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Keeping scientific curiosity alive beyond the early years

By Rebecca Meyer

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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  1. Becky,
    Thank you for sharing.
    The question that I have is that I think a youth program always intentionally has one or more agendas (outcomes). I wonder if the program is intentionally designed, could youth are free from the things that they want to do, such as free play in nature? Maybe the question is although a program is intentionally designed, how can an educator or instructor can make it like youth are free to do the thing that they want to do (explore)?

  2. I apologize prior to submitting this mind started to flow through all of the possibilities! I had fun thinking about your question. It would be interesting to challenge a group to complete a program plan while using this concept.
    I'm not sure I've seen a 'program' that does this. The blog post made me think back to growing up on a small hobby farm. Experiences of playing out side, digging through nature, building forts, and getting lost in my imagination have been essential to my development.
    I know of a school district early childhood program in my area are putting resources into creating a natural playground with rocks, trees, sticks, water flowers, grass, dirt and other natural materials. I'm not sure if they have a program or curriculum that engages the youth in an intentional way to reflect on the learning.
    I can see how I as a father could create the setting for my children to experience this sort of learning and still wonder how it could fit into an organizational plan that is working with groups. To use an existential strategy, where the learning is so personal and individual, it would be difficult to effectively work with groups of youth at the same time. How would we respond if a youth was not interested in the topic, reached their individual goal earlier than others. As we structure the activity to provide a focus, such as engineering, does that limit the free-play experience?
    I have a ton of ideas that I imagined while thinking. To be nice to the readers here (as they were rambling and hard to follow) I deleted most of the text :-)
    I think we often do this. Think of children playing near a beach making rivers, dams, sand castles and moats. Think of building snow forts, jumping into piles of leaves, building a tree house, looking under rocks, cutting a tree down, building a fire, or any of the other relevant experiences many of us have had. I think the only thing that is missing is intentionally doing one of these activities with a period of reflection after. What did you do? What did you learn? What suggestions wold you give someone else? What can you do next time to make it better? ...........
    What do you think?

  3. Thanks Hui-Hui for joining the conversation. Regarding your question, I believe one can intentionally design space for free play (or nearly free play). For me, the concept of free play is akin to inquiry. If we believe we can instigate/facilitate authentic inquiry through structured programs, why could we not also design for free play?
    For me, however, this discussion sparks three provocative questions. First: What is free play? My son participated in a Fort Camp at Hartley Nature Center in Duluth. Therein, they took part in structured activity about various natural shelters, survival and shelter-building techniques. For a few hours each day, however my son and his cohorts picked a spot in the woods at the nature center, designed, and built their own fort together. Is this free play? Second: Who gets to be involved in free play? The instructor for my son’s camp co-participated in fort building with her youth participants. Can she be a part of the free play? Third: What are the boundaries between play and program? Tamarack Nature Center in St. Paul (as well as other MN nature centers) have created fenced nature spaces with loose parts for youth free play. Does this count as part of the center’s ‘program’ or not?
    What do others think?

  4. Hi Becky –
    The questions raised in this discussion are really interesting. I am particularly drawn to your question - What are the boundaries between play and program? It got me thinking about the relationship between the two and the interplay (no pun intended). I see porous boundaries between play and program with each potentially reinforcing the other. I also see play as potentially being stand-alone natural activity that can be carried out in a range of ways with each bringing value to the “players” involved - free play, adult-guided, youth-guided, individual, cooperative etc.
    Here is an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education which makes a case for play.
    Thanks for prompting this discussion.

  5. Mark-
    Thanks for your response. It resonates with me!
    Your comment sparks a question of how we create structured space and necessary resources for free play within programming. For example, David Sobel, I believe in Beyond Ecophobia, describes a school yard where youth build forts and teachers let it happen. During this time, the youth create a community and build a currency around asphalt. The teachers collectively decided not to intervene unless safety was of concern and allowed the youth to play…. It seems that in many ways we are discussing recess – but it is more than recess. It is an experience that is intentionally created but offers youth the space for this play to take place.
    Another question, how can we use authentic free play to address focused program objectives? This somewhat ties in with Hui-Hui’s comments as well.
    Some additional questions/assumptions for thought:
    1. Program is (structured) activity driven by curriculum?
    2. Free play has to be extemporaneous?
    3. Only youth can be involved in free play?
    Your piece really strikes at the “authenticity” of activity. What do others think?

  6. Hello Jennifer,
    Thank you as well for sharing the article. I love the idea of a “celebration of the science of play” and it is in a large part where I have focused my efforts. The article really reinforces the importance of the role of play.… And, it adds more depth to this conversation but also recognizes there is room for continued exploration and a need for providing more evidence.
    The three questions/assumptions I posed in my prior response to Mark explore that notion of the boundary between play and program. I agree with you that the boundary is "porous." I'd enjoy thoughts from others on those assumptions and/or the relationship between. What do others think?


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