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  • Brian VanDongen

"One Small Step" to Play Can Lead to the Next "Giant Leap"

Fifty years ago, the Eagle landed on the moon. The Apollo 11 mission patch did not feature an American flag or the names of the astronauts. The moon landing, and all the phases before that got the crew to the moon, was not an American achievement. It was a human achievement. Indeed, it was "a giant leap for mankind."

This giant leap was a massive scientific achievement. Think about it: every day we hold a higher level of technology in our hands than the Apollo 11 space shuttle. It's crazy to think about. The Apollo 11 and its ultimate success was a series of calculated risks - and people unphased by those calculated risks - and a series of experiments, scientific discovery, and technological advancement.

These scientists were, obviously, well versed in scientific theories, engineering principles, and mathematical concepts. But, these scientists likely did not get their start, and find their love of, science, engineering, technology, and math (which we call STEM in today's academic world - that acronym probably didn't exist during the Apollo 11 research) with books, lectures, and formal scientific classes.

Play can foster a lifelong love of science, engineering, technology, and math.

How can something which dictionary definitions say has no practical purpose eventually put a man on the moon? Because, regardless of what Merriam-Webster says, play does have a purpose, even if it appears there is not.

What can help children learn science through play?

Playing with loose parts can help children learn mathematical and scientific concepts. By sorting, children can identify similarities and differences between objects. Loose parts can be put in to organized patterns. And most of all, children can see how objects move through space and interact with each other in building, stacking, and creating (and, probably most fun of all, knocking down!).

Building sets, such as Lego, Tinkertoys, and Lincoln logs, for example, often come with specific directions with a kit. This is a good start, but letting children build on their own can be more beneficial as they get to explore, test, and experiment. They learn through successes and failures of their building.

According to research from Lego (PDF link), the "playful aspect ... keeps children intrinsically motivated to continue to learn, inside and outside the classroom." After all, humans are hardwired to play. By allowing children to make their own experiments through play, children can learn skills and concepts and apply them to practical situations.

So much of science is hands on. Experiments are how scientific hypotheses are tested and refined. True science cannot be taught by classroom lectures, rote memorization, and learning theories without testing. This leads to children who are "book smart" in science: able to identify and recite concepts.

However, these concepts need to be applied in the real world to have meaningful effects and to make scientific progress. Without practical application and experimentation, there would be no invention of the wheel by our very distant caveman ancestors, and there would be no vessel capable of transporting men to the moon.

Play is threatened in schools, in childcare facilities, and in the home because of a quest for increased science skills and love of STEM in children. Without play, children are being robbed of experiencing and learning practical scientific skills. By removing play from schools and the home, school administrators, teachers, and parents are doing a disservice to the children they want to become proficient in and find a lifelong love of STEM.

Science can be - and is - learned through play.

Incorporating play in to childhood is "one small step" for increasing scientific proficiency and appreciation, but can lead to the next "giant leap" in scientific discovery.

(n.b.: The featured image for this post (copied below) is from a play workshop at the 2019 Conference on the Value of Play discussing the scientific benefits of playing with blocks in K-8. The blocks used in the session were Keva planks. Of the many activities we did in the session, this task was to build a tower - there were no further instructions. As you can see, I challenged myself by building with a pattern [math skill] and finding the proper balancing of the planks as the tower got taller [science, engineering skill].)

Building with blocks (these are Keva planks) can teach science, engineering, technology, and math skills.