Thursday, November 1, 2012

Science in Play

“I think that’s as high as you can build,” 4 year-old Leo politely cautioned Rachel, the Visitor Experience Educator building a tower with small blocks next to his own construction. A moment later, Leo’s tower fell. Soon after, Rachel’s tower fell. Looking from one pile of blocks to the other, Leo said, “My tower crashed and made the table wiggle. Like a earthquake.” Leo continued building and said, “I just built something new, but I took it down because I knew it wasn’t stable.” 

Sitting on the building platform surrounded by blocks, Leo was just one of many children in Science in Play that I listened to and observed on a recent visit at the Kentucky Science Center (KSC) in Louisville. Two-and-a-half year old Eli was intent on connecting the energy coaster tracks. With repeated tries, he fit the pegs into the holes and connected 4 or 5 sections of track. Throughout the morning he returned to the tracks now focusing on the loop-the-loop. Picking up the orange ball, he pushed it against the inside of the loop, first at the top, then the side, and near the bottom. Each time he let it go, it dropped; he watched it roll away and stop. On one attempt, the ball landed in the track below and began to roll along the track he had constructed. After this, Eli picked up the ball and released it at the same place and watched it roll. He rolled the ball again and again (and again). Eli jumped up and shouted, “I did it!” 

 In the Shapes & Stuff Store, three-year old Sonya created an elaborate sequence of selecting shapes–cylinders, spheres, stars, and ovals from the bins. She placed them in her shopping cart, sorted them into fabric boxes, and removed them from the boxes to the shopping cart. Every gesture of selecting and stocking shapes and each footstep was accompanied by and in sync with Sonya’s softly singing, “Shopping, shopping, shopping, shopping; shopping, shopping, shopping.”  

These episodes illustrate the kind of motivation, inquiry, problem solving, theory and persistence we want to see in science learners. In Science in Play they are present and alive in the hands of young children. Levi has a theory that wiggles–vibrations–contribute to the tumbling blocks and that stability matters in a structure. Eli shows persistence in connecting the track sections. He tests his assumptions about the conditions for getting the ball to roll through the loop. Sonya is putting herself through the paces with one-to-one correspondence.

Parents and grandparents are as engaged as the children in Science in Play. One mom asks questions, “Do you have more butterflies than moons?” A father points out a feature his child hadn’t noticed: “Both pegs need to fit in here.” Parents and grandparents watch with interest and sometimes give a hand just before frustration sets in. A mother holds the baby and reads aloud while a big sister shops for shapes.

At Play With Science
Science in Play is a spot-on title for KSC’s new early childhood space. It engages children 8 years and under–particularly children 3 - 7 years–at play with science across two spaces totaling 5,800 square feet on the Science Center’s first floor. Rich in loose parts, sensory experiences, and open-ended materials that invite further exploration, the exhibit engages children in building, testing, imagining, problem solving and engineering as they play. The exhibit is a test bed for a comprehensive upgrade of the science center’s first floor as an expanded early childhood center. Activities are clustered into six zones. 
• The Sensory Course: A walk-through Noodle Forest; colored shadows and OptiMusic
• Testing Area: Build-your-own Coaster and A-Mazing Airways
• Big Build: Imagination Playground blocks
• Small Build: Table top building with Kapla blocks/Kiva Planks and Magnet Sculpture Wall
• Shapes & Stuff Store: Bins and shelves full of shapes
• Science Depot: A science workshop with changing projects and investigations

Science in Play takes a straightforward approach to presenting experiences where science and play easily lean into and merge with one another. The exhibit planners, Hands On! (St. Petersburg, FL) stuck to their brief and got out of the way as did KSC to give children an opportunity to do what they do well and naturally when they have the space, time, and materials to explore. They play, using their senses to figure out the universe around them.

The Science in Play brief, which I was fortunate enough to contribute to as member of the Hands On! team, kept its sights on a set of core ideas:
• The child as capable, competent, and enthusiastic science learner
• The potential of play to release the science
• Science connected to everyday experiences
• Adults interested the activities and engaged with children

Design of the space tackles converting a roomy traveling exhibit gallery into an early childhood zone. Following the brief and respecting a modest budget, a simple design solution unifies the spaces and confers a freedom to explore. Washed with colored light, the large white walls of the space glow. The Noodle Forest, A-Mazing Airways, Colored-Shadows, and Magnet Sculpture Wall become visual anchors. The full list of components didn’t make it into the exhibit so one corner of the space, in particular, feels empty during slow times. Combining custom-designed and off-the-shelf experiences is a smart strategy for a temporary installation. OptiMusic is novel while products such as KAPLA blocks in great abundance are attractive, and full of possibilities. Seating is varied, distributed, and used throughout both spaces.

Interpretive signage is geared to alerting adults to where a child’s play and science meet. A single message, Add a spirit of inquiry and children’s play becomes science play, is explored using familiar activities and highlighting the science of sound, energy, building, and shadows. Text is minimal. From the entry banner to the text panels, graphic design picks up the glow of the light-washed walls and colored shadows. Apparently, the graphics are effective. The free-standing text panels caught the attention of one mother who photographed it.

An Experiment
Installed in May 2012 for seven months, Science in Play is a bridge between KSC’s past work with young children and an anticipated expansion into a regional role in early childhood. In the mid-80’s, the Science Center opened KidZone, an early childhood space. Since then, it has offered special programs and classes for preschoolers, early childhood friendly traveling exhibitions, teacher training, and parent programs. With support from PNC for early childhood work and consideration of an aging KidZone, KSC decided to explore a greater commitment to early childhood. Science in Play has become a key piece in a strategic experiment to test that opportunity: explore the feasibility of a comprehensive upgrade of the first floor, connect with and serve new audiences, and prototype aspects of an early childhood center.

KSC has framed a set of questions it hopes to answer during the run of Science in Play. Some questions focus on market, others explore mission-based interests in early science learning such as: how to encourage parents to see their child as scientists; how to serve the full age range well; and how to make the experience engaging for parents. Still other questions will be answered through a research partnership with the University of Louisville College of Education.

Play On
The Science Center’s approach to Science in Play shows its confidence and courage in trusting children and their curiosity; understanding the potential of play; and believing in the pull of the science-filled world. Play on!


  1. I'd love to see the Imagination Playground blocks in real life. Do you know if there are any in use in the Upper Midwest?

    1. Hi Peter. Imagination Playground blocks are at Minnesota Children's Museum ( and also at the Children's Museum of Southern Minnesota in