Through play, children are natural scientists, but few adults carry that playful curiosity and investigation into adulthood. This is pretty well documented. The scientist Carl Sagan said, "Every kid starts out a natural-born scientist, and then we beat it out of them. A few trickle through the system with their wonder and enthusiasm for science intact."
I've long had a vague feeling that a connection exists between my seemingly disparate work on nature play, environmental education, science and engineering. My struggle has been to make a cohesive theory from them. I had a moment of clarity as I stumbled into the idea that "messing about in the outdoors" is in essence a foundation for motivating interest and skill in engineering design and science inquiry. I realized that childhood play involves self-made, intrinsically motivated activities that sow the seeds for science inquiry.
Wolfe, Cummins, & Myers point out the importance of youth-directed play in sparking scientific inquiry. In my own research on the value of natural play spaces, I have documented how certain nature elements - a tumbling stream, woodlot, or sandbox - can spark individual curiosity and social, inventive play.
In a recent interview, self-proclaimed "science evangelist" Ainissa Ramirez said: "There are few opportunities for kids to explore something inspired by their curiosity, and few chances to get their hands dirty ... STEM is like a training camp for key skills like encouraging curiosity and patience, and making friends with failure."
We as educators need to find ways to keep curiosity alive beyond the early years. To do that, we need to make sure that the strategies we implement are engaging, relevant, and, maybe most important, fun.
One strategy I have found successful is focusing on engineering design. Youth are provided a challenge and as a team devise a solution. It involves teamwork, communication, problem solving and a host of additional life skills important to supporting the "Five C's" of positive youth development. In another blog post, I wrote about free play and the 4 key principles I believe necessary for encouraging positive interactions in natural spaces.
I am going to keep working to expand the number of youth who "trickle through the system with their wonder and enthusiasm for science intact." My next challenge is to weave my ideas around free play, nature, and engineering design into a program design that can continue to support childhood wonder and curiosity through adolescence into adulthood.
I've seen a few programs that infuse play into nature, and play into science or engineering, but I'm not sure I've seen a program that intentionally involves youth, free play in nature to spark science inquiry or engineering design. Does this resonate with you? Have you experienced a program like I describe? Or, can you imagine how this could work in a program?
-- Rebecca Meyer, Extension educator, educational design & development
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