4 Research-Based Reasons Students Should Learn Science Through Play

contributed by Cindy Hoisington, Elementary School Science Teacher

As an early elementary science educator, I’ve advocated for years (to anyone who would listen) about the increasing need for high-quality science teaching in Kindergarten and Grade One classrooms.

But as I watched my umpteenth daily briefing on COVID-19, it suddenly hit me just how close to home science is getting. It’s impacting our lives directly and influencing the daily decisions we make about teaching, raising our families, and engaging with our communities and the wider world.

When and where do my students (or children at home) need to wear masks?

What are the best distance-learning strategies for me to use with my students?

How will a phased opening help keep our school community safe?

It’s clear that science is not just for scientists anymore.

For the benefit of themselves and society, all of our students (whether or not they decide to become scientists) will need to be more scientifically-literate than we were. Do you ever read the New York Times science pages? Being able to read and digest those types of articles is frequently used as a working definition of science literacy—the ability to engage with and talk about science issues and ideas.

Chances are, as a teacher, you’ve already heard about the push for STEM education and the call for more and better science beginning in Kindergarten. ‘Better’ science means students having many opportunities to do what scientists do and think like scientists think (NRC, 2012).

This vision comes to life in a set of eight K-12 Science and Engineering Practices (NGSS Lead States, 2013) that include Asking questions and identifying problems; Planning and carrying out investigations; and Constructing explanations and designing solutions. These practices also reveal science as a dynamic, spiraling, evolving, inherently playful process rather than how many of us have traditionally thought about it– as a relatively fixed and static body of knowledge (See Table).

Table: Playful explorations students might engage in as they engage with the NGSS Science and Engineering Practices. 

Science Practices and Play in a K Balls and Ramps Study 
Science and Engineering Practice What students might do
Asking questions and identifying problemsRaise questions about which balls will go farther coming off an incline.Identify problems such as “How can we make a ramp system that gets the ball to land on a target from 5/10/20 feet away?”
Planning and carrying out investigationsInvestigate how the steepness of a ramp or the size/weight/texture of a ball affects how a ball starts, rolls, and stops. Measure and record data how far balls roll.
Constructing explanations and designing solutionsMake and discuss evidence-based claims about how different balls roll on different inclines.Create a ramp system that gets a ball to hit a target. 

But as the call for science in the early grades gets louder, play has all but disappeared from Kindergarten and elementary classrooms.  In many districts, a ‘false dichotomy’ has polarized play activities (as unstructured, child-directed, and extracurricular) and school activities (as highly-structured, teacher-directed, and academic), implying that they are distinct and disconnected processes.

The impact of free play and guided play on young children’s development and learning is well-documented (White, 20122). In particular, guided play– using intentional playful interactions and conversations to scaffold children’s learning in the service of specific learning goals has already been shown to increase preschool children’s STEM skills and language (Weisberg, Hirsh-Pasek, & Golinkoff, 2013).

This begs the question why don’t we use free and guided play to maximize the quality of science in Kindergarten and Grade One as well? Here are four reasons why we should.

“Play is serious business. At stake for us are the ways we socialize and teach future generations of scientists, inventors, artists, explorers, and other individuals who will shape the world in which we live…”

Arthur Molella

1. Play primes students to behave and think like scientists

Regardless of their ethnicities, backgrounds, and languages, all students play, exhibiting the characteristics of young scientists.

Their inborn curiosity compels them to ask questions, explore their surroundings, test their ideas, seek out relationships and patterns, communicate their discoveries, and figure out how and why the world works the way it does. Teachers can harness and nurture this inclination toward exploration by using guided play to help students ask, investigate, think, and talk about science questions like:

Which blocks should I use to make my tower tall and strong?

How can I test how stable my tower is?

How can I change the design of my tower to make it taller and more stable?

How can I share what I’m learning about strategies for building successful towers? 

2. Materials that lead to play also lead to science and learning

Playing with open-ended, everyday natural and designed objects—e.g. boxes, leaves, and buttons– promotes creativity as children use the same objects in many different ways (White, 2012). The same types of objects can be used for playful science explorations. Students can investigate force and motion using blocks, balls, and pieces of cove molding for making ramps.

They can investigate light, and make shadows and reflections, with flashlights, mirrors, and small classroom objects. And they can use beans, cups, paper towels, and spray bottles to explore living things. Students can do both open and more focused science investigations with everyday objects and materials when teachers collect them thoughtfully and use them intentionally with students.

3. Play helps create equity among students

Students need time and space to engage in free play and ‘play around’ with phenomena and become familiar with materials before they can generate questions that spur focused science explorations. Before investigating how a light beam bounces off a mirror, for example, students need time to play with mirror and explore how images change when a mirror is held in different ways.

Before students can investigate structure and function in plants, they need time and space to openly explore a variety of indoor and outdoor plants with a hand lens. When teachers give students permission to play with materials before diving into more focused guided play investigations, they build equity among students with a range of prior experiences with the topic.

4. Play is naturally disarming and engaging

Play engages students’ physical, intellectual, and emotional attention (White, 2012). Although science is essentially a playful, personally-meaningful, communicative, and creative discipline it is often not taught that way in elementary classrooms. Integrating both free and guided play in students’ science experiences can help us shift our concept of what ‘fun’ looks like.

Think about students engrossed in studying an anthill, carefully using a tablet to document and compare the growth of their bean plants, or enthusiastically making diagrams of where they found living things outdoors. Pulling in the playful aspects of science engages students deeply in their own learning in a way that can be better described as joyful.

Conclusion

Without crystal balls, it is impossible for any of us to know for certain what the future holds for our young students, or even what teaching and learning will look like next year in the wake of COVID-19. One thing we can be sure of is that, no matter what happens, supporting our students’ 21st century skillsets—critical-thinking, collaboration, communication, and creative problem-solving– will serve them well.

Several years ago, I attended a science meeting with a group of early elementary teachers. Before the meeting began, a scientist who had been invited as a guest speaker said to me, “I don’t know what teachery things you plan to talk about. All I want to say is, that if they want kids to learn science they need to let them play, experiment, and use their imaginations.”

That advice holds true today more than ever.

References

National Research Council (NRC). 2012. A framework for K–12 science education: Practices, crosscutting concepts, and core ideas. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

NGSS Lead States. 2013. Next Generation Science Standards: For States, By States. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Weisberg, D. S., Hirsh-Pasek, K., & Golinkoff, R. M. (2013). Guided play: Where curricular goals meet a playful peda- gogy. Mind, Brain, and Education, 7, 104–112. doi:10.1111/ mbe.12015

White, R. E. (2012). The power of play: A research summary on play and learning. Retrieved from: https://mcm.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/MCMResearchSummary1.pdf

*previously published at TeachThought.com

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