Pathways to Genius: Curiosity, Wonder, and Play in STEAM
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.
Play represents the heart of scientific process and investigation and has so many possibilities for integration across other subject areas as well as social interaction and collaboration.
Try not to interrupt a child’s play (if it not dangerous) or dictate the play with some objective in mind.
Imagine, instead of a child filling out endless worksheets, transferring terms from a textbook to their paper, they engage in play. Opportunities for meaningful, active STEAM engagement is best when play is a self-initiated, enjoyable process.
Back-to-school season presents parents with an opportunity to review their child’s educational experience and to look ahead in anticipation of the new school year. Many children will be heading to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) schools, or will be participating in STEM programs across the country. Even if students do not attend a specific STEM school or program, there is a good chance that STEM curriculum or principles will be used in some capacity in the classroom. The motivation behind this massive shift is to boost students’ interest, engagement, and proficiency in math and science.
STEM instruction provides the possibility for an alternative or supplement to the traditional schooling experience and can offer students a dynamic curriculum that fosters problem-solving skills, critical thinking, and real-world application across STEM areas. One innovative offshoot of STEM that has seen considerable growth and funding in recent years is STEAM (the “A” is for Arts) education. If done well, these programs can provide legitimate pathways for students of all backgrounds to achieve success in college and in their future careers. It is important to know the quality attributes of a successful STEAM program, and how to support STEAM engagement at home.
Perhaps the most important quality of STEAM is one that is most often forgotten. STEAM activities should be integrated. Instead of presenting students with separate, isolated experiences in science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics, STEAM activities should have meaningful crossover between some or all these areas.
One of the most important pathways in STEAM, both in school and at home is play. When children are provided the opportunity to play in STEAM realms, they often develop an internally motivated drive to explore, inquire, and investigate the world around them. These are foundational traits that cannot be taught but are inherent in our natural curiosity as human beings. Furthermore, play provides children an opportunity to make discoveries, develop an understanding of scientific processes, and even develop conceptual understandings.
STEAM should also be active and project-based. Rather than listening to academic content presented via a lecture or memorizing facts, children should be engaged with the activity in meaningful, relevant ways. For example, children can create their own catapults using household materials like craft sticks and rubber bands. This activity would involve science (physics: force), math (measurement: distance), engineering (design: structure), and even the arts as children create design aesthetics for their catapults. In the catapult example, children are actively building, applying their knowledge in creative ways, and solving problems. They are most likely using inquiry as a driving process and comparing and contrasting different designs. Children should not just watch a demonstration by an adult or fill out a worksheet with a diagram and spaces for terms.
Another play example that may spark curiosity driven experiments involves magnets. A child who plays with magnets will certainly discover the concepts of attraction and repulsion (though a knowledgeable adult or peer will need to give and define the terms), and they will often begin testing how far away a magnet will attract metal, or testing different materials for magnetism.
Some might call for a renewed focus on academic rigor and push for a commitment to serious learning after a summer of unacademic pursuits. However, a rigorous curriculum and a heavy workload do not necessarily mean that your child is actually learning well and could negatively impact their well-being. Stress, anxiety, disengagement, and a lack of interest are real concerns, especially in such an intensely stimulating world (e.g. video games, social media, and screen time).
The best way to engage with your child’s education is to stay informed and to create supportive structures and healthy habits at home and in school that promote your child’s love of learning. It is perhaps easy to get lost in the concern for academic rigor, data, and achievement. However, do not lose sight of what truly matters.
In a country that has prioritized scores, it is more important than ever to create structures at home and in school that foster wonder, curiosity, and most importantly, play. These are the true driving forces behind STEAM.
STEAM presents a creative possibility for learning, but it has to be integrative, active, meaningful, and project-oriented. It should also be driven by curiosity, wonder, and a commitment to play, a true pathway to genius.