Play-based learning can take a key role in the teaching of science and can encourage scientific enquiry skills, says Robert Sinclair

Letting children play as part of their mental and physical development has, until recently, always been taken for granted, but in today’s society it seems to be becoming more and more restricted. A combination of parental anxiety mixed with excessive legislative demands placed on teachers has forced some schools to move away from play-based activities and turn towards a more formal (and some would say, in terms of science teaching, more boring) approach to teaching. Constant demands for assessment, planning and evaluation overshadow the benefits that can be gained through play-based learning.

Some teachers advocate a total rethink of the National Curriculum, with its focus on knowledge, and champion the importance of learning skills. Skills such as analysis, problem-solving, research etc are all essential to learning. Admittedly, prescription has gone mad and the curriculum has been subject to the whim of different ministers. But would a school day entirely devoted to the learning of skills and not knowledge be better or worse than the system we have now? 

What would happen in subjects like mathematics where it has to be taught through the acquisition of knowledge, building block by building block? What would happen in science, where the acquisition of essential ‘knowledge’ is just as important as the development of scientific enquiry skills?

Surely, the answer is to teach both knowledge and skills, and do this in as ‘natural’ a way as possible? For learning to be as natural as possible, we have to take different learning styles into account. While some children will learn well sat in a classroom, effectively learning by knowledge-based instructions, others need to have more of a ‘hands-on’ experience in either a real-life setting or in a simulation of some kind. There are also sociological elements that impact on learning styles. How a child interacts with others is fundamentally important to their success as a learner.

Taking all this in account, it is clear that one way to combine the acquisition of skills and knowledge is through the effective use of play-based learning. Recognising play as a valuable learning tool within a school environment has many advantages. Without even realising it, children can develop their imagination, extend their creativity and gain valuable communication skills. Learning new skills and knowledge through play is one of the most powerful ways for a child to gain and retain knowledge.

Science through play in the early years
Although play-based learning has a role throughout a child’s education, the key phase in which this type of learning can make a difference is early years and foundation. The new Early Years and Foundation Stage (EYFS) Framework, compulsory from September 2008, has been widely criticised for its formalisation of learning in the early years. However, the Children’s minister Beverley Hughes has recently said: ‘We are not against young children learning through play.’

The realities of the new EYFS Framework are discussed elsewhere in this magazine, so we will not go into them here – however, surely no one could disagree with the clear benefits that learning through play can have. Indoor or outdoor play, and even computer games, can all have a place in a child’s early development. Toddlers through to the end of Key Stage 2 are amazingly knowledgeable when it comes to technology. Many classrooms have multiple computers and 21st century education has taken on a new meaning. The way we educate children has changed, and we start that education much earlier. Allowing the children time to ‘play’ with science-based games is an excellent way to encourage learning. The children will have fun and absorb some science at the same time.

Natural and enjoyable play
However, education does not have to be hi-tech to be effective. Education should be a natural and enjoyable part of life – like playing should be part of every child’s life. Creativity and imagination are as important as factual knowledge. Teaching children to ‘think outside the box’ is a far better than expecting them to learn by rote or memory.

Playdough is one of the best education tools I’ve come across. Playdough can be very effectively used to encourage science concepts. For example, an empty playdough container can be used to demonstrate sound. Show your pupils how to hold an empty playdough container up to their nose and mouth and talk into it. Ask them what difference this makes to their voices (sound) – what do they think is happening? Another great science activity is to stand a playdough container top on its edge. Spin it and see how long it will turn. The children can ‘compete’ with each other to see who can spin the container for the longest time. This begins to bring in the key scientific skills of experimentation, analysis and recording of results.

Real-world science
There are lots of opportunities for children to see science concepts first hand when playing. Pupils can run around like atoms, jump up and down to demonstrate gravity, spin while walking in circles around a single child (representing the sun) pretending to be planets in orbit, race balloon cars to experiment with speed over different distances, make mud pies, drop balls into water to see displacement at work….the list really is endless when it comes to science. The senses can be explored through games, as can be parts of the body.

Science can also benefit from play-based activities in the different seasons:

  • When throwing leaves in the air in autumn, children can be outdoor explorers, hunt for insects and start to appreciate the wealth of species we have on our planet. Links between science and nature can be perfectly demonstrated by playing outside during the autumn.
  • In the winter months, children can wrap up warm and go outside to ‘play’ in the snow (if there is any) and then look at how snow is formed. Ask the children to build something using snow (on the rare occasions it snows in the UK) or sticks. Ask them to make a specific shape or how a given weight. Then ask them what they could change to make their creation better? Similarly, during the winter, children can experiment with temperature and friction. Ask the pupils if things that are wet/frozen/rough slide better than things that are dry/melted/smooth?
  • During the spring months, children can plant seeds and monitor growth. Once plants are growing, ask them to transplant some; what size containers are needed? What do all plants need to stay healthy? What sort of soil works best.

Scientific enquiry skills
As well as making direct links with scientific concepts, play-based learning can easily support the development of a range of scientific enquiry skills. The application of logic plays a part in most childhood games, assessing a situation, making a decision and then acting upon that decision are all essential skills for a successful scientist. Similarly, the role of problem solving during play cannot be understated as an opportunity to develop science skills.

Using toys to teach scientific concepts is a fun and engaging way for pupils to learn. You do not need to buy expensive ‘scientific’ toys or kits – even the simplest toy can turn science into reality for young minds:

  • Magic floating discs – magnetism: you can use three magnetic discs with a hole in the middle, with north on one side and south on the other. Magnets are easily available – and cheap. If the discs are placed one on top of the other on a vertical stick so that like poles are stacked next to each other, the discs will bounce up and down as the forces of gravity and magnetic repulsion come to a final compromise of the discs ‘magically’ floating in mid-air.
  • Magic moving car: you can introduce a toy car that the discs can slot into sideways. Using another magnet, the pupils are challenged to apply their understanding of magnets to make the toy car move without touching it, using either attraction or repulsion.
  • Toy soldiers – air resistance: using toy soldiers with parachutes attached, keep one soldier with the parachute unopened, and the other with it opened. Drop them both from the same height at the same time and get the pupils to predict which will get to the ground first.
  • Wiggly wire game – electricity: this can be used to explore complete and incomplete circuits. Use the wiggly wire game (available from many high street shops that offer toys) to challenge pupils to get the metal wand around the metal wiggly circuit without the buzzer sounding. Then ask them to explain how the game works.

Teaching through play is not a new concept and many teachers (particularly during the early years and Foundation Stages) are already achieving fantastic results by allowing their pupils the time and opportunity to play. Education should be fun… and it has to be fun if we are to inspire a lifelong love of learning.