Intersection and integration of play and science learning

I was at a conference proudly wearing my tee shirt that says “Play” when I was given a chance to reflect on what I meant by an esteemed colleague and mentor who asked, “Ah yes, but what kind of play?”

My reflection continues as I continue to work with children and other educators in early childhood settings. 

Adults in cooperative play during a session at NAEYC.

Adults in cooperative play during a session at NAEYC.

Participating in an NAEYC conference 3-hour sessions on play by members of the NAEYC Play, Policy, and Practice interest forum  included participating in both hands-on solo and cooperative play experiences using a variety of open-ended materials. As we reflected on our play by journaling about it, I considered how this experience was like the open-ended exploration children do when they are beginning to investigate a natural material such as water (Young Scientist series). The individual-directed (child or adult) play is also like Phase o of  Frances and David Hawkins’ “messing about,” a time for unstructured, open-ended play while teachers observe the children’s work.

Children building structures using foam and wood blocks

Children play cooperatively building structures using “loose parts” of foam pieces, pom-poms, and wood blocks.

I wondered how the experience of play relates to science learning, asking myself, “Was exploring science concepts part of my play?” 

Co-facilitating a similar 3-hour session on play with colleague Jennifer Reynolds in the tradition of the NAEYC Play, Policy, and Practice interest forum and the Institute for Self Active Education for my local -AEYC affiliate allowed me to share the experience and these thoughts with early childhood educators in my area. 

The experience was meaningful to teacher Ms Gulilia Bismil who said, “When I made that structure I felt free…that moment I was who I am, just to enjoy to make something. That moment that was some feeling that came to me, I just enjoyed making something, relaxing. That moment I felt free.” 

Here are some questions for my colleagues when we meet for a second time to continue our play, reflecting on our own experiences and how our responsibilities for young children’s education can be centered on play.

Were you using the conditions of the physical world, the constraints like the presence of gravity, to guide your play? 

Did the physical world put limitations on your play or support it? 

Were exploring science concepts part of your play? Such as using our senses, or exploring balance of objects?

How does your play here today remind you of play children do in natural settings?

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2 Responses to Intersection and integration of play and science learning

  1. Marie Faust Evitt says:

    You pose such interesting questions, Peggy. Consciously thinking about science concepts such as balance in block building enriches children’s play.
    I have been using the guided inquiry you spelled out in your new book, Science Learning in the Early Years, about wet sand in the sandbox to take children’s play deeper. Several children in my class of 4-year-olds already knew they needed wet sand to make sand castles. Now they are experimenting to find the optimum amount of water to mix with the sand. They have been very surprised (and frustrated) to discover that “lots” of water doesn’t work.

  2. Peggy Ashbrook says:

    “More” isn’t always the best solution, in engineering and other areas! Marie, it is so interesting to hear how ideas germinated in one program are applied in another.
    I wonder if any of your children’s understanding about the sand:water ratio would carry over to an exploration of mixing cornstarch with water?

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