Special Report
Early Childhood

Independent Play Fosters Discovery in Youngsters

By Mary-Ellen Phelps Deily — April 01, 2011 6 min read
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Over and over, experts say, it comes back to this: Young children are natural scientists.

They ask questions, they explore, they touch things and push things, and they try to figure out what combinations have the best chance of working for them—even if the subject of their inquiries is just a toy.

So, how does one nurture these little scientists?

In some ways, it’s easy.

“When children are doing things like playing and exploring, they’re actually doing” science, said Alison Gopnik, a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, who has written books on young minds, including The Philosophical Baby.

What preschoolers need, she continued, is independent play, not lectures on science.

“You pay attention to what they’re interested in, you follow their lead,” Ms. Gopnik said. “Start out from the questions the children are asking you.”

One key is to avoid squelching youthful curiosity unconsciously.

Ms. Gopnik pointed to work by Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher Laura Schulz and colleagues. In one experiment, they offered young children a box with many buttons on it. With some children, the adults acted as if they didn’t know what the buttons did; they pushed one that made the box squeak, but didn’t let on that they knew how the squeak came about. However, the adults showed other children not only how one button on the box worked, but also pointed out that pushing the button in question resulted in a noise.

When the adults handed the toy to the first group, youngsters took it and pushed all different buttons in an attempt to figure out what would make noise. By contrast, when the children in the second group got the toy, they pushed only the button that the researchers had shown them. Their curiosity, it seemed, was not as freewheeling as was the children’s who weren’t told which button did what.

Such stimulating and open-ended play is what young children need, Ms. Gopnik said.

When it comes to science, much of what very young children learn comes through informal means. They may get inspiration from library programs and museum visits, but also from parents’ and babysitters’ encouragement to observe and ask questions about what they notice when they’re out for a walk, in their homes, anywhere.

Library Visits

In Hartford, Conn., the city’s librarians know that, and they work hard to reach children through a mix of semiformal, materials-based programming and informal guidance. The libraries there are the recipients of a grant from the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving that, along with state and city council funds, supports special programming for preschoolers in science and math. Working with parents, children, teachers, and child-care providers, librarians in the city now provide theme-oriented story times and guided activities for children in the grant program, as well as training for parents and providers on how to encourage children’s curiosity from a young age.

The Picture Book Math and Picture Book Science grant program is running in 10 sites across the city, reaching at least 200 parents, 30 home-day-care providers, and 25 day-care or preschool classrooms, said Debra Carrier-Perry, the Hartford library system’s associate librarian for youth services. Some services are provided in other languages to reach immigrant families, of which Hartford has a high number.

“We think that we’re making a difference for these kids,” Ms. Carrier-Perry said. “They enjoy it as a story time. They like the rhymes. They do the activities.”

Recently, librarian Rubina Hamid led a group of children through a picture book they loved as part of the grant program. The book, Guess What Is Growing Inside This Egg, by Mia Posada, was light on text, but included the kinds of questions that got the children talking about concepts such as the different sizes of the eggs, the animals that laid the eggs, the habitats where the eggs were shown, and who ultimately would care for the different eggs in the book.

“The kids were gobbling it up,” said Ms. Hamid, who is the assistant youth-services librarian in the Hartford Library’s Barbour branch.

When she’s working with young children, she said, she wants to help them cultivate their questioning minds. Comparing things and noticing differences—What color is this? Will it sink? Will it float? Is it hard, or is it soft?—encourages curiosity, she said. Hands-on, tactile learning is also critical.

“Observation is the key for anything. ... Out and about, in the house, even in the kitchen,” Ms. Hamid said.

The Connecticut Science Center, also in Hartford, is working with the library on the grant project. The center includes a KidSpace gallery built specifically for children age 6 and younger. Thanks to the grant, the center can work with many parents and young children who might not otherwise visit; it even provides free transportation and translation services for a parent-child day at the museum. That is crucial in a city where, in 2009, 39 percent of the children were living in poverty, according to Census data.

For all ages, the center’s goal “is to enable all of our visitors to have conversations about our exhibits,” said Holly Harrick, the center’s education director. With parents of young children, “we want them to help the children observe ... and help them formulate questions.” She added: “Young children are naturally curious, so we really build on that.”

That means hands-on experimenting and touching and raising open-ended questions. Preschoolers “need play, they need to interact with materials,” Ms. Harrick said. In the science center’s KidSpace, that might mean tossing a ball into a funnel and then watching the path it takes as the funnel—which functions like a cyclone—sends the ball through clear plastic tubes.

Water play, Ms. Harrick added, “is wonderful” and a natural with small children, and questions such as “What did you notice? What do you wonder?” are great queries to pose to a budding scientist.

Transition to School

The increased national interest in science learning and achievement means that some places are putting more emphasis on formal science learning for young children. On that note, Ingrid Chalufour and Karen Worth of the Education Development Center, a research group based in Newton, Mass., developed the “Young Scientist” series for preschool classrooms with support from the National Science Foundation. The guides focus on teaching children about the natural world and developing their knowledge of life science and physical science through observing nature, building structures, and water play.

Today, an EDC team is studying ways to encourage teachers to take a more inquiry-based approach, said Nancy Clark-Chiarelli, a principal investigator with the EDC.

Teachers with knowledge about the subject matter can ask open-ended questions and foster curiosity, which helps children find deeper meaning in their classroom science experiences, she said.

In addition, the EDC team devised Foundations of Science Literacy, a professional-development program that builds on the Young Scientist series.

One goal is to help preschool teachers respond to children’s inquiries with comments designed to fuel further discussion, not simply to provide the right answer and move on. Teachers should work to engage their students with let’s-think-about-it and what-if-we-do-it-this-way queries, Ms. Clark-Chiarelli suggested.

Preschool science cannot be just about words and theory, another researcher on the team cautioned. “Science is more than just this body of knowledge. Science is about engaging in process. ... The kids have to be engaged in that active process,” said Cindy Hoisington of the learning and teaching division at the EDC.

Librarian Hamid knows that well and tries to impart the message with the parents and young children she meets through the Picture Book Science program.

“Nothing is ordinary when you have a thinking, questioning, scientific mind. Even the ordinary is extraordinary,” she said. So “be observant and catch a moment [with a child]. Make it worth the interest and attention of the kid.”

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This story was underwritten by a grant from the Noyce Foundation, at www.noycefdn.org.
A version of this article appeared in the April 06, 2011 edition of Education Week as Independent Play Fosters Discovery in Young Children


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