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4 Research-Based Reasons Students Should Learn Science Through Play



4 Research-Based Reasons Students Should Learn Science Through Play

contributed by Cindy Hoisington, Elementary School Science Teacher

As an early elementary science educator, I’ve advocated for years (to anyone who would listen) about the increasing need for high-quality science teaching in Kindergarten and Grade One classrooms.

But as I watched my umpteenth daily briefing on COVID-19, it suddenly hit me just how close to home science is getting. It’s impacting our lives directly and influencing the daily decisions we make about teaching, raising our families, and engaging with our communities and the wider world.

When and where do my students (or children at home) need to wear masks?

What are the best distance-learning strategies for me to use with my students?

How will a phased opening help keep our school community safe?

It’s clear that science is not just for scientists anymore.

For the benefit of themselves and society, all of our students (whether or not they decide to become scientists) will need to be more scientifically-literate than we were. Do you ever read the New York Times science pages? Being able to read and digest those types of articles is frequently used as a working definition of science literacy—the ability to engage with and talk about science issues and ideas.

Chances are, as a teacher, you’ve already heard about the push for STEM education and the call for more and better science beginning in Kindergarten. ‘Better’ science means students having many opportunities to do what scientists do and think like scientists think (NRC, 2012).

This vision comes to life in a set of eight K-12 Science and Engineering Practices (NGSS Lead States, 2013) that include Asking questions and identifying problems; Planning and carrying out investigations; and Constructing explanations and designing solutions. These practices also reveal science as a dynamic, spiraling, evolving, inherently playful process rather than how many of us have traditionally thought about it– as a relatively fixed and static body of knowledge (See Table).

Table: Playful explorations students might engage in as they engage with the NGSS Science and Engineering Practices. 

Science Practices and Play in a K Balls and Ramps Study  
Science and Engineering Practice  What students might do
Asking questions and identifying problems Raise questions about which balls will go farther coming off an incline.Identify problems such as “How can we make a ramp system that gets the ball to land on a target from 5/10/20 feet away?”
Planning and carrying out investigations Investigate how the steepness of a ramp or the size/weight/texture of a ball affects how a ball starts, rolls, and stops.  Measure and record data how far balls roll.
Constructing explanations and designing solutions Make and discuss evidence-based claims about how different balls roll on different inclines.Create a ramp system that gets a ball to hit a target.  

But as the call for science in the early grades gets louder, play has all but disappeared from Kindergarten and elementary classrooms.  In many districts, a ‘false dichotomy’ has polarized play activities (as unstructured, child-directed, and extracurricular) and school activities (as highly-structured, teacher-directed, and academic), implying that they are distinct and disconnected processes.

The impact of free play and guided play on young children’s development and learning is well-documented (White, 20122). In particular, guided play– using intentional playful interactions and conversations to scaffold children’s learning in the service of specific learning goals  has already been shown to increase preschool children’s STEM skills and language (Weisberg, Hirsh-Pasek, & Golinkoff, 2013).

This begs the question why don’t we use free and guided play to maximize the quality of science in Kindergarten and Grade One as well? Here are four reasons why we should.

“Play is serious business. At stake for us are the ways we socialize and teach future generations of scientists, inventors, artists, explorers, and other individuals who will shape the world in which we live…”

Arthur Molella

1. Play primes students to behave and think like scientists

Regardless of their ethnicities, backgrounds, and languages, all students play, exhibiting the characteristics of young scientists.

Their inborn curiosity compels them to ask questions, explore their surroundings, test their ideas, seek out relationships and patterns, communicate their discoveries, and figure out how and why the world works the way it does. Teachers can harness and nurture this inclination toward exploration by using guided play to help students ask, investigate, think, and talk about science questions like:

Which blocks should I use to make my tower tall and strong?

How can I test how stable my tower is?

How can I change the design of my tower to make it taller and more stable?


How can I share what I’m learning about strategies for building successful towers? 

2. Materials that lead to play also lead to science and learning  

Playing with open-ended, everyday natural and designed objects—e.g. boxes, leaves, and buttons– promotes creativity as children use the same objects in many different ways (White, 2012). The same types of objects can be used for playful science explorations. Students can investigate force and motion using blocks, balls, and pieces of cove molding for making ramps.

They can investigate light, and make shadows and reflections, with flashlights, mirrors, and small classroom objects. And they can use beans, cups, paper towels, and spray bottles to explore living things. Students can do both open and more focused science investigations with everyday objects and materials when teachers collect them thoughtfully and use them intentionally with students. 

3. Play helps create equity among students

Students need time and space to engage in free play and ‘play around’ with phenomena and become familiar with materials before they can generate questions that spur focused science explorations. Before investigating how a light beam bounces off a mirror, for example, students need time to play with mirror and explore how images change when a mirror is held in different ways.

Before students can investigate structure and function in plants, they need time and space to openly explore a variety of indoor and outdoor plants with a hand lens. When teachers give students permission to play with materials before diving into more focused guided play investigations, they build equity among students with a range of prior experiences with the topic. 

4. Play is naturally disarming and engaging

Play engages students’ physical, intellectual, and emotional attention (White, 2012). Although science is essentially a playful, personally-meaningful, communicative, and creative discipline it is often not taught that way in elementary classrooms. Integrating both free and guided play in students’ science experiences can help us shift our concept of what ‘fun’ looks like.

Think about students engrossed in studying an anthill, carefully using a tablet to document and compare the growth of their bean plants, or enthusiastically making diagrams of where they found living things outdoors. Pulling in the playful aspects of science engages students deeply in their own learning in a way that can be better described as joyful.


Without crystal balls, it is impossible for any of us to know for certain what the future holds for our young students, or even what teaching and learning will look like next year in the wake of COVID-19. One thing we can be sure of is that, no matter what happens, supporting our students’ 21st century skillsets—critical-thinking, collaboration, communication, and creative problem-solving– will serve them well.

Several years ago, I attended a science meeting with a group of early elementary teachers. Before the meeting began, a scientist who had been invited as a guest speaker said to me, “I don’t know what teachery things you plan to talk about. All I want to say is, that if they want kids to learn science they need to let them play, experiment, and use their imaginations.”

That advice holds true today more than ever.  


National Research Council (NRC). 2012. A framework for K–12 science education: Practices, crosscutting concepts, and core ideas. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

NGSS Lead States. 2013. Next Generation Science Standards: For States, By States. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Weisberg, D. S., Hirsh-Pasek, K., & Golinkoff, R. M. (2013). Guided play: Where curricular goals meet a playful peda- gogy. Mind, Brain, and Education, 7, 104–112. doi:10.1111/ mbe.12015 

White, R. E. (2012). The power of play: A research summary on play and learning. Retrieved from:

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Four Stages Of A Self-Directed Learning Model



self-directed learning stagesFour Stages Of A Self-Directed Learning Model

by TeachThought Staff

Self-Directed Learning is not new–but is perhaps misunderstood.

In the linked post above, Terry Heick wondered about the relationship between self-directed learning and the purpose of education:

The goal of the model isn’t content knowledge (though it should produce that), but rather something closer to wisdom–learning how to learn, understanding what’s worth understanding, and perhaps most importantly, analyzing the purpose of learning (e.g., personal and social change). It also encourages the student to examine the relationship between study and work–an authentic ‘need to know’ with important abstractions like citizenship and legacy.

Studied in terms of adult education and vocation for years, self-directed learning is increasing in popularity for a variety of reasons, including growing dissatisfaction with public schooling, and the rich formal and informal learning materials available online. This is the ‘age of information’ after all.

Self-directed learning is one response, something slideshare user Barbara Stokes captures in this chart, based on the model by Gerald Grow. The four stages–very similar to the gradual release of responsibility model–appear below.

The Four Stages Of The Self-Directed Learning Model

Learner                            Teacher

Stage 1   Dependent        Authority, Coach

Examples: Coaching with immediate feedback. Drill. Informational lecture. Overcoming deficiencies and resistance.

Stage 2:  Interested          Motivator, Guide

Examples: Inspiring lecture plus guided discussion. Goal-seting and learning strategies.

Stage 3:  Involved             Facilitator

Examples: Discussion faciliated by teacher who participates as equal. Seminar. Group projects.

Stage 4:  Self-Directed     Consultant, Delegator

Examples: Internship, dissertation, individual work or self-directed study group.

Theories of Teaching and Learning: The Staged Self-Directed Learning Model, G.Grow. from Barbara Stokes; Four Stages Of A  Self-Directed Learning Model

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The Benefits Of Competency-Based Assessment



The Benefits Of Competency-Based Assessment

contributed by David Garrick, Dean of Graduate School of Education, UCDS College for School Culture

The general idea behind a competency-based assessment is that it provides students and families with specific feedback about student performance that can lead to a clearer understanding of progress and skills gained over time.

As Dean of the Graduate School of Education at the UCDS College for School Culture, I’ve gained a unique perspective on the possibilities that competency-based assessment can provide. Students who attend University Child Development School (UCDS) in Seattle don’t earn A’s, B’s, or F’s. Instead, student assessments are communicated through our own set of competency-based continua for various subjects.

These continua, paired with narrative communication with students and families, make up the school’s framework for assessment, based on skill progressions. I’ve seen the benefits first-hand in Pre-K through elementary classrooms, and also in training at the graduate level.  

By providing specific information about the academic and social skills students exhibit, schools provide detailed and actionable information. This empowers students in their learning and educators in their teaching practices. Here’s a general overview of the benefits of competency-based assessment.

Building Competency-Based Assessments: The Benefits

1. Improved clarity & transparency

Greater clarity allows teachers and families to identify areas of strength and areas where students may need additional support. In all cases, these assessments provide teachers with detailed knowledge about student progress that can be used to build individualized goals and educational plans.

In addition to evaluating proficiency in these domains, teachers should regularly share comprehensive feedback individual student accomplishments and struggles. For example, UCDS teachers provide narrative commentary to families where they focus on how a student engages within each domain, as well as notable accomplishments and struggles.

Focusing on comprehensive feedback brings clarity to the learner, and clarity to the family about what’s happening in the classroom. Letter grades don’t show the full picture (suggesting alternatives to letter grades), and a competency-based model is better equipped to provide students, families and future schools with clear information about each student’s social and academic progress.


2. More seamless personalization of learning

Through Competency-Based Learning, educators have a better chance to provide a deeper view into each student’s learning attitudes and strategies and can provide resources that best support individual needs. This type of information is key to understanding the unique modes, strategies, and coaching to which each student responds best. This is the foundation of personalized learning.

3. It helps shift towards a culture of assessment

To successfully adopt competency-based strategies, teachers and administrators must first reevaluate assessment. While traditional forms of assessment (i.e., exams and quizzes) are valuable when placing students on a general scale of progress, they don’t show the whole picture. Making changes to assessment can be daunting for some educators, especially those who have been using traditional assessment practices throughout their career. It can also be a shift for parents to evaluate their student’s performance without a grade.

It’s important that teachers pursue resources and professional development that introduce different methods of assessing student progress, and why they hold value. As every teacher knows, the learning never stops – and by staying on top of current trends, curriculum can be adapted to meet every students’ needs.

4. Students better understand their own learning profile

Through comprehensive, competency-based assessment methods, teachers can help students to reach college and career readiness with greater self-knowledge about their learning approaches and needs. Working from a continuum of skills ensures that every student is being challenged in a way that is appropriate to what they want and need to learn and that educators can give individualized support as needed to help them move forward.

Removing the stress of being placed on a tiered grading scale shifts the focus back to learning, while building the confidence to make mistakes. Students take ownership of their learning. They feel empowered when mastering a skill and learn to identify what’s next.


For teachers, competency-based assessment brings depth and value to curriculum. With the focus shifted away from letters and percentages, students become more involved in long-term progress and are more apt to become engaged and take risks while learning.

Ranking students based on undefined competencies and then using that rank to determine their future prospects and contributions is a practice best left to past eras. Competency-based assessment provides more detailed information that promotes better-targeted teaching and learning for all parties involved.  

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5 Learning Strategies That Make Students Curious



Causing curiosity in students boils down to knowing that student.

5 Learning Strategies That Make Students Curious

by Terry Heick

Understanding where curiosity comes from is the holy grail of education.

Education, of course, is different than learning but both depend on curiosity.

Education implies a formal, systematic, and strategic intent to cause learning. In this case, content to be learned is identified, learning experiences are planned, learning results are assessed, and data from said assessments play some role in the planning of new learning experiences. Learning strategies are applied, and snapshots of understanding are taken as frequently as possible.

This approach is clinical and more than a smidgeon scientific. It arrests emotion and spontaneity in pursuit of planning and precision, a logical trade in the eyes of science.

Of course, very little about learning is scientific. While data, goals, assessment, and planning should all play a role in any system that purports to actually accomplish anything, learning and education are fundamentally different. The former is messy and personal, painful and fantastic. The latter attempts to assimilate the former—or at least streamline it as much as possible in the name of efficiency.

An analogy might help. (I love teaching with analogies.)

learning : education :: true love : dating service

True love may very well come from a dating service, and dating services do all they can to make it happen, but in the end—well, there’s a fair bit of hocus pocus at work behind it all.

Hubris & Education

Education is simultaneously the most noble and hubristic of all endeavors. There are two minds to every educator. This may all reek of sensationalism, but watch anyone at play, honing a craft, lost in a book, or engaged in a digital simulation and you’ll see a completely different person—one there physically, but far removed in spirit.

In a better place.

Causing this in a classroom is possible, but is as often the result of good fortune than good planning. The best substitutes that can masquerade as curiosity are dutiful compliance and engagement. Neither of these are curiosity, which has among its sources a strong sense of volition, accountability, and curiosity.

Here, let me try.

I want to show you what I can do.

I want to know.

And that last one—a sign of curiosity–is a bugger, one we’ve talked about before. Like the caffeine in coffee, the chords on a guitar, or the wet in water, genuine curiosity is not a thing, it’s the thing.

Not temporarily wanting to know, or being vaguely interested in an answer, but being able to put together past experience and knowledge like the millions of fibers on a network–only to be maddeningly stopped from branching further without understanding or knowing this one bit.

Like stopping an incredible movie right at the climax—that awful, crazy feeling inside would be unfulfilled curiosity—and it’d just kill you not to know. But where does it come from?

And can you consistently cause it in a learner?

If formal learning environments driven by outcomes-based systems have taught us nothing else, it’s that while we often can “cause” something to happen in learner, it is only by considerable effort, resources, and angst.


But we certainly can create ideal conditions where natural curiosity can begin to grow. What we do when it happens—and disrupts our planned lessons and tidy little units—is another story altogether.

5 Things That Make Students Curious

1. Revisit Old Questions

The simplest curiosities arise from old questions that were never fully answered, or that no attempt to answer was made.

Of course, any question worth its salt is never ‘fully answered’ any more than a good conversation is ever finished, but as we learn and reflect and grow, old answers can look positively awkward, as they are bound by old knowledge.

Strategy to actuate: Revisit old questions—through a journal prompt, Socrative discussion, QFT (Question Formulation Technique), or even a fishbowl discussion. And also revisit the thinking from the first go-round to see what has changed.

2. Model & Promote Ambition

Ambition precedes curiosity. Without wanting to advance in position, thinking, or design, curiosity is simply a biological and neurological reaction to stimulus. But ambition is what makes us human, and its fraternal twin is curiosity.

Strategy to actuate: Well thought-out mentoring, peer-to-peer modeling, Project-Based Learning and a genuine ‘need to know.’

3. Play

A learner at play is a signal that there is a comfortable mind focused on a fully-internalized goal.

It may or may not be the same goal as those given externally, but play is hypnotic and more efficient than the most well-planned instructional sequence. A learner playing and learning through play, nearly by definition, is curious about something, or otherwise they’re simply manipulating bits and pieces mindlessly.

Strategy to actuate: Game-Based Learning and learning games and simulations like Armadillo Run, Civilization VI, Bridge Constructor, and Age of Empires all empower the learner to play. Same with Challenge-Based learning and other forms of learning.

4. The Right Collaboration At The Right Time

Seeing what is possible modeled by peers is powerful stuff for learners. Some may not be initially curious about content, but seeing what peers accomplish can be a powerful actuator for curiosity. How did they do this? How might I do what they did in my own way? Which of these ideas I’m seeing are valuable to me—right here, right now–and which are not?

Strategy to actuate: Grouping is not necessarily collaboration. To actuate collaboration, and thus curiosity, students must have a genuine need for another resource, idea, perspective, or something else otherwise not immediately available to them. Cause them to need something, not simply to finish an assignment, but to achieve the goal they set for themselves.

5. Use Diverse & Unpredictable Content

Diverse content is likely the most accessible pathway to at least a modicum of curiosity from learners. New projects, new games, new novels, new poets, new things to think about.

Strategy to actuate: Invite the learners to understand the need for a resource or bit of content and have them source it. Instant diversity class-wide, and likely divergence from where you were going with it all. At worst you’ve got engaged learners, and a real shot at curiosity.

5 Learning Strategies That Make Students Curious

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