6 Ways to Learn Science Through Play
Dr. Brian A. Stone is a Senior Lecturer at Northern Arizona University. He received a doctorate in Curriculum and Instruction with a Content Concentration in Science Education. He also specializes in elementary social studies education and play. Prior to teaching at the university, Dr. Stone was passionate about providing play opportunities both inside and outside his elementary classroom. His fourth, fifth, and sixth grade students often had the time and materials to play well in school. Play does not just belong to young children. Dr. Stone has published many articles, including how play develops conceptual understanding in science, the relationship between play and scientific identity, superhero play, content area play, and play and inquiry. Dr. Stone is also the editor of the STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Mathematics) section of the International Journal of the Whole Child, where he advocates for child-centered practices including the many benefits of play. He was interviewed on national radio on the connection between play and science. His research interests include inquiry-based science, free play, constructivist practices, and child-development. Dr. Stone has consulted for schools and districts around the world, and advocates for a better system of education that respects children enough to let them play.
- Recognize inquiry (the questions and processes that come purely out of interest and manifest through play)
- Don’t interfere or assist as long as their play is not dangerous
- Encourage your child to play with ideas and explore
- Avoid giving explanations or answers before they have had a chance to play, inquire, or experiment. You want them to think about their questions and test ideas
- Foster social play, which often leads to inquiries of mutual interest
- Provide children with a variety of materials and spaces for play
Play gives children a way to explore creatively, without boundaries, and without interference. Through play, children can search for answers to some of the purest, and most powerful scientific questions.
Children are born scientists and are experts at play. These two are not mutually exclusive. A substantial body of research has shown that play and science are in fact intertwined. You often cannot have one without the other, especially as children are in their developing years. A child’s curiosity is a powerful engine for exploration, investigation, and inquiry. In fact, it is our innate human capacity for wonder that often drives learning, piques our interests, and pushes us to want to learn more.
Imagine a child who begins to blow bubbles in her milk for the first time. As her parent, you may think of the potential mess, but for the child, a profound discovery has taken place. Through her play, an interesting, observable reaction has occurred. Of course, the next logical step is to see if she can produce bigger bubbles by blowing harder, and that mess you feared has now come to fruition. Milk has spilled all over the table. If you look past the mess, you will see that something amazing has happened. Your child has engaged in scientific process at its finest. She discovered how to make bubbles in her milk, is using observational skills, and is embarking on inquiry processes. Whether she verbalized her inquiry or not, she attempted to answer some version of the question, “I wonder what happens if…?” She may play and inquire further. The next time she drinks water, she may attempt to blow bubbles as she did with her milk. It does not work quite as well. “Mom, why doesn’t my water make bubbles,” she asks. Now she is comparing and contrasting. She is problem solving. If you let her, she may even create a testable experiment perhaps by adding a little milk to her water and trying again. This is play, and this is science.
Free play means providing materials to your child and getting out of the way, as long as those materials are safe. In other words, there should be no interference, no objective, and no well-intentioned task.
According to recent research, free play in science leads to greater conceptual development. For example, a child may discover static electricity concepts like static cling through playing with balloons. Now, keep in mind that she will not discover vocabulary through her play, but when that vocabulary is introduced, whether by parents or teachers, she has a meaningful experience to which she can attach those terms.
The value of the play resides in the child’s ability to control her play world. Sit back and watch the process. Children engaged in free, scientific play, will be faced with a variety of situations that they themselves create, and will often exhibit higher order thinking like problem solving, divergent thinking (the capacity to see multiple possibilities), creativity, scientific process, inquiry, and the application of what they have already learned. Children may develop and test hypotheses, experiment, and investigate multiple possibilities. All this amazing process is driven through wonder and curiosity through the powerful mode of play.
Is your child the next great scientist? Let them play, and they may very well be!