7 Ways to Build Identity as a Scientist 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.
According to the National Science Foundation, all children are born scientists, exploring through the natural engine of their curiosity, and they will embark on many scientific investigations throughout their early years before any formal science instruction takes place.
Play is a crucial mode through which young children engage with scientific processes and can be a powerful pathway for them to begin to identify as an explorer, a tinkerer, a builder, and a scientist.
It may surprise you, but the process of developing an identity as a scientist can start with very young children through their free, unstructured play.
Play factors into the development of a scientific identity through a robust sense of wonder, an insatiable drive to explore, and a natural inclination to inquire (question). A child may ask, “I wonder what happens if…,” or “I wonder how/why…?” These powerful questions are often explored through their free play, and as a result, children typically engage in natural scientific investigation. They hypothesize, design experiments, and test out ideas.
For example, a child playing with a ramp and toy cars may ask, “I wonder what happens if I make a steeper ramp for my toy car?” The child then gathers any relevant toys or materials that serve the purpose of the play experiment, or she makes her own (e.g., cardboard ramp). By building a steeper ramp, she is exposed to concepts of force, motion, acceleration/speed, and distance. Through her play, she can build early conceptual understandings about physics and mechanics that can serve as a foundation for future instruction.
These early experiences, built and fortified through play are crucial not only to early science understandings, but the development of a personal connection to science as a subject and the development of an identity as a scientist.
Keep in mind that play must belong entirely to the child (or children). In other words, despite the best intentions of an adult, any interference can stifle the play process and suppress any scientific identity construction or the development of scientific understandings. This does not mean the adult cannot play with the child, but that the child should be the leader. When children are the main stakeholders in the play process, they are internally motivated, and build meaningful connections in their brain through their own carefully designed, active experiences.
Think about the child who designed the steeper ramp for her toy car in the example. When that entire process is initiated/enacted by the child, she is acting out of her own curiosity, actively engaging through a sense of wonder, and she is the owner of the scientific process including posing a question (“I wonder what happens if I build a steeper ramp”), hypothesizing (“I think it will go faster”) and undertaking the investigation (designing the new experiment and testing out the idea). The child also owns the observation (“the car went faster”) and develops a basic understanding of scientific concepts. Also, keep in mind that this is all done through play, and therefore is a highly enjoyable act for the child. It is likely to be repeated.
However, if an adult interferes with the intention of guiding the play for a certain learning outcome, then the adult is the one driving the process, asking the questions, designing the experiments, and “teaching” the concepts. In other words, the adult is the scientist, and the child is there is to observe, comply, and be told the “answers.” The play-like learning activity may not be as enjoyable, and the child may not make personal connections or build knowledge for herself. The child may feel disconnected from her play and from science as a subject. The child may also begin to see the adult as the scientist rather than herself.
Unfortunately, formal science instruction in school often presents science as a teacher-directed, scripted process with one question, one process, and one right answer (given by the teacher). Children who are already natural born scientists can actually disengage from science, see the teacher as the scientist, and become reliant on their teacher to give them information rather than exploring for themselves. In this system, it can be difficult for a child to identify as a scientist, and he or she may also get the wrong idea about how science is explored.
As a parent or educator, here are seven ways to foster your children’s development of an identity as a scientist through play:
- Encourage free play at home and at school as much as possible
- Limit screen time, and provide a variety of materials for children to play with
- Play with your children, but do not interfere or dictate the play process
- Avoid play experiences that attempt to make it educational by inserting objectives or learning goals
- Tell them they are scientists already, and encourage the traits of a scientist including curiosity, wonder, exploration, and investigation
- Keep informed about your child’s formal science instruction at school and insist that it includes open-ended, play-based explorations
- Encourage children to explore scientific questions on their own