Why is science play important in early childhood?

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Many parents would not naturally put the words “science” and “play” together in the same sentence, much less think that there was a way to play your way through learning scientific principles.

Learning science through a play-based learning environment invites better overall retention and fosters finding creative solutions to problems.

As it turns out, play-based learning in early childhood (and that includes our infants and toddlers!) had a “greater positive effect than direct instruction on early math skills, shape knowledge, and task switching; and than free play on spatial vocabulary”, according to this paper in the Society for Research in Child DevelopmentOpens in a new tab..

But how do you implement play-based learning in your home?

What is play-based learning in science?

Play-based learning, or guided learning, is as simple as it sounds.

Children naturally learn through play in everyday experiences. A guided, play-based learning experience in science is a teacher or parent guiding an activity with a scientific focus, allowing the child to experiment openly in a guided and somewhat controlled scientific activity.

While some parents or teachers may believe that play has no place in a learning environment, research is showing that this is not the caseOpens in a new tab..

In a play-based learning experience, the child and teacher/parent are working together to create a lesson, but the overarching direction is provided by the teacher or parent. The child is free to play with and explore the activity, and if it starts to drift from the essence of the lesson, the teacher or parent reigns it back in with open-ended questions.

Play can look very different for different children. For some, their idea of play is helping their parent pour, create, measure, and set up the experiment. For others, play means exploding things and watching a volcanic eruption.

That is why it is important to allow your child to experiment openly when doing science experiments at home: your child’s idea of play and what will keep them engaged may look very different than what you think.

What a play-based science experiment looks like in our house

Playing with the Catapults science experiment

We set up the Catapults science experiment by putting all of the supplies on the table. That consists of some craft sticks, rubber bands, a spoon, and some pom-poms.

Together, we built the catapult. As we were building each piece, I talked about what those pieces did and how they affect the catapult as a whole.

Once the catapult was built, I allowed her to play with what we made. That primarily included launching pom-poms, so that’s what the majority of our lesson was about (again, guided learning to accompany their play!).

I asked open-ended questions like:

  • What do you think will happen if we move the fulcrum up by the spoon? Or down to the base?
  • What happens when you pull back all the way on the spoon? Or only slightly pull back?
  • How can you change the height that your pom-pom launches?

While she was learning and thinking through those questions, she continued to play with the catapult. She may not give me answers in those moments, but just asking the questions while she was playing gave her a direction to start exploring.

The benefits of learning through play

Playing “who can throw their airplane the farthest” game

Research shows that play-based learning in early childhood education outperforms other forms of directed education.

The benefits of play-based learning are vast, and research is backing up that claim. Play-based learning over direct instruction results in better retention of subjects like math, shapes, and vocabulary, to name a few.

In a paper published by Society for Research in Child DevelopmentOpens in a new tab., several studies over the course of over 40 years were compared to understand how “guided play”, or play-based learning, fared against direct instruction.

Specifically, in guided play, the learning experience is inherently meaningful to the child as play naturally cultivates their enjoyment, motivation, and agency; while the inclusion of guidance by a supportive adult extends the scope for learning beyond what the child might achieve on their own.

Skene, K., O’Farrelly, C. M., Byrne, E. M., Kirby, N., Stevens, E. C., & Ramchandani, P. G. (2022). Can guidance during play enhance children’s learning and development in educational contexts? A systematic review and meta-analysis. Child Development, 93, 1162– 1180. https://doi.org/10.1111/cdev.13730

While direct instruction does convey the message the teacher or parent is trying to teach at that moment, the retention of the lesson and what the child pulls from that lesson may produce poor results in comparison to play-based learning.

Using a play-based learning model to do science experiments at home also allows your child to stay engaged for longer. And we all know how each second counts when it comes to engagement with a preschooler!

How does early childhood education promote science?

Unfortunately, science does not have a significant role in preschool education.

Research shows that the majority of preschools do not provide science instruction in their curriculum, instead focusing on reading, writing, and math. Instead, preschools may offer a “science corner”, where students can have free play with materials like those found in nature (stones, leaves) and magnifying glasses.

This is not to say that preschools are not up to par; many of these learning centers are simply focusing on other subjects.

But what does this mean?

It means that preschoolers are not getting exposure to science subjects at an early age, which could potentially feed into intimidation around science subjects in school.

That’s where you, the parent, come in!

Exposure to science subjects does not have to be elaborate in order to have an impact. Using simple supplies that you can likely find sitting around your home, you can create a science experiment in an instant.

The best way for a preschooler to learn science

Playing with Magnetic Slime while learning about magnets

Research is uncovering that one type of teaching is the best way for young children to pick up what is being taught.

The best way for a toddler to learn science is through play-based activities and experiments. When science experiments are coupled with play and allowing your preschooler to help, the science concepts are picked up more naturally.

The idea behind play-based activities and experiments is to thoroughly involve your child in the learning process. They shouldn’t be quiet in a chair while you explain the lesson; they should instead be asked open-ended questions throughout the activity and given the opportunity to freely play with and explore the lesson.

When I do science activities with my toddler, we talk through the lesson before we start. But it’s not just me talking to her: I ask her open-ended questions to see what she thinks will happen (creating a hypothesis!).

What do you think this reaction between the lemon juice and baking soda will look like?

How do you think these paper airplanes might fly differently from one another?

What will this wave look like when we move the container?

These questions allow her to start exploring the activity before we even begin by trying to figure out answers to my questions. In this respect, she is coming up with hypotheses while I am guiding her.

Then, moving on to the experiment, I like to keep the dialog open while we are running through the experiment. I explain what is going on while allowing her to explore the activity since I want there to be a guided lesson alongside her play.

So while she is building a pattern necklace, sticking a fork in a lemon with baking soda on top, or shooting a pom-pom from a homemade catapult, I am there explaining the science behind that experiment. That way, she associates certain things she’s doing in the activity with the science behind the process.

Incorporating play into science

It is quite simple to add play to your science experiments, and your child can help by taking the reigns.

Incorporating play into science experiments can be through allowing your toddler to control certain aspects of the experiment (like activating a reaction), playing with the results (flying the paper airplanes), or even setting an experiment up (pouring liquids).

I love to play with my toddler while we do science experiments!

These experiments absolutely should be fun, and playing with your child is a part of the experience.

None of these lessons are meant to overwhelm your child or get them ready for a huge test. These experiments are intended to spark curiosity in your child and allow them to take part in a fun learning experience.

If your child is able to retain that vinegar is an acid and baking soda is a base during the process, even better!

When you run through these science experiments, you can incorporate play very easily.

The benefits of science for preschoolers

Incorporating science into a preschooler’s everyday play has been proven to have several benefits.

Some proven benefits of incorporating science into play for toddlers are development in other subjects (like reading), higher confidence in science subjects later, and even a greater potential to go into STEM fields for their careers later in life.

I don’t know about you, but when any science subject came up, either in conversation or at school, there was a slight air of intimidation.

I believe that science subjects are some of the more intimidating subjects out there to many students. It comes across as very complex and hard to grasp. Heck, even as a scientist by education, I still found other science subjects intimidating (looking at you, chemistry)!

By introducing science subjects and experiments to your preschooler, you are exposing them to science early and in a playful way, which can make it far less intimidating later in school.

What preschoolers should know about science

Preschoolers do not so much pick up the actual science, but instead, pick up some skills discovered through guided science exploration.

Toddlers and preschoolers are learning all about the scientific process at this stage: discovering a “problem”, creating a hypothesis, testing out that hypothesis, and reaching conclusions. Retention of actual scientific subjects is likely limited, but basic principles can be retained.

While the scientific process is ingrained in us from infancyOpens in a new tab., doing science experiments with your preschooler allows them to hone in on and solidify that knowledge to work their way through problems.

In order to do that, it’s important to talk through science experiments as you are doing them together.

Asking questions that naturally follow the scientific process, like these:

  • Did you notice the egg floated to the top of our glass with salt water in it? I wonder why that is happening.
  • What if we add the egg to a glass with no salt in it, just plain water? What do you think will happen?

These questions help your child identify a specific problem and work through the scientific process to answer the questions.

This definitely won’t be natural for them at first because, while the scientific process is ingrained in our thought process, it is difficult for your child to articulate it at this point.

That’s where play-based, or guided learning, comes in!

They should be allowed to play with the experiments to naturally come up with questions, but they may not articulate those questions or may have trouble focusing on the lesson.

Asking open-ended questions and keeping them engaged in the actual experiment allows them to have playtime with it, and also learn something from the experiment.

What skills do preschoolers learn in science?

In addition to the lesson itself, there are hidden skills that preschoolers pick up from doing science experiments.

The advantages of doing science experiments with a preschooler are almost endless! Science activities not only teach toddlers basic science principles but also, more importantly, give preschoolers an excellent foundation to think through problems and have the confidence to answer questions themselves.

When you do science experiments with your child and talk through what is going on, it helps to build a framework for your child to solve everyday problems.

How?

As we mentioned earlier, doing science experiments at home gives you the opportunity to run through the scientific process together and break down a problem, step by step.

By identifying a problem, creating a hypothesis to solve it, and experimenting based on those hypotheses, you are showing your child how to break down a problem into bite-size steps and work through them more easily.

Also, figuring out answers together builds your child’s confidence in their problem-solving skills, which is excellent for their self-confidence in general!

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