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If we call it science, then can we let the children play?

One of the mixed pleasures of preparing new early childhood teachers is that after they graduate, they come back to visit. They bring stories of teaching kindergarten in the "real world" where, they tell us, they do not have enough time or resources and, most significantly, play is not viewed as the primary medium for learning. I will describe one student's experience that is typical of what our graduates, as well as the research, describe as the kindergarten teacher's dilemma (Hatch & Freeman, 1988; Nourot, 1991). This particular student, however, moved beyond a description of the dilemma. She shared a strategy that helped her establish play--specifically, investigative play (Wasserman, 1990)--as a legitimate activity in her classroom. As a result, she helped me reconceptualize the role of play in kindergarten.

Kate's Story: Part 1

"Why can't we let the children play?" Kate is a kindergarten teacher who graduated from University of Vermont's early childhood program 10 years ago. She has been teaching kindergarten in the rural Northeast for several years. During a recent visit, Kate reflected on her experiences. She reported finding little support for a curriculum based on child-directed activity and play. Moreover, she had found it nearly impossible to incorporate the ramps, pulleys and other transformational materials that reflect the constructivist orientation of her undergraduate training (Duckworth, 1987; Forman & Hill, 1984; Forman & Kuschner, 1983; Goldhaber, 1992a; Goldhaber, 1992b; Goldhaber & Smith, 1993). Such materials, she was told, were too messy, too noisy and too "non-academic looking" for her school.

Kate's story is not unique. Many graduates return from the field to describe constraints placed upon them in their public school settings. These constraints appear to fall into three categories. First, new teachers must confront attitudes concerning the role of play in learning. While our students have been trained to value child-directed, teacher-facilitated play as the medium for learning (Goldhaber & Smith, 1993), many find it difficult to explain these practices to their colleagues, parents and administrators.

New teachers often find it easier to put their child-centered perspective into action rather than words. Consequently, they must eventually struggle to explain the "why" of their active, sometimes noisy, classrooms. Those with more experience and self-confidence are better prepared to justify their practice, but find such explanations to be energy and time consuming. Yet how are the concerns of colleagues, parents and administrators to be put to rest if teachers cannot explain the role of play in learning or cannot find the time to do so?

Time presents another constraint to implementing a play-oriented curriculum. Public school schedules are often composed of relatively short blocks of time during which children are expected to focus on different topics or activities. Teachers who have a more integrated view of learning believe that children need long uninterrupted blocks of time in which to construct an understanding of their social and physical worlds. Short, activity-focused lessons plus interruptions for "specials" (such as gym, resource room, art) make such scheduling difficult and, in some cases, impossible.

Finally, materials that teachers consider essential to an effective play-based curriculum are often absent from or forbidden in the classroom. Materials that are particularly appropriate to children's investigations of the logico-mathematical relationships in the physical world are sometimes frowned upon for classroom use. Sand and water may be too messy, duct tape too sticky and ceiling tile struts too fragile. Teachers trained to value the importance of children's active exploration of the "relation between himself and objects and the relation between objects and objects" (Forman & Kuschner, 1983, p. 52) find such limitations to be almost insurmountable.

Kate, and others like her, describe a "no-win" situation. If they conform to these constraints, they feel they are compromising their standards. If, on the other hand, they challenge these constraints, they risk the skepticism and, at times, outright criticism of colleagues, parents and administrators. They instead choose some middle ground and report feeling generally frustrated and dispirited.

Similar experiences can be found in research examining decisions that kindergarten teachers make in enacting their beliefs. Hatch and Freeman (1988) report that kindergarten teachers experience considerable conflict between their own beliefs about what constitutes developmentally appropriate practice and "the realities of classroom practice".

An abundance of materials supports the view that play provides the critical context in which young children construct knowledge about their physical and social worlds (Christie & Wardle, 1992; Isenberg & Jalongo, 1993; Klugman & Smilansky, 1990; Monighan-Nourot, Scales, Van Hoorn & Almy, 1987; Nourot & Van Hoorn, 1991; Piaget, 1962; Scales, Almy, Nicolopoulou & Ervin-Tripp, 1991; Singer & Singer, 1990; Sponseller, 1974; Van Hoorn, Nourot, Scales & Alward, 1993; Vygotsky, 1976; Wasserman, 1990). Kate and teachers like her find it difficult, however, to put this belief into practice. Fortunately, Kate's story does not end with frustration or compromise. Rather, it ends in excitement and discovery.

Kate's Story: Part 2

"As long as I call it science..."

Over her summer break, Kate participated in an institute that introduced elementary school teachers to a hands-on science curriculum. When she returned to her classroom in the fall, she "did science." As she watched children in her room explore the functional relationships of pulleys and investigate gravity with balls and ramps, she realized she now had a rationale for play that would be acceptable to her fellow teachers, school administrators and parents. Looking a bit mischievous, Kate observed, "As long as I call it science, everyone has much less trouble with all the 'messing around' my kids do!"

It is an interesting idea. What if that which early childhood educators call play is called something more traditionally academic, something more in keeping with school expectations? What if we were to refer to play as science? Will we hear of children being engaged in "just science," instead of "just play"? Is Kate's idea simply a matter of semantics, or does her observation have more conceptual ramifications?

Toward a New Conceptualization of Play: Science at Its Best

Shortly after my conversation with Kate, I was invited to speak to a group of elementary school teachers who were involved in a science curriculum development program. This science program possessed a strong constructivist orientation. Through word of mouth, the organizers had heard that my university's early childhood program was also based on a constructivist model of education and development. They asked me to look at some videotapes of kindergarten children using science materials and to discuss them from an early childhood constructivist perspective.

I saw children engaged in the kinds of activity one expects to see in a well-equipped, child-centered, play-based kindergarten classroom. The children were using open-ended materials such as water, blocks and pulleys. They were laughing and smiling, and sometimes they shouted instructions to each other or whooped with excitement over a shared discovery. They slipped in and out of pretense and role-play. Most children stayed in an area for long periods of time without teacher-imposed expectations or requirements. Their activity appeared to be exploratory and flexible, rather than goal-directed. By definition (Rubin, Fein & Vandenberg, 1983), these children were playing.

In fact, this tape showed a kindergarten classroom's science period. These children were supposed to be "doing" science. On closer inspection, I could see that they were doing just that. What at first glance looked like play was indeed science. For example, one segment of tape showed two little boys trying to fill a bottle. Having decided to use a tube and funnel to fill it, they noticed a spout of water pulsating through a small hole in the side of the bottle. As the children spent the next 15 minutes exploring the water spout "phenomenon," they discovered that a functional relationship existed between the level of water in the bottle and the arc of the water spout. They excitedly called the videographer over to record their discovery. Was this play or science? In the next segment a little gift concentrated on keeping a balance scale level while placing weights at different distances from the fulcrum. Was she playing or "doing" science?

Trumbull (1990) describes scientists as people who play with ideas in order to change the complex into the simple. They explore phenomena with intensity and fearlessness, develop explanations of observed phenomena, and share observations, hypotheses and conclusions with others. She also notes the similarity between the scientist and the child when she writes, "The playfulness of the scientist, like the playfulness of a child, is intense, but permits the freedom to explore and try out a wide range of ideas with no fear of being wrong". Clearly, this description of the scientist can be applied to the children on the videotape. I saw children "thinking like scientists": being curious and asking questions; taking time to explore materials and phenomena in pursuit of understanding; forming, testing and rejecting hypotheses; collaborating with peers; communicating their findings and thoroughly enjoying the activity (Vermont Elementary Science Project, 1991).

These children, however, were also playing. They were involved in behaviors that were flexible and creative, voluntary, pleasurable, self-motivated, concerned more with means than ends, and, at times, non-literal (Christie, 1991). Perhaps if we look at what was traditionally perceived as play through the lens of science and discuss it in the language of science, we may be able to reestablish play in the academic lives of young children.

A Challenge To Be "Serious" About Play

Such a change of perspective about play could potentially influence not only how others view a play-based curriculum, but also may challenge us to give children's play more serious consideration. What are the children trying to figure out at the water table? Why does Mary return to the balance scale three days in a row to explore how it responds to differing placements of weights? And what about children's spontaneous, but no less compelling, play? Why are some children most engaged when sending their toy race cars down makeshift ramps to crash into hastily constructed targets? Too often, teachers are observed as being relatively uninvolved during children's scheduled play times (Strickland & Ogle, 1990). If we think of play as science, we may see it as somehow more deserving of our attention and, therefore, give ourselves permission to observe and join our children in their efforts to understand how the world works.

This outlook on play may also help us explain classroom practices and materials that may appear somewhat noisy and messy. We can discuss them in the context of science and inquiry. For example, Bruner (1985) explains that rich, meaningful play requires three things: concrete materials that "provoke combinatorial exploration", a peer and a close-at-hand teacher. To these items, I would add a fourth: time.

These requirements are equally critical to a scientific enterprise. Science is an active and social pursuit, in which ideas are tested, discussed and made public (Trumbull, 1990). In addition, a learning environment that supports scientific inquiry must include materials that can be manipulated, transformed and perhaps broken (Duckworth, 1990); it must invite open and free dialogue so that ideas and hypotheses can be shared and challenged; it must be supported by a teacher who observes, encourages, guides and attends (Harlen & Jelly, 1990; Jarvis, 1991). I would add that the learning environment also must allow ample time for questions and theories to be explored, set aside, rediscovered and expanded.

Teachers, parents and administrators are tired, and understandably so, of such over-used and potentially meaningless phrases as "hands-on learning," "developmentally appropriate practice" (Bredekamp, 1987) and "play as the work of the child." Indeed, if play is to become a valued activity in the kindergarten curriculum, parents' and administrators' concerns about the role and value of play must be met with answers that are conceptually and pedagogically sound. The resurgence of interest in science education provides a new vocabulary and compelling perspective that kindergarten teachers can use to explain the open-ended, cognitively challenging learning experiences that characterize their play-based programs. Perhaps if we call it science, we can let the children play.

Author's Note: I would like to thank Susan Linskey, Gregg Humphrey and JoAnn Harvey for sharing their thoughts, experiences and videotapes of children "doing science."


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Author:Goldhaber, Jeanne
Publication:Childhood Education
Date:Sep 22, 1994
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