programme? Australasian Journal of Early Childhood, 44(1), 6–18.

Loughran, J., Berry, A., & Mulhall, P. (2012). Under­standing and developing science teachers’ pedagogical content knowledge (2nd ed.). Sense Publishers.

Mason, J., & Davies, K. (2009). Coming to our senses? A critical approach to sensory methodology. Qualitative Research, 9(5), 587–603.

McLaughlin, T., Aspden, K., & Snyder, P. (2016). Intentional teaching as a pathway to equity in early childhood education: Participation, quality, and equity. New Zealand Journal of Educational Studies, 51(2), 175–195.

McLaughlin, T., & Cherrington, S. (2018). Creating a rich curriculum through intentional teaching. Early Childhood Folio, 22(1), 33–37.

Mitchell, L., & Cowie, B. (2021). A sensory landscape as an invitation to belonging in early childhood settings. Early Childhood Folio, 24(1), 3–8.

Raspa, M., Mcwilliam, R., & Maher Ridley, S. (2001). Child care quality and children’s engagement. Early Education and Development, 12, 209–224.

Erin McFlynn, Ann-Marie Day, Catherine Vaughan, Rachel Young, Brooke Maxwell are head teachers and teachers at Newtown Kindergarten.

For correspondence: