Saturday, September 12, 2015

Child's Play: Science Learning at its Best

This is the transcript for the TALK I prepared for It was featured as their headline TALK in August 2015.

The Smartest Baby on the Block. Playground Physics

“To encourage play we have to appreciate and respect it.” Those wise words from Janet Lansbury have been my guidepost for the last three years. I have watched my son, who is now five years old, explore the mechanical and physical world with astounding attention to detail. And I have watched my daughter, now three, explore materials and patterns in her own unique way. I assume that I am like many parents who have had their eyes opened to new ways of seeing the world. We are a group of adults learning from our children. This is my story of how I have come to learn about, recognize, appreciate and respect the play of early childhood.

My name is Julie. I am an engineer turned educator turned stay-at-home-mom and blogger. I am a Catholic turned yogi. I am a midwestern American girl turned mountain woman. My journies - academic, spiritual and personal - have brought me to where I am today. I am an advocate for learning through play.

Within the wide world of learning and teaching, I have found my niche in preschool science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics, which I will call Preschool STEAM. It is a natural fit for me for two reasons. First, I have two preschoolers. Second, I have spent a considerable part of my young adult life studying and teaching about STEAM and STEAM education.

In college and graduate school in Michigan I used math to represent the physical phenomenon of electricity, magnetism, and quantum mechanics in coursework. In laboratory work I built, maintained and used an ultrafast laser. In industry work I was a computer programmer. Then because I craved something new in my worklife I transitioned to teaching at community colleges. The experience of connecting with my students around the topics of algebra, physics or engineering was very satisfying. Then by some twists of fate I enrolled in a graduate program in the Colorado Rockies to study curriculum and instruction.

Yeah... Some people might say that I am overeducated. I like to think that I am just a lifelong learner. I delight in discovering new things. I love to read. And I love to share what I’ve learned. Something about that must resonate with you, too, since you are listening to my story.

The most pressing thing in early childhood education right now is about evidence. I find this very important and very amusing at the same time. Why? Because when I first stepped from engineering into education, the idea of “evidence” was my first point of contention with my teachers. As someone with a lot of experience in the world of science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, I considered evidence valid and reliable if it was reproducible, consistent across contexts. The problem with my STEMy view of evidence was that contexts are arguably NEVER the same in education. The variables are constantly changing. Learners are constantly growing, changing, and learning. Teachers are as different from each other as students are. And the triangle-shaped relationship that grows between a teacher and his or her students and the topic they are trying to teach and learn evolves over time, too.

This problem of evidence is approached by different educational specialists in different ways. Behavioral psychologists examine what people do. Communications specialists examine what people say. Neuroscientists focus on brain activity measured by scans. Anthropologists immerse themselves in a situation and discover truth through their own experience alongside their subjects. After years of contemplation, I have decided that no one way is better than another. The most important thing is being aware of what we are doing and what the limits of our claims can be. What we pay attention to and how we tell the story of our discoveries both come with caveats.

Consider a child playing in water.
  • A behavioral psychologist might pay attention what the child does with the water. Does the child splash with hands or feet? Wiggle? Crawl in, out or around the water?   
  • A language specialist might talk to the child to provide words to describe the water and the child’s play.
  • A physicist might see the child learning fluid dynamics.
  • An occupational therapist might see it as sensory play. The child is experiencing important touch-related bodily feelings that support his or her development.
  • A parent might focus on safety...or the ensuing mess that will have to be cleaned.
  • A teenaged caregiver might focus on fun.
Each specialist is right in his or her own way. I think the problem arises when this same exercise is done with academics...and then one perspective is championed over the others.

Consider a child sitting with a board book.
  • A behavioral psychologist might pay attention what the child does with the book. Does the child hold it the right way? Open it? Point to words or pictures?   
  • A language specialist might talk to the child to provide words to describe the book and the child’s actions.
  • A physicist might see the child learning the mechanics of flipping pages.
  • An occupational therapist might see it as sensory play. The child is experiencing important touch-related bodily feelings that support his or her how a book tastes.
  • A parent or teacher might take the book and read it pointing at words and pictures, using it as a prop for teaching literacy...because that is what books are for right?
So who is the most right? What is the best way for the child to interact with the book? Is there a goal the surrounds the child and the book? Should there be a goal? Is play enough? What is my role as a parent regarding play and evidence of my child’s learning?

Well, I am a do-er. I like to create. I like having something to have and hold as evidence of my own hard work. Whether it is a working laser, a tasty cake, or a picture of my smiling child, the tangible thing is important to me. I also like to have my hands busy. As a young catholic, performing the sign of the cross and receiving eucharist gave me something to do but not necessarily something to believe. I was the teacher that was sticking my nose in where it wasn’t necessarily needed. I am the parent who wants to tell the child to hold the book upright, to read the book with my child in my lap, to physically, mentally and emotionally engage with each other and the story. I want to hold my son’s hand to help him learn to write properly. I want to finish my daughter’s block stack for her by gently pushing the blocks so they don’t totter. But what I have learned is that my children learn best when they do it themselves. And yoga has helped me value my own silence.

Let me tell you a story about valuing my own silence and the playful learning my daughter did. She was two years old and I was cooking dinner. Both of my kids were playing underfoot with magnetic tiles.

At some point I looked down and saw Anna's work. She had made it all by herself. It was constructed entirely of the square shaped tiles. There was a cube in the middle and on each side she had made triangular prisms and placed a square lid on top. It was beautiful and I thought of it as a teachable moment. Then I thought better. I did what I knew I should; I didn't say anything. It was so hard for me to be quiet. I wanted to say something about the shapes. I wanted to suggest she find the equilateral triangles to replace the lids of the triangular prisms. I wanted to do it for her because I'm often impulsive and want to play too. But I didn't. I quietly snapped a picture (one that would become a “before” picture)  and wondered where she toddled off to.

The next time I looked down I saw that she had replaced the square lids with the triangle lids. I quickly grabbed my camera, not quickly enough to capture both sides in complete symmetry, but enough to get the “after” picture. She had retrieved different triangle shaped tiles and added them to her creation. Again, I bit my tongue, which was exceedingly difficult for me, and let her do her work.

It was a proud moment for me. I was proud that I heeded Janet Lansbury's advice to let our children play. I was proud that my daughter had built something and continued to change it and play with shapes. I was proud that my son had kept his attention on his own work and didn't interfere with his sister. All around, it was absolutely wonderful.

So through yoga and learning about early childhood development I have come to be more and more comfortable with letting my children play without me. I trust the professionals who tell me that my children are learning to be independent, resilient and humane through play. What isn’t out there is professionally collected and analyzed evidence of early childhood, Preschool STEAM learning. And that is what I see. My silent observations of my children are laden with STEAM.

That story I told you about my daughter building with magnetic shapes? In your mind’s eye, did you imagine her playing? Did you assign meaning to her experiment? What was she learning? Well, I saw her learning science, technology, engineering, art, and math.

Part of me knows that my children are just being children. They are pursuing their curiosities. They are playing with whatever is on hand. Claiming that they are learning academic topics or doing Preschool STEAM is based purely on my observations. But I find a lot of comfort in believing in their learning! It helps me be comfortable watching them play.

So let me share my take on early childhood play. I want to break down the acronym STEAM and tell you about how I see it manifest in child’s play.

S is for science. For our purposes, let us consider this simple definition of science: Science is to observe and experiment in order to understand the natural and/or physical world. It is nice that the acronym starts here because I believe that it is one of the most fundamental fields of learning during early childhood. From a learning perspective, observation is about all most infants are prepared to do. But think about all the ways an infant is observing the world and, for lack of a better term, collecting data. He sees with his eyes, she hears with her ears. They feel the weight of their bodies, the softness of a blanket, the wetness of water. Their little brains are using all that data to make sense of themselves and the world. However unintentional these observations are, babies still use their observations to learn. Just because they don’t have the language to express their understanding doesn’t mean that they are not making sense of the natural world in their own, important, baby way.

My favorite science experiment babies do is to explore gravity and I have yet to meet a baby who isn’t a little physicist! To start, babies drop things because they are not necessarily aware that they are holding it. As soon as they have learned their first anatomy lesson, which is “I have a hand and I can control it,” they proceed to study physics and experimenting with gravity becomes a favorite past time.

The experiment looks different for different children but they all do it. When my son was in his highchair he would hold his little spoon vertically, pointing up and down. Then he would gently let the heavy end of the spoon, which was at the top, fall to one side or the other. He would watch the movement of the spoon intently as he repeated the experiment over and over...not once using the spoon as the tool it is intended as. My daughter’s experiment was more typical, I think. She would sit in her high chair, pick up something from her tray and drop it over the side. The food or spoon or bowl would drop to the floor. Then someone would retrieve it.

The gravity experiment grows with the child. Babies and toddlers drop their pacifiers out of their cribs. They throw balls and explore gravity as part of projectile motion. Toddlers and preschoolers ride slides and swings and learn experientially how it feels to fall toward the earth. The list of examples can go on and on. And so it seems obvious to me that science learning happens early and frequently as part of making sense of themselves in the natural world.

In addition to gravity, magnetism is one of the most interesting aspects of the natural world for young children to explore. It is an unseen but powerful force of nature. It is so fascinating that magnetic toys are always a big hit with toddlers and preschoolers. Let me return to my story of Anna playing with magnetic tiles and suggest what science she might have been learning.

In order to do this you will have to know that the tiles are mostly plastic and have small magnets placed around the perimeter of each shape. The magnets hold the tiles together when the edges of two tiles are adjacent to one another. So putting two squares together makes one nice rectangle. However, if someone tries to make a three dimensional upper case “T” by placing the edge of one square at the middle of another square, the magnets will not be close enough to each other nor will the magnetism be oriented properly to hold the shape.

So in order for my two year old daughter to build a cube out of six magnetic tiles, she had to figure out how the magnets would work. She had to experiment with their placement, observe success or failure, and proceed accordingly. This persistence, quite frankly, is one of the most difficult aspects of doing science! Anna was not only learning something about magnetism (admittedly I’m not sure exactly what), she was learning that not-so-academic skill of trying and trying again.

As you can imagine, I am increasingly particular about the toys my children play with. I like the ones like Anna’s magnetic tiles that offer novel ways for children to experiment with the world. This brings me to the “T” in STEAM. No, T is not for toy in this acronym (although maybe it could be). T is for technology.

Technology is the set of tools we use to interact with the world. Contrary to popular belief, technology is not limited to computer-based devices. Technology includes everything from the words we speak to the books we read and, a toddler favorite, the buckets we use to carry.

Buckets are some of my favorite first tools for toddlers. This piece of technology opens whole new ways to be part of their surroundings. The buckets can be used in a huge variety of ways. At first, toddlers love to put things in buckets. Everything from pine cones to rocks and sand to other toys or food. Children learn what fits, what doesn’t fit, and how convenient it is to be able to carry more than what fits in their chubby little hands.

They also learn how technology can be used to change the world around them. Buckets are used to scoop sand, leaving a dent in the beach. Sticky sand gently dumped from a bucket can create a castle. Water can be transported from one place to another. It is our responsibility to quietly observe our children playing with their buckets and to ponder all the learning that I believe (perhaps we believe) must be happening.

Personally, I am astounded by how a simple piece of technology enhances our children’s ability to interact with and learn about their world. I am also fascinated by the idea that toys are the technology of childhood. Considering early childhood play from this perspective makes it seem obvious that what we offer our children as toys is of utmost importance. At the very least, we have to be aware of the constant learning our young children are doing and make informed decisions about what we offer them as the tools of childhood.

That constant learning is the heart of the natural progression of early childhood. It seems to me that our babies, toddlers and preschoolers are playing with us a high-speed game of chess toward independence. Seemingly every month a young child learns something to increase his or her autonomy. They learn to walk by themselves, speak for themselves, dress themselves. Soon enough they begin to solve their own problems which brings me to the E of the STEAM acronym. E is for engineering.  

Engineering is creating and/or using tools or processes to solve problems. By the time a young child can express himself or herself, they are probably ready to start solving problems. They have already been learning a lot of science and technology by exploring, observing and experimenting. With enough free play and well-chosen toys, young children form a solid foundation from which to expand their learning. As they grow, their play changes as does their use of tools.

Babies use buckets to do basic science. I remember watching my daughter sitting with a bucket and putting a toy in and then taking it out. She was learning about herself in the world. She has control over her actions. She learned experientially “in” and “out.” She also learned some fundamental math - but I will get to that later.

As a toddler her use of buckets changed. She had (and sometimes still has) the hoarding tendencies of a young child. Her small hands overflowing with her six favorite small dolls, she would make her way around the house. She would leave a trail of dolls that she couldn’t hold...that is until she solved the dolls-dropping problem. A small bucket could hold all her beloved dollies and more! She created a new process for transporting her toys. it is the definition of preschool engineering.

Let’s revisit the magnetic tiles. They have served both of my children and many of their friends as optimal materials for building. Most recently they have served as preschool engineering materials. The problem? Well, my kids pooled their money to purchase a set of eight Octonauts action figures. But the creatures had no where to live nor underwater vehicles for exploring the ocean, which was our house.

Anna, together with her brother, began to build. They built a house and several vehicles out of magnetic tiles. The house was big enough and intricate enough for all the action figures to reside. Each vehicle was small enough for a preschooler to hold and “fly” around but large enough for an action figure to be inside for the ride. They built something new to solve a problem for themselves and on behalf of their new toy dolls. I consider it preschool engineering at its best.

Given the opportunity children are able to and inclined to create. With my trainging as an electrical engineer and curriculum specialist, I easily recognize the science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, learning in early childhood play - even if I’m reading what I want into it. STEM is a very comfortable mental place for me.

It is by parenting Anna that I have come to know the “A” in the acronym STEAM. A is for art. Art is creating something that elicits an emotional response. Ever since she got her hands on glue Anna has worked in layers. She would start with a piece of paper and smear glue all over it before placing another piece of paper on top, followed by more glue and another piece of paper, then more glue and yet another piece of paper. She would build larger and larger multi-layered sandwiches. (Sandwich is my own description of her work.)

At first it made me uncomfortable. This work of hers could be considered a big waste of materials. There was no real finished product that I would want to hang on the wall or display on a shelf. I struggled to understand the preschool STEM of it. There didn't seem to be a lot of obvious geometry and math that is evident when she plays with magnetic tiles. There wasn't much engineering going on because it wasn't solving a structural problem or creating new tools. I couldn't really see the value of any of it.

But then...

The older she got the more variation there was in her work...although you wouldn't necessarily know it. She would color pictures on the papers before gluing them all together in a sandwich - hiding all those toddler drawings from anyone seeing them ever again. Then scissors were used to cut the paper before gluing, thus making smaller, denser sandwiches.

Glitter paint was used instead of glue.
Puffballs were glued between puffy stickers.
Layers are wrapped around each other.

At best, I would classify all this work as preschool materials engineering. I want to show you, my audience, the value of this work because I'm convinced that there must be. After all, she has been doing this work for more than a third of her life! However, today, when I look at Anna's sculptures I am still perplexed by it. That her work leaves me with a burning question, a feeling of bewilderment, and the discomfort of not being able to fit it into my understanding of the world... Well, that might be the most valuable thing my budding artist can offer me.

As an engineer I had been content to watch my children play with magnetic tiles making various two- and three-dimensional sculptures and consider it preschool art. Perhaps it was...but I am CERTAIN it was preschool math.

M is for mathematics, which is the study and use of numbers, quantity and space.
Both toys I have been discussing - the bucket and magnetic tiles - offer perfect examples of early math learning. If you and I were physically and temporally togehter then I would ask you to help brainstorm examples of toddlers and preschoolers learning math. Instead, let me do it on our behalf.

First, let’s consider numbers. With a bucket in hand a toddler or preschooler learns numbers by experimenting with the number of toys that fit or the number of trips required to fill a kiddie pool with water. I think this type of counting, or number learning, also happens when a child plays with magnetic tiles. He or she “counts” number of tiles, number of sides on a tile, number of squares, number of triangles, et cetera.

Coming to understand quantity involves exploring volume, weight and answering the question “how many?”. Young children learning about volume and weight when their bucket goes from full to half-full to empty. They explore “how many?” with magnetic tiles when they put two or more tiles together or take them apart.

Watching their sand dump from a bucket, a young child see changes in space - the angle of tilt, the surface of the top of the sand. They experiment in two dimensional space and three dimensional space when they build with tiles. Two square magnetic tiles adjacent to each other make a rectangle. But two tiles stacked is something altogether different. Six squares spread in 2D make a lowercase “t.” But fold those six tiles into three dimensions and your child can make a cube!

So it seems to me that early childhood is ripe with opportunities for science, technology, engineering, art and math learning.


I believe that people, old and young, learning best through play. So I will continue to be an advocate for children to be playful, independent STEAM learnings. I will continue to educate parents and caregivers about how best to support their young children as playful independent STEAM learners. And I will continue to choose for my children experiences and toys that I believe will be safe and fun and trust that learning will happen through play.

I also believe in the efficacy of the case study that is parenthood. As parents and caregivers our stories are important. Our observations and hunches are valuable. The evidence of learning that we see and experience every day ought not be ignored. But we must proceed with caution.

How will evidence of early childhood learning be considered in the next decade? My hope is that performance will never be the yardstick by which we measure early childhood. I hope that play remains the essence of their lives. To that end, I ask the grown-ups of the world to honor our children and the work they do. Observe them. Consider their perspective. Find value in their play. Because “to encourage play WE have to appreciate and respect it.”

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