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Playing the Way to High-Quality STEM Learning

Everyday spaces can be reimagined to create enrichment for children and families

Key points

  • STEM learning is most effective when it is fun, hands-on, and involves cooperation in a te
  • It is beneficial to create playful STEM learning opportunities in everyday spaces.
  • Researchers are finding ways to design STEM learning experiences reflective of local culture and community values.
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Whether it’s in schools, at home, or in the community, learning should be fun! Children love to explore and discover. And learning through play does not mean a sacrifice of rigor or loss of instructional quality. In fact, play and high-quality STEM learning go hand-in-hand.

Learning is maximized when experiences are social so children can communicate and work together, iterative so that each time a child returns to the experience, they can ask a new question or explore in a new way, engaged for active, hands-on, minds-on learning, and meaningful in that experiences are relevant to their interests, culture, and community. At the UC Irvine STEM Learning Lab, we design and implement playful STEM learning activities in the places that children and families spend time. We also design these activities with the people who will be using them (e.g., teachers, parents, children), so they are reflective of the local culture, history, and community experiences.

 Sahar Coston-Hardy, used with permission
Parkopolis, the life-sized board game for STEM learning.
Source: Sahar Coston-Hardy, used with permission

Reimagining STEM learning

For example, in one project funded by the National Science Foundation, we are partnering with the Santa Ana Early Learning Initiative (SAELI)—a grassroots community organization comprised of parents, teachers, local government agencies, and non-profit organizations—to design playful learning installations in public spaces (e.g., parks, bus stops, grocery stores) which are culturally situated and grounded in developmental science to promote high-quality STEM learning and interactions. In the first year of this project, we held seven two-hour co-design sessions where SAELI families told stories about their experiences in community spaces and built prototypes of the kind of playful learning installations they’d like to see in their community. This year, we are holding additional sessions to refine our prototypes which include a bus stop that features the popular cultural game “Loteria” and a mural that features the game “I spy,” where children and families can make observations and search for locally relevant images and artifacts.

Critically, this project involves a strong partnership with the city of Santa Ana which will install, maintain, and own the installations, creating a sustainable model for the city to infuse playful learning directly into its public infrastructure. This project is part of a larger movement called Playful Learning Landscapes (PLL), which integrates play and learning opportunities into everyday spaces. PLL projects have demonstrated strong scientific evidence in their ability to increase caregiver-child dialog and interactions through signage at the grocery store, puzzles at the bus stop, and through a life-sized board game for STEM learning called Parkopolis. These projects elicit the exact type of language and interactions that research tells us are related to learning and later school and life success.

Andres Bustamante
Fraction Basketball Court
Source: Andres Bustamante

In another project, we are partnering with the Santa Ana Unified School District (SAUSD) to redesign the basketball court for fraction and decimal number learning. Part of the EF+Math Program, Fraction Ball converts the traditional 3-point arc to 1 point, and smaller arcs closer to the basket represent shots worth 1/4, 2/4, and 3/4 points on one end of the court, and 1/3 and 2/3 points on the other end. Fractions are represented on the right side of the court and decimals on the left. Finally, a number line on the side of the court allows children to keep track of their points. This design allows children to visualize the magnitude of fractions, makes the equivalence between fractions and decimals apparent, and builds from strong evidence in the math cognition literature that number lines are a powerful tool for learning.

In an experimental study, we demonstrated that Fraction Ball improved students’ fraction and decimal number learning with only six 50-minute sessions over three weeks. Fractions are a notoriously difficult topic for young math learners, thus generating meaningful fraction and decimal learning with a relatively short and low-cost program has potentially powerful implications. We are now partnering with SAUSD teachers to connect Fraction Ball to their classroom instruction and adapt the games on the court to target additional learning goals. Over the course of this five-year project, we will scale Fraction Ball across all 36 SAUSD elementary schools.

A big-picture view

The goal of this blog is to share learnings and insights from these and other projects, as well as findings from our process of community engagement and co-design and learning outcomes in school and community contexts. We hope to inspire others to adopt a playful approach to STEM learning and serve as a model for creating playful learning opportunities in everyday spaces around the world.