Play and the Scientific Method
Science is all around us. Whether we realize it or not, children are naturally engaging in the scientific method all-day, every day! Through play, children make observations, ask questions, do research, experiment, and ultimately, draw conclusions. Play is how children make sense of their world. Scientists do the same thing! Taking observations from themselves or other scientists, they make hypotheses, design and execute experiments, draw conclusions, and deepen our understanding of the world around us.
By recognizing and encouraging the inquiry process during play, adults can help children acquire and master essential science skills. To help illustrate this point, I spent a day with my four-year-old recording the various STEM-related (science, technology, engineering, and math) learning opportunities we encountered.
My daughter enters the kitchen for breakfast and observes “rainwater” on the windows. She also notices it’s not currently raining. This prompts a conversation about where this water came from, why it’s on the window today, and why it isn’t there every morning. Through this conversation, she makes a connection between this window “rainwater” and morning dew on the grass. Our conversation turns to states of matter and how temperature changes cause matter to move between states. Together, we begin to form a hypothesis. Since it’s been very hot and humid lately, we know there is a lot of water vapour in the air. Our house is air-conditioned, making the window much cooler than the dew point. This causes water vapour in the air to become a liquid on the surface of the window - a process known as condensation.
My daughter engages in risky play by climbing to the very top of our play structure and reaching out to touch a tree branch. While climbing, we talk about whether or not she feels safe and stable, and how she can change her body movements to feel less wobbly. This quick conversation proves helpful for an exploration later in the day.
In the sandbox, my daughter wants to create a “mountain” for her animals to explore, an activity she has successfully done before. She tries to make a structure with dry sand and quickly observes that it’s not working. She needs support getting to the next step of the inquiry process. I draw on her previous knowledge by asking her if the sand looks and feels the same as last time. She remembers last time the sand was “sticky and cold” and we begin brainstorming ways to make this sand feel similarly.
She ultimately decides adding water is the best way to achieve the desired effect. She tests adding different amounts of water to find the perfect mix of “a medium water”. What she discovers through experimentation is that sand relies on the capillary cohesion of water molecules to bind the grains of sand together; too much water and the grains spread apart, too little and they don’t adhere.
While playing with building blocks, my daughter assembles a tall tower but gets frustrated that it “won’t stay up”. We talk about how she can modify her design to improve her structure’s stability. She tests many possible solutions, engaging in the process of trial and error. Through play-based experimentation, she discovers that weight, height, and shape all impact a structure’s stability. She is also able to connect this experience to her earlier experience on the climbers; she remembers that when she reached for the leaves, she felt less stable or more wobbly than when she was crouched down low.
Late in the afternoon, my daughter and I harvest enough cucumbers from the garden to make pickles. My daughter helps measure and pour the required ingredients, developing math skills as she helps double the recipe. She also follows the instructions, or algorithm, step-by-step. She observes that salt dissolves into liquid and makes a prediction that sugar, another solid, will do the same. We test her theory while mixing our pickle brine.
Supporting the Inquiry Process
Over the course of a single day, my daughter and I explored states of matter, the cohesion of water molecules, stable structures, measurement, and even algorithms - and these are just the highlights! Science is truly all around us.
As a supportive adult, I ask questions that help her use her own experiences and ideas to move through the inquiry process. I can help grow her language skills by using the correct scientific terms, taking concepts she understands and connecting them to new words in a way she can relate to. I can support her learning by listening to her ideas and following her lead. Most importantly, I can deepen her scientific literacy skills by modelling the scientific method through “I wonder…” statements and open-ended questions.
Jessie Collins, OCT
Education Specialist at the London Children’s Museum
Thank you, 3M Canada, for helping the London Children’s Museum bring everyday science to children and their families.