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Intentional Play To Encourage STEM Learning

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Part 1

Sometime in the 20th century, the term “play” began to take on a negative connotation. According to Dr. Peter Gray (2014), over the past “fifty to sixty years,” there has been a “continuous erosion in children’s freedom and opportunity to play – to really play – to play freely.” Furthermore, Gray attributes the decline in play to a “schoolish view of child development” which believes “children learn everything best from adults, that children’s all self-directed activities with other children are wastes of time.” Jessica Hoffman and Sandra Russ (2016) echo the sentiments of Dr. Gray in a 2016 study published in Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts. Hoffman and Russ state that “in recent decades, Western cultures’ emphasis on academic drilling and high-stakes testing has left less time for child-directed activities and cooperative play opportunities.” Cho, Pemberton, and Ray (2017) emphasize that this issue has been brewing for quite some time. They point to a journal article published in 1959 by Paul Torrance where he states “we have seen many indications in our testing of first and second-grade children that many...seem to have been subjected to concerted efforts to eliminate fantasy from their thinking...”

The benefits of play for children cannot be understated. Ginsburg (2007) states that “play is essential to development because it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and youth.” Furthermore, Ginsburg asserts that “play helps children develop new competencies that lead to enhanced confidence and the resiliency they will need to face future challenges.” Fortunately, educational trends show a renewed focus on “play” inside of the school walls. For instance, the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) lists learning standards for “Approaches to Learning and Play” for students in grade K-2. Furthermore, a 2015 report published by the United States Department of Education entitled “STEM 2026: A Vision for Innovation in STEM Education” states “STEM 2026 emphasizes the benefits of inviting intentional play into the learning process in P–12 and at the postsecondary level” and that “activities that are designed to incorporate intentional play are applicable at all levels of the education continuum.”

STEM, a multidisciplinary educational movement that combines elements of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, has been central to the resurgence of intentional play in the school system. According to Reighard, Torres-Crespo, and Vogel (2016), “STEM is not a set of activities; it is a mindset of teaching and learning” that focuses on concepts such as “collaboration, curiosity, exploration, creativity, and critical thinking.” Other adjectives frequently used to describe STEM-based activities include; design, tinker, create, build, and explore. According to the United States Department of Education’s STEM 2026 report (2015), “in reflecting on what STEM education should encourage, contributors to this project described a process of wonder and discovery; playful, hands-on investigation; learning from failure; and an enterprise that allows youth to marry their convictions and enthusiasms with opportunities to grow.”

While playful investigation is present in most STEM-related events, the method, and scope, of the activities can vary by grade levels. For instance, Reighard, Torres-Crespo, and Vogel (2016) contend that children as young as four can begin exploring STEM principles because “of their growing interest in everything, including science and exploration.” As an example, they point towards the STEM Curiosity Academy, a summer STEM Camp held in July 2013 for preschoolers, where camp attendees were provided with open-ended engineering challenges that were solved using low-tech materials such as wooden building blocks. The authors state that the participating children “dress up” like scientists by wearing a hardhat, goggles, and lab coat while completing engineering challenges to maintain the fun and playful nature of the activity. As students advance through the school system, activities often become more complex and may include a blend of both low tech and high tech items. Regardless of the grade level, however, it is important to note that all STEM-based activities strive to create an open-ended, challenge-based environment where students are able to tinker, design, create, and play.

In addition to the social-emotional well-being of our students, there are many other benefits to the incorporation of STEM-based activities. According to Levin-Goldberg (2012), “the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (2011) identifies 21st-century skills as critical thinking and problem solving, communication, collaboration, and creativity and innovation- more commonly known as the 4Cs.” Furthermore, she states that “a survey conducted by The Conference Board, Corporate Voices for Working Families, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, and the Society for Human Resource Management (2006) found 400 + employers indicated that over half of recent graduates were deficient in oral and written communications, professionalism/work ethic, and critical thinking/problem solving.” Through the completion of STEM-related, activities, the presence of these 21st-century skills is a necessity. The STEM 2026 (2015) report reiterates this statement in its contention that “the process of learning and practicing the STEM disciplines can instill in students a passion for inquiry and discovery and fosters skills such as persistence, teamwork, and the application of gained knowledge to new situations.”

Additionally, STEM-based learning also appears to increase intrinsic motivation in students. In his 2009 Ted Talk entitled “The Puzzle of Motivation,” Daniel Pink states “for 21st century tasks, that mechanistic, reward-and-punishment approach doesn't work, often doesn't work, and often does harm.” As previously mentioned, STEM educational principles are based around student choice and intentional open play. As a result, students appear to become intrinsically motivated because the rigid structure has been removed. Henriksen (2014) contends that “some key findings of this study indicated that arts-based teaching leads to more motivated, engaged, and effective disciplinary learning in STEM areas.” Ugras’s (2018) study of twenty five seventh grade students participating in a eight week STEM program yielded similar results. According to Ugras, “the motivation beliefs of the students who participated in the program improved and their motivation resistance was higher when compared to other students.” During the study, students were asked to respond to the question “What do you think about STEM education?', and the answers told provided an insightful look at the benefits of STEM-based learning. For example, one student stated that “I was motivated by the fact that I was directly involved in the implementation process and did new things. The course was so attractive that I was never detached from the instruction.”

Part 2

As the Instructional Technology Coach for Whitehall-Coplay School District, I have been at the forefront of the district’s initiative to increase STEM opportunities for students in all grades. Our efforts have led to a revised curriculum in grades K-12. Curricular work started by adding a computer science unit, using the online tool, to all computer classes in grades K-8. Additionally, middle school computer teachers have reworked their curriculum to include STEM-based principles that encourage student creativity. Furthermore, the high school STEM curriculum was enhanced with the addition of four new computer science courses and a revamped Tech Ed curriculum that now includes robotics.

While the district has made significant strides in STEM education for all students, the administration recognizes that enhancements need to made in the introduction of STEM principles to our youngest students in kindergarten and first grade. As was shown in the research of Reighard, Torres-Crespo, and Vogel, children as young as four years old can benefit from STEM learning. In response, the district has approved a new “special subject” course for all students in kindergarten and first grade entitled “Discovery.” The new course will engage students in both online and offline activities that are based on STEM principles. In the spring of 2019, I will be tasked with writing the curriculum for this new offering.

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Although many physical STEM items will be purchased for our implementation plan, my sample lesson will be driven by KEVA Planks. KEVA Planks are “1/4 inch thick, 3/4 inch wide and 4 1/2 inches long” piece of wood that are used by students to “build structures” with “no glue, no connectors. (What are Keva, n.d.)” Van Meeteren and Zan (2010) in their journal article entitled “Revealing the work of young engineers in early childhood education,” reveal the benefits of using building blocks, similar to KEVA Planks, to reinforce STEM principles to young students. According to Van Meeteren and Zan, research has shown that “children’s work of building structures can be identified as precursors to engineering thinking.” Furthermore, it is stated that “while some observers view child­ initiated design and creation as frivolous play, we view this play as children’s work” which forces children to grapple with “thoughts concerning stability, balance, properties of materials, as well as number and spatial reasoning—all content within the domains of science and mathematics.”

In week three of the Kindergarten Discovery Course, students will be introduced to KEVA Planks. Before the lesson, however, the Discovery teacher will reinforce the principles of the four C’s discussed and demonstrated during weeks one and two of the course. Furthermore, the teacher will also reinforce the benefits of experimentation through “play.”

To open the lesson, students will be provided with a brief introduction to KEVA Planks through a Google Slides presentation that displays examples of structures built using KEVA Planks. Students will then be placed in groups of two and equipped with fifty KEVA Planks and given twenty minutes to build a creation of their choice. Throughout the twenty minute timeframes, the teacher will provide very little guidance in the process, which is recommended in the work of Van Meeteren and Zan (2010). According to their research, “the Committee on K­12 Education argues that an emphasis on the iterative, open­ ended, problem ­solving method known as engineering design is the central activity of engineers and should be the first principle of engineering education” and that teachers should not explicitly attempt to teach engineering concepts. Essentially, students will learn these concepts through play.

At the end of twenty minutes, each group will be asked to describe their creation to other members of the class. In conclusion, the teacher will reinforce successes observed throughout the class period based. All discussed “successes” will be related to the principles set by the Four Cs.

Week four of the KEVA engineering lesson will incorporate technology resources and the use of online learning games provided by PBS Learning Media. According to Nedungadi, Raman, and McGregor (2013), computer simulations are beneficial to student learning. In a 2013 published report, they state that “science learning is a complex process and simulations built with supporting learning material have the potential to advance multiple science learning goals, including motivation to learn Science, conceptual skills, procedural skills, experimental skills and reporting skills.”

After gathering their Chromebook from classroom cart, student will be directed to the learning game entitled “Animal Home Builder.” Through the use of this online program, students will be introduced to the basic elements of designing and engineering a house. The knowledge acquired through the online program will help prepare students for their week five “offline” lesson. Students that finish early will be guided towards the “Sandcastle” game on PBS Learning Media where the user constructs sandcastle creations through open-ended play.

During week five of the Kindergarten Discovery Course, the teacher will move into part three of the KEVA Plank lesson, which will provide the students with a guided challenge. At the opening of class, the teacher will once again introduce the basic functionality of KEVA Planks while reflecting on the successes observed during the previous class period. Students will, once again, be grouped with one other student and provided with fifty KEVA Planks. The teacher will then challenge each group to build a house with the provided materials. Each house must have four walls and a roof. The teacher will reinforce that the created structures will vary from group to group. In fact, students will be encouraged to be as creative as possible. Similar to the previous week, students will be not be provided with any other direction and all structures will be designed through experimentation and play. At the conclusion of the activity, each group will be asked to answer the question “What did you learn or discover as you built?”.

The designed KEVA Plank lesson reinforces the Pennsylvania Department of Education kindergarten learning standards for “Approaches to Learning Through Play.” Pennsylvania’s (n.d.) play-based standard AL.3.K.B1 tasks student to “create an object to serve a functional purpose.” Both part one and part three of the described lesson meet this standard. Furthermore, PDE provides examples of the standard “in practice” to provide an accurate representation of how the standard should be implemented in the classroom. In the documentation, it is recommended that the learner “explore different ways to use everyday objects” and “answer questions to explain the purpose of a creation.” Furthermore, it is recommended that teachers “provide opportunities to engage in creative activities” and “provide opportunities to present and describe creations (“Standards in Practice, n.d.).”

Through the implementation of the KEVA Plank lesson, along with other similar lessons throughout the course, Whitehall-Coplay School District strives to introduce STEM topics and principles during the inception of the formal education process. According to the STEM portion of the Pennsylvania Department of Education website, “businesses are growing in Pennsylvania, and they want skilled and well-educated workers who are prepared for the 21st century economy. Students need to be equipped with the knowledge and skills to enter the workforce and be successful in a tech-driven, global economy (“STEM,” n.d.).” While the students in our K-1 Discovery course may see many of the activities in the course as “play,” in truth, the curriculum and lesson provided by the Whitehall-Coplay School District and intentional and strive to fill the future workplace needs demanded by the leaders of the Pennsylvania government.


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Intentional Play To Encourage STEM Learning. (2022, February 21). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 10, 2023, from
“Intentional Play To Encourage STEM Learning.” Edubirdie, 21 Feb. 2022,
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