Adult-Child Interactions in Playful Early Science Learning
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In this chapter we are interested in the features of playful learning that allow children to develop their cognitive skills. We bring together literature on teachers’ and parents’ interactions (through guided play and scaffolding, respectively) with young children in support of developing children’s knowledge and skills.
We go beyond the traditional views of play that take a behaviorist perspective (e.g., construction play versus rough and tumble play). These views of play tend to focus on what play looks like, rather than what is happening in the child’s mind when they are playing. In this chapter we focus on the latter because putting the focus on the child’s cognitive skills, rather than on their behavior, makes it easier to see how children might learn through play. Nevertheless we emphasize the role of the adult because leaving children to freely play on their own, without adult guidance and support, has not been shown to be the most effective way for children to learn.
Play, learning and cognitive skills
Play is a psychological state that means children can be agents of their own learning (from the Latin agens: “doing” or “driving”). Play is self-directed as opposed to being externally driven. This means not following the adult’s agenda all the time. Instead the child sets his/her own goals and figures out how to get there. This can occur when children engage in open-ended tasks, such as building the tallest tower possible out of blocks.
Can children be self-directed, without being in a playful state? Yes, for example, a child wandering through a park looking for a ball that was kicked out of sight is self-directed. Yet we would not say they are engaging in playful learning. We will talk about playful learning in situations where there is a degree of imagination involved, in other words when children are extending their mental representations about the world. Play affords children a context in which they can mentally manipulate their ideas about reality in a low-stakes way. Thus children engage in meta-representation (representing their own representations), or imagination, in order to examine what is, what could be, and how. In this respect, playful learning offers children the opportunity to face a challenge that cognitively extends them beyond the current state of their knowledge.
In sum, children’s play can support their learning insofar as it is self-directed and affords the opportunity to engage in mental operations they wouldn’t normally do. These build cognitive skills because they allow children to practice mental flexibility and inner drive (agency, as mentioned above). Children who experience both success and failure in a low-stakes environment learn to weigh up alternatives and make decisions. They can literally experiment with new ideas, which links to innovation and taking initiative. They build confidence in doing so and become familiar with strategies for thinking about their own learning. In addition, when children have the chance to do all of this with their peers in a playful learning setting, they also practice their communication and team working skills. Together, all of these abilities come under the umbrella of twenty-first century skills. They are useful later in life, where cognitive skills like flexibility and problem-solving are critical in the constantly changing world we live in.
One might wonder, therefore, whether children should be left to their own devices, freely playing to learn everything they need to know. The research is very clear on this. The role of the adult is vital if children are to learn through play. Similar to a Goldilocks principle, children need just the right amount of support from adults, to develop knowledge and skills through play (Alfieri et al. 2011). Too much structure and they risk not having the chance to develop their own agency and cognitive skills because it is always done for them. Too little structure and they risk either taking a very long time to develop certain skills and acquire knowledge, or not doing so at all because energy was spent elsewhere.
Research shows, therefore, that the role of the adult is critical. This can be in a goal-directed way (e.g., guided play, with teachers in classrooms; Weisberg et al. 2016) or in a more exploratory way (e.g., scaffolding and autonomy support, with parents at home; Bernier et al. 2010).
Examples of the cognitive skills children can practice when they are involved in learning through play, which are more difficult to practice when they are either left to their own devices or totally under another person’s control
When play is…
In the classroom
Recognize appropriate level of challenge; set goals
Be independent; persist through setbacks
Weigh up multiple solutions to a problem
Pursue curiosity in everyday situations
In what follows, we elaborate on the adult’s role in facilitating playful learning in young children. We illustrate these general principles in the context of early science. Early science is an ideal context in which to adopt playful learning approaches because science lessons represent ideal circumstances for hands-on work, resonating with playful, open-ended, child-led learning. Science also requires higher-order processes like planning for contingencies and cognitive flexibility, which can be built through playful learning.
Adult support in playful early science learning
Challenge. One way the adult can play an important role in developing children’s twenty-first century skills is by setting out activities, and materials, that will challenge children from a cognitive point of view. When we talk about challenge we mean extending ones abilities beyond what one can comfortably, reliably do on one’s own. Although one can find challenge alone, a more knowledgeable person who has identified your current level of comfort might more easily recognize what the next steps for you could be (Perry and VandeKamp 2000). In this way, an adult who anticipates a child’s playful possibilities can set up a scenario where the child extends themselves through play. In experiencing those adult-designed challenges, children have to reflect on what they already know, resolve confusion when their expectations are not borne out, and test new ideas by running through different scenarios. Although much of this will be implicit and not conscious deliberation, these cognitive experiences are supposed to support the development of children’s self-regulation. For example, if young children are playing in the water with a floating and sinking activity, by switching the materials after children have had some time to explore them, the adult is engaging the child’s mind in having to draw new analogies and questioning the expectations they originally built. Whereas the child might have discovered that some fruit will float while others will sink, the adult could next ask the child to find out some regularities. For example, is it all round objects that float? Is it all red objects that float? By carefully observing children’s experiments with the floating and sinking objects, adults can swap the objects around to challenge children to compare different entities, giving them the opportunity to infer new general “laws” about floating and sinking. Not only would the children’s conceptual knowledge develop, but they would also have to experience making the wrong guess, selecting new pairs of objects to compare, on the basis of a variety of dimensions that the adult had intentionally planted (shape, texture, weight, color, etc.) until they discover the relevant dimensions. These experiences feed in to twenty-first century skills like problem-solving and taking initiative.
Choice. When we talk about giving children meaningful choices, we do not simply mean choosing between a red pen and a blue pen to fill in their worksheets. That type of choice does not have any consequences for their learning because it does not really matter which color they use. Meaningful choices are the type of choices that keep children engaged and motivated (Diamond and Lee 2011). For example, teachers in primary school can let children choose the topic of a report they will write (e.g., choose one of the 50 US states). These types of extended individual projects are perhaps less common in early years teaching, but there are still ways to engage children by giving them choices that are meaningful. When it comes to everyday activities that occur in an early years’ classroom, here too adults can set up scenarios that are more open-ended than traditional worksheets, so that children have the opportunity to weigh up different options and to practice their decision-making skills. This relies on the adult having thought through an activity in advance and creating pathways for children to diverge. For example, children might learn about materials in the early science classroom by being set the task of building a rainproof den. The end goal is given, but children make their own choices about which materials they will use, and, then, based on feedback and testing (e.g., with a garden hose), they could adjust their creations with new combinations of materials to improve the protection from the rain. This type of activity would also include opportunities for self-evaluation, which Perry et al. (2007) see as key for developing children’s self-regulation. In this type of activity, children are given meaningful choices and opportunities to reflect on these choices, so that they acquire not only conceptual knowledge of materials but also twenty-first century skills like team work, communication, innovation, planning, and so on. Without some element of open-endedness in the science activity, allowing for children to make meaningful choices, it is more difficult to see how these skills would be fostered.
Contingency. Contingency is a concept developed by researchers working with parents and their infants, to denote the back-and-forth type of exchange that is so common in early caregiving. The idea is that the adult responds to the infant in a way that is both timely and appropriate. An example of this is when the infant smiles and then the adult smiles and strokes the infant’s cheek. The response is immediate, and it is linked to the emotional warmth that both are feeling.
Current trends and future directions
Until now, studies of the effects of giving children agency by adopting playful learning approaches have mostly been focused on small-scale experimental studies. Although these studies are scientifically sound, they do not examine playful learning approaches systematically in the much more complex and dynamic environment of classroom interactions. In order for teachers to become experts in playful learning, research will need to extend from the lab-based experimental studies to test the effectiveness of these approaches in real-world settings.
It is also the case that studies of playful learning, whether through guided play or scaffolding, have mostly centered on a relatively narrow range of outcomes for children: problem-solving, block building, identifying geometric shapes, and executive functions (working memory, inhibitory control, and set shifting). It is currently less well-known how these child-led approaches to learning will bear out in other domains such as social-emotional skills, mathematics, literacy, scientific reasoning, and so on. Research could usefully expand the set of outcomes that are studied, in order to determine whether playful learning is equally useful across the board.
A related extension of the evidence base would involve studying playful learning in a wider range of ages. Although teachers are often receptive to such approaches in the early years, it is not always as easy to persuade those working further up the phases of education to promote this degree of agency in their learners. Due to external pressures, teachers of older children often have to focus on the specific pieces of knowledge that learners need to acquire, rather than the cross-cutting twenty-first century skills they can gain from being given choices, being challenged, and having contingent interactions with the adults around them. The uptake of these approaches therefore depends on teacher mind-sets. If they recognize cognitive skills as being equally important as gaining specific knowledge, then they are more likely to experiment with these approaches. Teachers themselves can be playful in their professional learning: experiencing joy and autonomy by trying out new things in their classrooms and scaffolding each other toward improved practice.
Finally, it will be very important to gain a better understanding of how playful learning approaches are received by a range of different children. Teachers will recognize that learners have unique attributes, with some having more advanced expressive language skills than others, for example. How does a child’s language affect the way teachers use a playful approach? With more onus on the child for their own learning, there is a need to better understand how a variety of individual characteristics of the child can affect the usefulness of playful learning.