Many adults are put off when youngsters pose scientific questions. Children ask why the sun is yellow, or what a dream is, or how deep you can dig a hole, or when is the world’s birthday, or why we have toes. Too many teachers and parents answer with irritation or ridicule, or quickly move on to something else. Why adults should pretend to omniscience before a five-year-old, I can’t for the life of me understand. What’s wrong with admitting that you don’t know? Children soon recognize that somehow this kind of question annoys many adults. A few more experiences like this, and another child has been lost to science.
There are many better responses. If we have an idea of the answer, we could try to explain. If we don’t, we could go to the encyclopedia or the library. Or we might say to the child: “I don’t know the answer. Maybe no one knows. Maybe when you grow up, you’ll be the first to find out.”
Nurturing Opportunities For Curious Minds
Today’s Solar Eclipse, the moon passing between the sun and the earth, was an opportunity for children to discover something rare by experience. I hardly gave it thought until our spontaneous morning turned science on us, leading to many curious questions from Mr Four along with some random experiments.
Grabbing my camera I attempted a few quick photos without any prior planning, preparation or knowledge of how to do it. Meanwhile Mr Four excitedly picked up two balls he found outside trying to work out what was happening from the little I had explained to him on the go.
Unfortunately without viewing glasses we just observed the photos straight on the camera itself. I explained it’s hard to capture because we don’t have a special filter to view safely through. Inspired, we scrambled around finding many materials like coloured cellophane, foil and paper to use as experimental lens filters. In the limited time we had, Mr Four enjoyed finding the materials to try out and creating various effects, before it was all over.
Sometimes lack of knowledge or preparation can make for more creative explorations because we were testing and working it out together. We discovered the thick clouds formed our best filter to see the eclipse clearly.
Following some endless questions - “Is the sun bigger than the moon”? “How fast does it go”? “Why does everything look funny outside”? “Is it dangerous”? “Where does the moon go”?…. We took the opportunity to do some research online together to find some fun answers that I could benefit from too.
These, in hindsight are often the most exciting opportunities to feed kids curiousity. Sharing the discovery together, not having all the answers and creatively experimenting on the go. It’s always the hands-on real-time experiences that get the imagination and questions flowing while building strong memories with little effort.
The Balloon And The Vacuum
While vacuuming Mr-Four was playing with his balloon. What was a simple morning switched into excitement of discovery… I turned around to find him wide eyed looking up at his balloon which wasn’t coming back down. It had been caught in the updraft of the vertical vacuum exhaust and continued to dance around up in air. What followed was just a few mintutes of disbelief and giggles watching as the balloon stayed afloat until Miss-One came along and put her head over the nice warm air which caused the balloon to drop down, overheat and pop!
A random, spontaneous and enjoyable science encounter during play - a fun experience that is always followed by many curious questions. Moments like these always appear when we least expect them.
At least we’ve both just discovered something to make vacuuming more fun.
Movement By Music
Free time to play. I love the little reminder of how important it is for children when things like this occur and I actually happen to notice.
When the music was suddenly turned up at our place I couldn’t help but notice. I observed my six year old son sitting very close to a speaker playing with his Lego. He had obviously felt some vibration from the speaker so turned up the volume and felt it with his hand. Moments later he was in full exploration mode, (shooting me that ‘hope you don’t mind’ look) while tipping the speaker over to put some nearby objects onto it. Excited to see some movement, he added a feather found on the floor and gradually broke up his Lego into smaller pieces.
Nothing needed to be said… he had discovered sound waves on his own while experimenting with the effects of object size/weight and volume.
Pattern’s Of Play
Pattern’s of play emerge when children develop an interest - motivating them to continue their own exploration and discovery. Recently, it’s been fascinating for me to observe a burst of play interest in circular repetitive motion.
Young children will naturally seek out familiar maths and science concept’s such as symmetry at play, but they may also discover geometry, pattern, balance, harmony, space, repetition, motion, order, shape, position, size, proportion, number, sequence, visual perception, spatial orientation, coordination… and more. My kid’s may not yet grasp some of the complex concepts but they are inherently drawn to explore many of them during their creative play.
Full Immersion - Play With Materials
Place a glossy bright plastic toy and a pile of wood in front of a young child and I’m sure they will initially choose to play with the colourful toy. But typically not for long…
My son received a box of kindling for his sixth birthday, by special request. He wouldn’t even know what most people buy it for, neither would he have cared. As long as he had plenty of nails, a kid sized hammer, a ‘work’ room, he was the happiest birthday kid ever, just to have material to build with. He could almost even carry the box on his own - I think the substantial weight of his gift made it feel so much more impressive too.
Materials Inspire And Challenge Creative Thinking
We live in a world with materials all around us, they are the substance of everything we see and touch. As humans we have a unique ability to make things out of materials, an ability to design, an inherent drive to take materials and make something out of them.
Inspiration - the ability to stimulate creative thinking has many sources. One of which is the inherent nature of materials. Observe a child playing with ordinary materials which are new and unknown to them - they challenge what it can be used for, what they can do with it, sparking innovative ideas through play.
Exploring The Attributes Of Materials
I try not to waste my time buying many toys because they never hold their interest for long. But provide the kids with plenty of random materials or other media and substances and they will play fully immersed for hours … play-dough, clay, sand, water, paint, feathers, blocks, mud, rice, fabrics, marbles, charcoal, pastels, chalk. Anything that lets them be the creator and gives them freedom to choose and decide.
Experiencing texture, noise, weight, density of different materials and how they combine, pour, blend, mix, stack are exciting opportunities for open ended play. Setting up a canvas with paint brush and paint can already be too prescriptive, but paint poured in a large tray with no brushes may encourage further exploration.
Think: new ways to play with ordinary materials, media and substances, elements, components and ingredients = an immersive creative exploration experience.
Experimenting with substances changing from fine powder to gluggy mixtures which can further develop into dry set solids. Combining elements such as glue and paper to form paper mache paste. Observing ingredient transformation from liquid state to dry baked cupcake state. Rough prototyping, constructing and modeling develops naturally when children are provided with a new unfamiliar material and no instructions.
I’ve always been fascinated by materials science and have many design books on materials but I still have plenty left to discover myself too. As a designer I’m also naturally a hoarder (there’s always another use for something, or this is too cool to throw away) with plenty of random offcuts and cool stuff like electroluminescent panels or honey-comb structured non-woven fabrics floating around.
I recently found my box of fabric and leather samples that were once referred to for designing a jet interior but have since been fashioned into hammock slings for mini action figures, flags, catapults, tiny houses, secret spy wrist bands and the like. I often hesitate before throwing something away. A burst backrest pillow containing many thousands of tiny polystyrene balls, (much to my hesitation) was thrilling for the kids to play with. After creating match-box-car crash pits during their play they also discovered static electricity when they couldn’t brush it off. I know they will always encounter these learning discoveries during play, so it’s always worth the huge mess factor.
Some old rice flour was apparently just like ‘snow’ when my three year old found some spilled outside and stated “yes! winter has arrived!” even though we never get snow here, it was as good as snow to him so he claimed the entire bag full of flour to play with. He made some fascinating discoveries - one of which was creating perfect ‘stamp prints of his toy animals much better than sand does because of its very fine powder form compressing into picture perfect molds. He loved the clapping action to generate a fine mist of flour that floated away.
Paint is so tactile, thick and creamy to apply, but I think mixing the paints in their pots is sometimes more fun then the act of painting itself. Creating swirling rainbows of colours - transformation as they blend.
We have a magnetic construction toy which contains many marble sized ball-bearings. Apart from the fun of making and exploring connections with magnets, my boys are still fascinated with the way reflections move across every surface in unison when the sphere’s are grouped together, the sound, the feeling of the cold metal against the skin and when it warms to your body temperature you can’t let it go - it becomes a part of you.
There are many innovative materials being created and combined with new technology for various applications all the time - Ceramic Cloth, Translucent Concrete, Stone Paper or Electronic Paper to name just a few. Designer’s are often developing these materials, or are utilising them in a new innovative product. Designer’s also rely on new materials as a source of inspiration.
It’s been science week for my six old, so we’ve tried out a few simple experiments at home. The first stop is always a bottle of vinegar and some baking soda. I walked away but observed quietly, waiting for his expression as he generously poured them together into a bowl. He was astounded at the resulting reaction, surprised, worried and panicked with excitement as it overflowed onto the bench. We then moved onto cornflour and water and I left him for a good half hour, while hearing his excited announcements of his discoveries with the way the liquid/solid behaved as he played with the non Newtonian fluid.
Learning first hand through play how materials and substances can change their state or create reactions when combined is both exciting and memorable. Discovery always leads to more explorative how, why and what if questions.
Play To Learn
Materials surround us, everything is made of something - natural, processed, or manufactured. Providing children with opportunities to play and experiment with raw unedited materials and substances allows them to think creatively and develop their own idea’s of what they can do with it, what is can be used for, what it can become or transform to, how it behaves when we interact with it or when elements combine.
Children are often motivated deeply during their enjoyable fully immersed play experience, which means they are also more likely to remember. Fun open exploration creates a very efficient way of learning and storing away knowledge. They don’t need to know every detailed fact about non Newtonian fluids right now, but they have gained new information through their own experience that will help build new connections in the future.
It’s great to know my children now think flour is not just for baking with. They have discovered what else it can be used for by exploring with their creative ‘child’s mind.’ We just sometimes need to remind ourselves that there are no set rules or answers about what materials are for - they are just waiting to be played with in new ways.