I teach a STEM class for ages 3 – 6. Once I had a new parent coming to class, who had gotten lost on the way there, so he’d called once for directions. He later called back for new directions, saying “I’m at the red barn. But it’s not the right place. What’s happening here is not a science class.” I was terribly puzzled, as we’re the only red barn in town, and our science class was in full swing. I looked toward the front door, and saw a man on his phone – the person I was speaking with was was right there in the room with us!
But somehow what we were doing didn’t match his preconceived notion of what a science class would look like.
What he saw at first glance was kids and parents actively engaged in PLAY. They were playing, giggling, asking questions, showing each other their discoveries. They were having lots of fun.
But what he didn’t immediately perceive was that they were also having a powerful science learning experience. Everywhere around the room, kids were engaged in exploring chemical reactions – they were using pipettes to squirt colored vinegar on a tray of baking soda to make it fizz, they were sprinkling baking soda on lemons in the sensory table for another acid-base reaction. They were using alka seltzer and water to inflate balloons with the gas produced by that reaction, and painting various liquids onto a coffee filter soaked in cabbage juice – a ph indicator that revealed whether the substance was acid or base. They were learning about immiscible fluids with jars of oil and vinegar, then adding a baking soda ice cube which created what we call “a bubbling jar of goo” but which lets them experience a chemical reaction within the immiscible liquids experiment.
The structure of our class is very intentional. The first twenty minutes is called Discovery Time. It looks like play, because it is… but it’s also the foundation of inquiry based learning. The children, and the parents, move around stations freely, trying things out, experiencing things, discovering what questions they have. Then we have our first circle time, where we explain the concepts of the day. Then they have Tinkering Time where they explore things again, making their new theoretical knowledge more concrete. The closing circle allows them to reflect on and deepen what they have just learned.
Our class is a great deal of fun, but as that parent learned as the year went on, there’s a lot of meaningful learning that tags along with the play.