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Kentucky Science Center's Focus On Play Reflects Early Childhood Research

At the Science Center, they take play seriously.
Laney Johnson
At the Science Center, they take play seriously.

Walking into the Kentucky Science Center as an adult can feel a little disorienting. Perhaps, it’s because the space is so different than the science museums many of us grew up visiting.

Everywhere you look there are young kids and their guardians engaging with what the center's executive director Joanna Haas calls "loose parts." That includes objects like a giant pile of wooden blocks, shopping carts full of shapes and a water table stocked with PVC pipes.

But according to Haas, what feels unstructured -- and maybe even a little chaotic to adults -- is actually a collection of conscious design choices.

“A few years ago we said to ourselves, ‘You know, there’s a lot of new brain research and there’s a growing urgency and priority locally and nationally around early childhood development and education and school-readiness,’” Haas says.

“And those were incentives and catalysts for us to begin rethinking how we worked with families with young children.”

21st Century Skills

For Haas, the main takeaway from the new research is that kids in that “early childhood demographic” -- typically 8-years and under -- learn essential skills through open-ended play, although they may not be the skills on which schools or guardians have traditionally focused.

“Everyone is so focused on ‘Can my kid recognize letters, can my child count to 10, do they know their address?’” Haas says. “I mean, it’s all very structured around certain prescribed milestones, but parents aren’t thinking -- and this is one of the things we learned in our research -- they aren’t thinking about softer skills.”

Also called “21st Century Skills,” these softer skills include things like creativity, critical thinking, persistence in the face of challenges and working effectively with one’s peers; these are early precursors for elements of scientific thinking like observation, prediction and experimentation.

And many researchers argue they matter just as much as reading and math in the long run. According to a 20-year retrospective study in the American Journal of Public Health, kindergarten students who are more inclined to exhibit “social competence” traits may be more likely to attain higher education and well-paying jobs.

But in order to teach these skills, while maintaining their commitment to STEM education, Haas knew the Science Center would have to undergo some serious changes.

“It was probably about a five-year process,” Haas says. “We had assembled an advisory group that included practitioners in early childhood education. We worked with support of the Governor’s Office of Early Childhood, had partners at Metro United Way. We had the University of Louisville Department of Childhood Education.”

This group spent time testing, reworking and piloting educational elements that eventually led to a complete overhaul of the entire first floor of the center.

The final result is their 11,000 square-foot permanent space called “Science in Play,” which has received major attention from other cultural centers. Last year, nearly a dozen representatives from institutions nationwide visited Science in Play for inspiration.

“Where I think Kentucky Science Center is a real pioneer is dedicating that much permanent gallery space to an early childhood-focused STEM space,” says Laura Huerta Migus, the executive director of the Association of Children’s Museums, an international organization of children’s museums based in Arlington, Virginia.

She says more and more cultural spaces -- like art and science museums, not just children’s museums -- all across America are recognizing the need to dedicate more space to early childhood learners.

“But I think that that is still a very emergent trend,” Huerta Migus says.

Unstructured Play

So what does this look like in practice? A good example is the the Science Center’s “Shapes and Stuff Store,” a space filled with pint-sized grocery baskets and carts and buckets of bright shapes and sponges. There are some prompts to get parents and kids started on exploring, but not many.

“The idea was to give enough cues that you were in a store of some sort,” Haas says. “But again, not too many cues that mandated or manipulated or contrived or controlled in any way where you might be.”

It’s essentially an unstructured, play-focused version of the mini-grocery stores that seem to be in every children’s museum.

“We scraped it all away to really the math bones -- from sorting to counting to classifying to volume to just the process of identifying things,” Haas says.

And being in the space, those skills were easily observed: there was a kid collecting all the green cylinders in a shopping cart. Without prompting, he then organized them in order of size. Meanwhile, a mom and her daughter scanned the space for shapes to create an “ice cream cone.” (They used a cone and a sphere.)

According to Haas, parents are noticing differences in how their young children learn in this space. In surveys, many reported increased problem-solving capabilities and heightened creativity.

As a result, the rate of visitors who come to the center 7 to 10 times through the year has increased from 24 to 42 percent.

The last key part of the Science Center’s plan for early learners is a library of easy resources for parents to continue educating at home.

These include conversation and drawing prompts or craft ideas that can reinforce what the kids learned -- through play -- at the center.

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