Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Learning About Learning: Supporting Kids’ Learning Through Play

The Museum is partnering with Brown University's Causality and Mind Lab on a three-year National Science Foundation-funded project (award #1223777) to study how children develop scientific thinking skills and understand their own learning processes.  Museum researcher Suzy Letourneau is investigating how to make kids’ learning through play visible and shared this project update.

We’ve observed many metacognitive skills in children’s play at the Museum. We also found that when families stayed longer in one exhibit, children showed a greater variety of these “thinking behaviors” in their play. This showed us that when children want to do the same activity for what seems like forever, they may be practicing something very important. As adults, we might be able to support children’s learning by encouraging them to reflect on what they’re thinking and doing.

For young children, reflecting might be as simple as being proud of something they’ve accomplished and sharing this with others. Children of all ages use their understanding of the world to anticipate what’s coming next, and they show surprise when unexpected things happen. Emotional reactions to successes, failures and discoveries can be great opportunities to think together about what just happened and what children are thinking about it. Older children might be able to describe what they did and why, or might be able to come up with another solution or change their plans after seeing what happened.

We also found that when children stated a plan or idea before starting to play (for example, deciding what they want to build, or choosing what character to pretend to be), they were more likely to reflect on their play later in their visit.  For young children, making a plan might be as simple as choosing some materials to use, or watching and trying to copy someone else. Older children might imagine what they want to create, build, or do in advance and then come up with their own strategy or collaborate with others to accomplish it.

We asked Museum play guides how they encourage children to plan or reflect on what they’re doing. Here are some of their suggestions:
  • Let children watch you play and either copy you or do something different.
  • Place something new and interesting nearby, and wait to see if children notice it. It might spark a new idea or inspire a different strategy.
  • Let children put their own words to what they’re planning by asking, “What are you doing?” and “Can I help?”
  • If children experience a setback, encourage them to try again. If they get stuck, ask, “What else could you try?”
  • Show enthusiasm when children are proud and want to share what they’ve done. Use this moment to ask, “How did you do that?”
  • Help children document their work so they can reflect on it later. Leave something behind (like on the show-off shelf in ThinkSpace), or take a picture of each step of the process along with the finished product.

Also see these past project updates:

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