Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Why is exploratory play educational?

I ended the summer by going to see the Smithsonian Museum of American History's exhibit Inventions at Play with my friend Marla. This was my second time visiting this fun, on-going exhibit - and it is chock full of wisdom and ideas about how to educate children.

The exhibit asks what inspires people to become inventors? Across the board, these creative geniuses noted their creative play when they were young. They learned to invent through hands-on exploring, daring, making messes, testing cause and effect, trying and failing and trying again. Their childhoods were filled with a variety of rich innovative experiences. Many recalled time outside in nature; others mentioned classic toys like Legos and Erector Sets; all noted the value of open-ended, exploratory play.

Consider these terrific quotes:

"You can discover more about a person in an hour of play, than in a year of conversation." - Plato

"I don't draw a line between play and work." - Newman Darby, sailboard inventor.

"Always listen to children. They might have ideas we've never thought of." - Alexander Graham Bell

Inventions at Play excites me about my own teaching - children need exploratory experiences and I love trying to provide them!

As noted in the exhibit:

This ability to see non-obvious connections and relationships often leads inventors to the key insight that is the basis for their inventions.

Isn't it important for children to discover what we do not already know? We have to find a way to make some part of children's learning not about specific answers and data, but instead provide them time and materials to explore non-obvious connections. I think children should have plenty of time engaging in play that has no specific answers, but that allows children to develop skills that are more intangible - such as curiosity, perseverance, extrapolation, reflection, rethinking, scaffolding, and, even, teamwork.

Child-development specialists see a strong connection between children's level of pretend play and their ability to think creatively.

The exhibit included several hands-on "play" activities for all ages, including one called "Marbles and Motion." Here, a table is raised at one end, so that the surface is slanted. There are a variety of kitchen utensils (classic "toys" from the housekeeping corner of any preschool class) that you use to set up an obstacle course that will help guide the marble to its corner goal. If at first you don't succeed, rearrange the items, position them differently, eliminate some, add until it works. Folks of all ages were participating in this open-ended activity, laughing and talking together - it's not just for preschoolers, though we teachers can recreate it in a moment! (See my attempt in the photo!) This play example illustrates how simple it can be to set up an educational exploratory activity for children.

Lastly, I found myself thinking about how we often tamp down on the more creative spirits in our classrooms - trying to get them to be the same as the others. Consider this quote from James McLurkin, robotics inventor: "I was always getting into things. I hoarded broken bits, made messes, build things, burnt up bathrooms."

I'll close with something for you to think about...
Is there a James McLurkin in your class this year? How will you channel his genius?


  1. Love this. I always loved the experiences you provided your kids and your interest in watching them make those connections.

  2. Thanks. I think one of the most exciting aspects of being a preschool teacher is watching children think. They are uninhibited at this age, with no preconceived notions of what can or cannot work. It is exciting to set the stage for them and watch them take off!

  3. Thanks for posting this Maureen. It's so exciting to see the Smithsonian creating exhibits that support powerful and meaningful! It's nice to have a powerful institution on our side. And you too!
    PS Thanks for posting all those quotes, they really are provocations to jump on in.